How to Survive a PR Crisis

For most businesses, it’s not if a PR crisis will happen, but when. How you handle a public relations crisis will determine if you flourish or burn, making it imperative that organizations act quickly and effectively for a successful recovery. Here are sixteen steps to help you put out the fire and get back on track!

1. Gather the Facts

The hardest part may be understanding you’re in the midst of a developing crisis. Before you do anything, make sure you know exactly what happened, how it’s happening, and all the possible repercussions. Accept reality, because the last thing you want is more surprises. Tell the media you’re looking into the situation, and will comment as soon as possible. Make sure no one else from the company talks in the meantime.

2. Have a Crisis Team Ready (or Assemble One Quickly)

When dealing with a PR crisis, you need a variety of experts to help handle different aspects of the situation. Ideally, your crisis management team will include: key executives, PR/Communications directors, department leaders, social media managers, legal experts, and a spokesperson.

3. Generate an Action Plan and Triage the List

Create a quick checklist of all the areas that need to be addressed and taken care of. Triage your response based on the level of importance and severity of the crisis.

4. Quickly Identify Key Stakeholders and Key Influencers

Once identified, get talking points to anyone who might be contacted by the media. Decide if you need to talk to other organizations that might be impacted to make a joint statement.

5: Identify External and Internal Communication Channels

Use all communication channels – including website, email, social media (Facebook & Twitter) as well as in-person meetings. 

6. Frame Your Narrative

When you’re in a crisis, your words matter more than ever. Develop a few clear, simple messages and get your story out to the media and the public quickly – before someone else tells it for you. It’s important to find a way to establish a connection with your clients or customers, and let them know you care about them. You should also establish how you are changing and moving forward. Make sure your messaging is precise and well thought-out. 

7. Choose Your Words Carefully

When you’re in a crisis, your words are all you have. Don’t waste the opportunity to take control of the narrative by using language that best suits your business.

Concise is Key

Many assume using big words translates to more credibility. In fact, keeping language simple during a crisis is the way to go. Simple language allows consumers to easily follow your response. On the contrary, complex language is often unnecessary and can make your company appear less personable.

Tell a Story

Even in a crisis, people want to feel a connection to your company. It’s important to find a way to show them that you care about them. The primary motivation in the wake of a crisis should be maintaining a good relationship with your customers, and to do this, you have to put yourself in their shoes. How can you assure them that this crisis will not affect them or their relationship with your company? Tell a story that proves to your customers that they matter.

Guide Audience Behavior

It’s been proven that people can understand information most efficiently when it is provided in a small group. This is the rule of three. The rule of three states that people remember things better when they are accompanied by two other things. For example, if you want your customers to do something in the wake of a crisis, you don’t want to overwhelm them with directions. Giving someone six steps to take often causes them to lose sight of the objective. When directions are given in a group of three, people are more likely to remember it and consequently to act on it. 

Use Analogies 

Using analogies helps frame a situation in someone’s mind so that they can better make sense of it. When a situation can be related to something else, something familiar, it helps people situate it in their minds and understand it more. This also keeps a crisis from feeling impersonal by making it relatable. It’s also been proven that people can better understand something unknown when it is related to a familiar subject or circumstance.

Do Not Get Angry

Stay calm and friendly, even when you are asked the “hard” questions.

Stay “On the Record” in All Interviews

Any comment worth saying should be said “on the record.”

Do Not Say “No Comment” 

Try to have an answer for reporters’ questions. Saying “no comment” appears to television viewers and newspaper readers that you have something to hide. If you need to consult with others or research the facts to provide an answer, say so. In any crisis situation, follow every order, direction, or suggestion from emergency officials.

8. Create documents and other collateral materials to support your response

Prepare a Q&A / FAQ and share it with colleagues 

Revisit your list of “tough questions” and tailor the questions and your responses to the crisis at hand.

Create a document with 5-10 approved social media posts and social media responses to FAQ’s to ensure you are replying promptly.

Compile a “media kit” that you can send reporters for general inquiries

  • Approved media statement
  • Any approved quotes
  • Links to your website, social media profiles and anywhere you will share ongoing updates
  • Contact information for spokesperson(s) available for interview
  • Including headshots for your spokesperson(s) and other key members can be beneficial
  • Any relevant, high-quality storytelling images
  • Any b-roll video footage
  • Video sound bites (SOTs)


8. If It’s Your Fault, Take Responsibility, Apologize, and Move On

Admitting fault during a crisis is essential and necessary. Displaying accountability, empathy, and a willingness to do better will restore trust in your brand or business. And trying to cover up a crisis is sure to backfire. But don’t dwell on the apology. Make it truthful and sincere. Then move on to pointing out the positive actions your team is taking. There are some instances, however, where saying nothing is best – consult your legal team before taking responsibility in writing. 

9. Be Proactive on Social Media

Social media can amplify a crisis and make it feel like it’s spinning even further out of control. It’s important to identify all external and internal communication channels and, when you can’t get out in front, at least mend the narrative: acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize. It’s critical to have team members in place to monitor and respond to conversations taking place on social media.

10. Double-Check Everything

Ask your team: “Are we sending the right message–or inadvertently sending the wrong message?” Is there something going on in the news that may temporarily conflict with what you’re trying to accomplish? Whether it’s a commercial, a YouTube video, a social media post, or an email newsletter, get another set of eyes on it. Catching just one bad mistake could keep your work from unintentionally going viral – or worse, getting you fired.

11. Track Everything in One Place

Select either Google Drive, Dropbox or your favorite organizational platform and ensure all vital information and documents are accessible to your team.

Create one document to maintain a crisis communication inventory of what was said, by whom and at what time.

Keep track of media calls and requests in order to distribute new information or updates quickly.

12: Monitor and Track News Coverage in Real-Time

Keep contact names and numbers of all media inquiries so you can call them back with updates and control the message. 

13. Monitor Social Media Conversations

Social media crises should be taken just as seriously as in-person crises. These online crises can spread like wildfire and negatively frame the narrative of your company in an instant. Therefore, it’s critical to have team members in place to monitor and respond to conversations taking place on social media.

14: Be Prepared for the Aftermath

Expect and manage emotional backlash, scrutiny, or loss of faith in the organization with honest and forthcoming communication. 

15. Gather Feedback

As important as the management of a crisis is, equally important is learning from your mistakes and gathering feedback to ensure a better response in the future. Gathering feedback from consumers can mean paying attention to social media conversations, interacting with your customers, and understanding how to handle complaints. Through these conversations, you can gauge sentiment around your crisis response and determine better ways to respond in the future. 

16. Plan Ahead

Having a plan in place before a crisis strikes is key to effective crisis management. This does not mean immediately knowing the perfect solution to every possible scenario, but rather having a living, breathing document to guide you during a potential crisis. Your plan should detail team roles, how decisions will be made, and lay out how you will respond to commonly asked questions during a crisis. 

Every crisis is stressful, and when you’re in the thick of it, it may feel like it will never end. But your business can recover from a PR crisis – and if you take the right steps, it can emerge stronger and more resilient than ever.

Marc Silverstein is Co-Founder, President & CEO of On The Marc Media.

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