4 Steps for Effectively Managing a PR Crisis

Brands should start planning before marketing problems hit

Own your mistakes, apologize and show how you'll do better in the future.
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The best way to survive a brand crisis is to start planning before the crisis hits.

Get your plans in order

Each crisis may come as a surprise, but your response should not be. Smart organizations have a crisis management plan in place that involves every aspect of the organization—including HR, legal and technical.

“Ninety-five percent of the crises I’ve seen in my 30-plus year career could have been completely preventable with advance planning,” says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management.

That plan should also include media training for executives, pre-approved responses for public relations and social media, and regular tabletop exercises.

“You need to look at systems that might preclude you from responding correctly,” he adds. “For example, can your website handle 500 times its normal volume of traffic? The answer is almost always no. So if you can’t add bandwidth on the fly very quickly you’ll have an extra level of crisis.”

Triage the problem

Everything that blows up on social media doesn’t necessarily constitute a crisis. Organizations need to consider three factors before they react, says Irv Schenkler, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Does it severely affect the organization’s normal workflow or distract senior management? Will it seriously impact the bottom line? Can it tarnish the organization’s image or reputation in the eyes of key stakeholders?

“You can have one or two of them and be fine,” he says. “If it satisfies all three components, a company needs to think strategically about how to respond and what tactics to use.”

Respond quickly on social

Once you’ve determined you need to respond, time is of the essence. Here social media can be your ally, allowing you to quickly disseminate information while appearing to be in control of the situation.

“An immediate social media response is key,” says Chris Britton, chief operating officer for RockDove Solutions, makers of the In Case of Crisis software platform. “In most cases your goal should be to respond within an hour. If you let too much time pass, a lot of negativity can fill that void.”

This also means organizations need to dedicate resources to monitoring social media 24/7, as well as a rapid response team empowered and trained to handle crises without waiting for approval from on high.

Be honest, transparent and direct

Denying a negative report, minimizing the details or blaming others just makes a crisis worse when the real story comes out later. The best strategy is to own your mistakes, apologize to the affected parties, take steps to demonstrate how you’ll do better in the future and move on.

A well-executed crisis response can actually boost your brand image over the long haul, says Brandwatch CMO Will McInnes.

“It’s not if a crisis will happen, it’s when,” he says. “Brands need to accept that they are in a constant dialogue with their market. Campaigns will go wrong. Focus group-tested messages will fall flat. Employees will misbehave. But consumers will accept mistakes when the response feels appropriate.”

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.