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What Is A PR Crisis and How To Handle It

A PR crisis is a bit like a tin of baked beans: it’s exactly what the name states. A PR crisis, regardless of your PR skillset, isn’t something you want for a brand, but sometimes they feel inevitable. These days, with the ubiquity of social media and the speed at which a public relations crisis can snowball, it’s more important than ever to adopt an effective PR crisis management plan.

What is a PR Crisis?

PR crises tend to be unpredictable, springing into existence when you least expect it.

A PR crisis is any event detrimental to the reputation and public perception of your organisation or brand.

For example, customer complaints, product defects, media scandals, and even an employee going off-brand on social media platforms can constitute a PR crisis.

Because the most valuable thing any organisation can have is its reputation, it’s absolutely vital that you have an effective crisis response team (such as a public relations agency) with a clear crisis management strategy in place.

Doing so will help salvage your reputation and crisis-proof your organisation for the future.

Importance of Crisis Management in PR

Crisis management is a vital piece of the modern PR puzzle. Effective crisis management helps maintain audience trust amidst a PR disaster.

The first, and most obvious, benefit of crisis management in PR is to effectively safeguard your reputation. By controlling the narrative, you can minimise negative publicity and keep damage to your brand reputation to a minimum.

This has the added benefit of improving your organisation’s resilience, future-proofing the organisation to respond even better the next time a PR crisis occurs.

What is a PR Crisis?

Understanding A Public Relations Crisis

To effectively respond to a PR crisis, you need to first understand the various types of PR crisis that can occur, and recognise the early warning signs of a pending PR crisis.

The cornerstone of effective public relations crisis management is a solid understanding of how these PR catastrophes come about. This allows well-prepared organisations to develop sound protocols and strategies for handling the crisis.

Types of PR Crises

1. Product/Service Issues

The most obvious PR crisis that a brand or organisation can face concerns their primary business activity. Product defects and delivery of substandard services are the main crises that occur in this type. Consider Dell’s infamous exploding laptops from a few years ago, or the online scandals that ensue if a contractor delivers shoddy work.

Because this type of crisis concerns the main business activity of an organisation, they can be extremely damaging to the organisation’s reputation when the crisis hits.

2. Executive Scandals

Any shocking revelation regarding an organisation’s executive will reflect poorly on the organisation. There’s no shortage of executive scandals in the media: these typically end with resignations and serious rebranding. An executive scandal could be accounting mischief, deliberately skirting safety regulations, or poor executive behaviour in the workplace.

3. Social Media Crisis

A thoroughly modern PR crisis is the crisis that occurs on social media. Backlash can emerge quickly and metamorphose into something terrifying overnight. Users on social media rarely stop to consider the whole story before reacting, particularly on short-form high-volume platforms like TikTok and Twitter.

An unflattering hashtag that gets traction for even a few hours or days can heavily destabilise a brand’s reputation, so it’s important to stay on top of your online profile.

4. Interior Crisis

This is a broad category of PR crisis that covers a wide range of specific issues, with the same net effect.

Simply put, an interior crisis is crisis that starts within the organisation. It could be disgruntled staff enduring poor working conditions. Individuals who represent the organisation, such as employees or executives, might air personal opinions or actions on social media that are inconsistent with your brand’s values and image.

Signs of a PR Crisis

The first step when managing PR crises is to recognise early warning signs.

Some early signs are more obvious than others. Negative media coverage and viral social media activity are fairly easy to spot. Irregularities in company finances might go unnoticed until an audit takes place, so an audit could be considered an early amber flag.
Faulty products constitute another early warning sign. Examples include improperly stored food in a supermarket, or a manufacturing error in a factory affecting a day’s worth of output.

Other early warning signs might include oncoming inclement weather, such as a storm that will damage vital infrastructure and cause an oil spill or similar disaster. Even employee behaviour can offer early warning of PR issues to come.

The Role of Crisis Communications in PR

PR is, at its core, about communication. In non-crisis times, this tends to be positive two-way communication between an organisation and its audience.

When you’re facing a crisis, communication is even more important. Nailing the precise tone, language, and aims of this communication is vital to success in managing the crisis.

A well put together crisis communications plan might consist of press releases, media relations, public apologies, or clarifying the changes the affected organisation is making in response to the crisis.

What is Crisis Communication?

Crisis communication consists of the various technologies, systems and protocols that an organisation uses to communicate amidst a threat to its reputation and public perception.

As with virtually all other aspects of crisis management, it is much easier to manage a PR crisis effectively when the organisation and PR crisis team is well-prepared and has a communication strategy ready to roll out.

Preparing ahead of time also means ensuring that key personnel can effectively communicate with one another at times of crisis. All relevant information must be available and shareable via reliable communication channels amongst key personnel to ensure that the organisation is capable of delivering a timely, effective response.

Importance of Timely Response

Your crisis communications efforts need to be available as quickly as possible. A rapid response to a crisis helps prevent it from spiralling further out of control.

This is even more important with audience communications. Prompt, transparent messaging between organisation and audience is vital to maintaining credibility and trust with your audience.

