Dig into the definition, and you will find that part of the definition explains that a crisis is a difficult time — no surprise there. Read on, however, and you discover that a crisis is also a time when a solution is needed, often with some urgency.

When you consider the full definition of a crisis, it’s easy to understand the importance of PR crisis management. After all, a crisis requires a quick solution because any delays in response can prove damaging. Without a crisis management plan in place, there is little chance of the business responding with the type of efficiency needed to manage and minimize reputational damage.

Establishing a PR crisis management plan is something every business can (and should) do. The following are some key factors to be considered when developing and activating a plan.

Crisis Management Requires Communication

Communication is the heart of an effective crisis management plan. A crisis occurs because someone — a news source, social media influencer, regulatory agency, or another organization — is communicating about your business, so you must be ready to shift the communications from a monologue to a dialogue to manage the crisis.

Assigning communications roles is central to a crisis communications strategy, and identifying a spokesperson is particularly critical. A crisis will often result in calls from the media asking for information. If those calls are not routed to the correct person, unvetted information can quickly get out to the media.

It is also crucial to ensure the designated spokesperson has access to information so they can provide an informed and accurate response. “We have no comment at this time” will rarely be seen as an adequate response.

A crisis plan should also define the channels to be used for communication. While the company’s normal communication framework will typically inform this aspect of the plan, the company may want to consider limiting how its official response is released. An announcement on social media, for example, can quickly prompt a barrage of responses and reposts. If a company is not prepared to keep up with the rapid flow of social media, it may want to consider limiting its response to press releases or press conferences.

The planning phase should also involve proactive efforts to identify and address potential risks. For example, if a crisis threatens to adversely affect relationships with key vendors or other partners, the plan should identify that possibility and include steps to preserve healthy relationships.

While a crisis plan should involve as many details as possible, it should also have space for flexibility because every crisis has unique elements. If a particular crisis seems to demand a customized response, companies should be ready to shift accordingly.

Companies should also regularly revisit their crisis communications plan to ensure it is still valid. If key players shift or move on, new players should be put in place and brought up to speed. If a business adopts new communication channels, it must consider the role those channels will play in managing the crisis. If a business begins working with a PR company, the support it can provide should be explored.

Respond With Speed and Transparency

A crisis requires a speedy response. But it also requires an honest one. Companies facing a crisis should be ready to step forward and acknowledge what is happening, how people are responding, and what they plan to do moving forward.

A recent crisis that involved the fast food restaurant Wendy’s illustrates how this can play out. The crisis was triggered by a comment made by the company’s CEO about “dynamic pricing,” but the comment was understood to mean Wendy’s would be implementing “surge pricing” — a practice that increases the cost of items when demand is highest.

The misunderstanding led to a media crisis in which Wendy’s received negative attention in the news, social media, and late-night TV. Wendy’s responded within a week with a clear explanation that identified the misunderstanding, explained its intent, clarified its position, and reminded consumers of its brand values. When the media reached out, spokespeople from Wendy’s shared a unified message.

Wendy’s response addressed what occurred, what was understood, what was meant, and what it will be doing moving forward, providing consumers and the media with a high level of transparency. Responding in that way during a crisis is paramount because it shows the company is listening. Attempting to deflect the crisis with “no comment” or another statement denying any wrongdoing does not position a company as trustworthy or willing to hear consumers’ concerns.

Pay Attention and Adapt

The current media landscape sees news moving at a rapid pace through a wide variety of channels, making it easy for a crisis to quickly escalate. However, it also makes it easy for companies to know how their crisis communication is being received.

An ongoing analysis of how the crisis is evolving is an important part of crisis management. Companies should pay close attention to real-time feedback shared on social media and news sites. If more information is needed, provide it. If your message isn’t getting through, double down.

A recent crisis involving the baby clothing brand Kyte Baby revealed how this can play out. The brand received negative attention when it denied a worker’s request to work remotely so she could be with her hospitalized newborn. As a result, customers threatened to boycott the company and the company responded by posting a video apology from its CEO, but when the video was criticized for being inauthentic, the company listened and learned. The CEO went on video again, confessing that her earlier video was scripted and offering a more authentic response.

Debriefing in the aftermath of a crisis is also valuable for refining your response plan. Determine what worked and what didn’t and adjust the plan to better respond next time.

Understand and Avoid Pitfalls

A crisis is a difficult time, but even seemingly little mistakes on the company’s part can ultimately make it much worse. Denying the crisis, responding defensively or in an angry tone, delaying a response, or engaging in efforts to spread misinformation are all pitfalls that must be avoided. To minimize damage, companies must prioritize accurate communications, demonstrate empathy, and take responsibility for their actions.

Few companies avoid experiencing a crisis at some point in their history, which is why all companies should be prepared to engage in PR crisis management. By having a solid plan in place, communicating well, and staying flexible, companies can survive a crisis and emerge stronger once the dust settles.

Thomas Mustac

Thomas Mustac, Senior Publicist and Crisis Communications Expert for Otter PR, is a medical and health industry PR specialist. He previously held positions at the Dr. Oz Show and New York Medical College. He has his Master's Degree from Iona College and received an Advanced Certification in Nonprofit Public Relations. He has a diverse background in healthcare, pharmaceutical, telehealth, tech, cosmetics, sports, and interior design public relations.

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