Crisis Communication Tips for PR Professionals
What Is Crisis Management?
Potential Crisis Situations
- Natural disasters
- Workplace violence
- Product recalls
- Customer injuries
- Employee misconduct
- Cyber attacks
Crisis Impact Risks
Crisis Communications Tips
Planning for a Crisis
- Find your weakness. Companies need to identify strengths and weaknesses. This helps them understand what kinds of crisis situations could impact their operations. An audit should be performed to detect vulnerabilities, including an inspection of sites and infrastructure systems. Companies may also conduct crisis simulations to test how events may unfold and how different responses may work.
- Make a plan. A crisis communication plan is a reference tool for companies to use during an emergency. The plan establishes guidelines for how to communicate with the public, employees, and other stakeholders. It specifies who’ll craft the messaging and what tools will be used to distribute information. Companies may also have business continuity plans to provide details on how to keep operations running smoothly during a crisis.
During the Crisis
- Assess the crisis. The crisis management team must determine the intensity and reach of the situation before communicating with customers. This helps them determine the appropriate response level. While the assessment period will need to be brief, it allows the communication team to be on the same page about what information to release and to whom. It also helps the team avoid PR mistakes that can escalate the situation.
- Respond quickly. Companies need to get ahead of any negative news stories or social media posts by issuing statements quickly. The official corporate response should be honest and empathetic, but not overly emotional. Accuracy and consistency are key to avoiding response backlash. A charismatic spokesperson should be designated in advance to provide the right tone and messaging to the public and media representatives. In addition to efficiency, responses should be proactive, transparent, and accountable. Representatives should “acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize,” according to a statement from Lisa Alloca of Red Javelin Communications in this Forbes article. Even if the response strategy hasn’t been fine-tuned, today’s fast-paced media sharing environment makes it critical to issue a statement before customers make assumptions.
- Prioritize actions. Public safety is the No. 1 concern when a crisis occurs. This includes the safety of customers, employees, and anyone else impacted by the event. This may involve shutting down operations at a certain plant if an employee was injured or recalling certain products if customers are sick. A company must then consider its customers’ needs and feelings, such as complaints about customer service quality or anger over a customer data breach. While business continuity is important, external parties’ concerns must be addressed before a company can examine a crisis’s impact on its reputation or finances.
- Enlist employees. Company employees need to feel protected and supported during a crisis. Employees can be strong representatives for the company when they’re informed about the situation and feel included in the response. Ideally, a crisis response system will target messaging toward specific employee groups, such as information technology (IT) or PR departments, so that individuals receive pertinent facts and aren’t overwhelmed with irrelevant information, according to crisis management firm RockDove Solutions.
- Use technology tools. A growing number of firms are adopting real-time crisis communication tools to aid them in crafting a rapid response strategy. The crisis management team needs to be able to give and receive real-time alerts with emerging details on the crisis and what actions have been taken, according to this PRsay article.
- Monitor public sentiment. Companies must constantly monitor news stories and social media posts during a crisis. This includes major news outlets; local news channels; and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. PR professionals need to have strategies in place for responding to negative social media posts or news reports, acting swiftly before posts become viral and cause irreparable damage to the firm’s reputation.
After the Crisis
Crisis Communication Examples
- Boeing. Not long after Boeing’s 737 Max airplanes were grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes, it came to light that the company had known about a related safety feature malfunction since 2017. Boeing didn’t disclose the information to airlines and regulators until after the first crash in late 2018 (while attributing the crash to “pilot error”), and the public wasn’t told until weeks after the second crash. In the aftermath, the company lobbied for its planes not to be grounded and downplayed safety concerns. The firm’s insufficient, slow, confusing responses caused deep public mistrust, according to Business Insider.
- Facebook. When news of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal broke in March 2018, top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg took five days to respond to the reports. During this radio silence, many Facebook users abandoned or threatened to leave the platform, and Facebook’s stock took a tumble. The lack of response caused vast speculation on reasons for the delay and whether management covered up or even cared about the data breach, according to this Science X article.
- BP. Crisis management professionals still discuss how BP’s PR mistakes made the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico even worse for the company. The company was criticized for lacking compassion, downplaying the severity of the crisis, and making overly optimistic promises for repair. Then-President Barack Obama criticized BP for spending money on expensive TV ads instead of cleanup and victim compensation funds, and the promises made in the ads were in direct violation of its federally filed oil spill plan. All of these actions made the firm appear to be prioritizing its reputation over public health.
- Tide. Through no fault of its own, Tide was at the center of a 2018 crisis in which teenagers posted videos of themselves ingesting Tide Pods. Tide responded quickly to the “Tide Pod challenge” by taking down social media videos and issuing rapid statements on health risks. By enlisting then-New England Patriots player and social media influencer Rob Gronkowski to spread the message, Tide was able to get the attention of its target audience (teens) and garner a positive public response.
- Waffle House. The 24-hour diner was hit with negative social media attention when a patron posted selfies of himself cooking his own food in a restaurant after finding all of the employees sleeping. Instead of issuing a somber public apology, Waffle House made a humorous statement acknowledging the mistake and offering the patron a job. The company’s response resulted in positive media coverage for Waffle House and helped it avoid a major customer service crisis.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken. Nearly 700 KFC locations in the U.K. shut down when the chain ran out of chicken. Instead of blaming delivery contract issues, KFC responded to negative social media posts by taking out a humorous full-page advertisement apologizing for the mistake in the Evening Standard that garnered positive press from major news outlets. KFC successfully turned the situation around with a swift response that resonated with customers.
How to Write a Crisis Communications Plan
- Conduct vulnerability audits either internally or via external PR consultants
- Hold brainstorming sessions on what events may occur
- Immediately address any crisis situations that can be avoided through preventive measures
Step 1: Identify Risks
Step 2: Establish a Response Team
Step 3: Identify Key Stakeholders
- Business partners
- General public
Step 4: Designate a Powerful Spokesperson
Step 5: Establish Communication Methods
Step 6: Develop Specific Responses
Crisis Communications on Social Media
- Channel monitoring. During a crisis, social channels need to be monitored more vigorously than usual. Customer posts related to the crisis should be responded to promptly and honestly.
- Positive messaging. PR specialists can craft positive, genuine messaging to share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms to protect the brand during an emergency or to provide customers with real-time updates on the crisis situation. When appropriate, companies can even use clever, witty language to help de-escalate a situation.
- Use spokespersons. If company communications are coming from a trusted source, they’ll resonate more strongly with clients. PR representatives may recruit the CEO, a satisfied customer, or even a famous spokesperson to send out updates on behalf of the company to build credibility.
- Establish a presence. Of course, companies can’t issue responses or statements on social media if they don’t have a strong brand presence on social platforms. Companies need to establish a strong following before crisis events occur so that emergency messaging reaches a broad customer base.