There are several keys to making the most of this. Firstly, all communication must be in real time. You want all employees and stakeholders to have unfettered access to up-to-date information as the crisis is underway.

In the modern era, this information must be universally accessible. Time and place should have no bearing on whether key stakeholders can communicate with one another or access important information. Mobile technology has made this much easier, as has cloud storage.

Finally, all communication must be relevant to the individual receiving it.

Crisis Communications in PR

How to Handle a PR Crisis

At InsideOut PR, we have a few key phases in any crisis management situation.

The key steps are:

  1. Establishment of a crisis management team
  2. Development of a crisis communication plan
  3. Stakeholder communications
  4. Crisis monitoring and evaluation

The first two steps of our approach are most effective when performed prior to any crisis occurring.

The crisis management team should be composed of key stakeholders with experience in PR, inside knowledge of the organisation. A marketing manager, for example, is a perfect candidate for inclusion in the crisis management team.

Another key inclusion is an organisation spokesperson. This individual should be intimately familiar with the organisation’s branding and tone of voice requirements. They must, too, be capable of delivering on-message communications when the situation demands it.

This team develops a crisis plan that includes communication strategies, a list of key stakeholders and means of communication with them.

The crisis communication plan should include a few key features. The first, and arguably most important, is to quickly and accurately gather information, thus clarifying the crux of the issue.

Key Issues To Address

Typically, the way to do this is by answering the below questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • Who is responsible?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did this happen, and can we identify the root cause?

Next, we clearly and honestly communicate with stakeholders, and accept liability for the issue.

A rapid reaction, creating an effective solution to the crisis, and the implementation of this solution are next, capped off with communication to the public and to stakeholders regarding this solution.

PR Crisis Prevention

Tips for Proactive PR Crisis Prevention

PR professionals often use the phrase “putting out fires” to refer to dealing with crises. That’s because proactively creating infrastructure for use in case of a crisis is not unlike having a fire extinguisher next to the fire alarm handle. You’re always better off having it and not needing it. However, much better to have it when you need it.

In this example, the alarm represents your ability to deliver an effective crisis communications strategy. The alarm tells everybody in the building that there’s a crisis unfolding. Modern alarms also trigger a response at the local fire station. Those who need to react to the crisis by solving it are quickly informed, and those who must react by escaping the crisis are, too.

The fire extinguisher is a key tool in dealing with the crisis as quickly as possible. Critically, it works best when the fire is still small, and works to prevent it from spreading elsewhere. Your early response to a crisis should be like a fire extinguisher: a precision instrument designed to immediately stifle the crisis before it unfolds.

When you consider how severe the damage would be if neither the alarm nor the extinguisher were available, their importance is very clear.

It’s best for the fire not to start at all. However, if a fire starts, you always want to have a rapid, clear means of communication and a solution available as soon as possible.

What is a Crisis Before It’s A Crisis?

Before a crisis is a crisis, it is a risk. A risk only becomes a crisis if it goes unaddressed and unmitigated.

To proactively prepare for a crisis and prevent it from unfolding, you can follow a few key steps.

The first of these is the formation of a crisis leadership and response team, whose role it is to identify risks and hazards. They should also identify key stakeholders.

This team will help develop a crisis communications & response plan.

Part of doing this is assessing the impact of a crisis on your organisation. This is a risk assessment exercise that will specifically focus on weak points and dependencies within your organisation.

For example, a crisis could disrupt product and service delivery, impacting revenue. Crises typically come with significant financial losses.

Assessing likely crises, determining their likely outcomes, and areas of greatest impact, is a powerful preventative step. In doing so, the team can also prioritise risks based on the areas of greatest impact.

The most significant measure of severity is potential financial loss. Areas of greatest loss must be the highest priority.

Related to this financial loss is damage to a company’s reputation. It’s hard to quantitatively measure reputation or public perception. Sentiment analysis only goes so far. However, reputational damage leads to decreased audience trust, which impacts sales.

There is a direct correlation between reputation damage and financial loss.

Your team can prioritise risks based on greatest potential damage to your reputation and to your organisation’s bottom line.

Once the team agrees on the order of priorities for these risks, they can develop a risk mitigation plan based on these priorities.

The other benefit of this approach is the ability to recognise crises early on, enact the management plan, and minimise the impact of the crisis.


Dealing with a PR crisis is much easier when you have a clear crisis management plan in place. Preparation is by far the best medicine when it comes to managing a public relations crisis, as it empowers your key actors and stakeholders to deal with the crisis in a timely and efficient manner.

Your key crisis personnel should be able to identify the type of crisis your organisation is facing. Mitigating risks and identifying potential consequences of these risks will make a huge difference in your organisation’s ability to handle crises.

In turn, this enormously improves organisational resilience and allows organisations to more effectively handle potential issues as they arise.

Every organisation could benefit from being well-prepared for a crisis, and working with a PR consultant to develop a strong crisis management strategy. Crisis management plans help guard organisations’ most valuable resource: their reputation.

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