Managing a Public Relations Crisis in Your Organization

Managing a public relations crisis within your organization is never easy. Learn some helpful tips below....
Managing a Public Relations Crisis in Your Organization
Written by Brian Wallace
  • The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “crisis” as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending…especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.”

    A crisis is by definition acute, if not necessarily sudden or unexpected. We don’t always have the luxury of preparing for a specific crisis. Nor can we choose the time or place in which to face it.

    What we can do is anticipate the possibility that particular types of crises will occur, grade their likelihood, and proactively develop management and response frameworks. Whether the crisis is a data release of unknown origin, such as befell Asiaciti Trust and at least a dozen other financial and legal services providers in 2021, or a supply chain issue like the recent Suez blockage that delays deliveries and sends customers fleeing, prior planning can make the difference between minimal disruption and catastrophe.

    If you’re concerned about what a future public relations crisis could mean for your organization, the time to prepare is now. Use these crisis management strategies to overcome the odds.

    1. Gather the Facts, Quietly

    First, know what you’re dealing with. Assign trusted stakeholders to investigate the incident — whatever form it takes, whether a politically incorrect faux pas or a business accident that totaled a car or caused injuries — and provide frequent updates to company leadership. Use this information to customize your crisis response plan.

    2. Assign Crisis Response Roles (Have Your Team in Place)

    For a crisis management effort to find success, everyone involved needs to own part of the response. If you haven’t already done so, develop a “crisis org chart” that covers every role you anticipate needing to fill during and after an acute incident. You need to have your crisis response team in place before you really need it.

    This team might look different than your “regular” team — that’s the whole point of the special org chart. You’ll have more roles focused on communication and investigation than during normal times, and you’ll likely draw in external stakeholders (such as PR professionals) as temporary additions to your core team.

    3. Have Channels for Frequent Internal Communication — And Use Them

    Internal and external communications channels should remain separate even in the best of times. In the worst of times, they need to be completely firewalled.

    The experience of companies as diverse as Asiaciti Trust and MGM International shows the importance of frequent, forthright internal communication. All stakeholders need to be on the same page, and working off the same sets of facts, during the acute phase of a PR push. At the same time, external communication takes a back burner — or is perhaps put on ice entirely — until the time is right to go public.

    4. Define Metrics for Success

    How do you know if your crisis management plan is working?

    It helps to have objective metrics for success. These should cover a mix of internal and external issues: media coverage, message response times, investigative progress, and more. They’ll need to be customized to the particular crisis you’re facing as well.

    5. Know When the Crisis Is Over and Have a Plan to Return to Business As Usual

    It’s not healthy for an enterprise to remain in “crisis mode” forever. Your crisis org chart is meant to be temporary. Every day it’s in effect is a day you’re not attending to critical issues not related to the crisis at hand. And no, those issues won’t wait.

    Your crisis measurement scheme, then, needs to “know” when it’s time to sound the all-clear, even if you’re still mopping things up. That might take the form of a points system based off your success metrics or a trigger in some key metric. What matters is that it’s objective and not up for debate.

    6. Don’t Lose Sight of Your Stakeholders

    During a public relations crisis, the temptation to clear the air is overwhelming. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, or at least not to the extent one might wish. Whatever short-term benefit comes from revealing privileged information about the crisis pales in comparison to the loss of trust that may follow. 

    In other words, discretion is an important part of crisis management. In their responses to the recent data intrusion, Asiaciti Trust and Fidelity Corporate Services Limited both stressed that client confidentiality and an ongoing legal investigation precluded more fulsome disclosure of privileged information. Your organization must do the same — arguing for patience even as the public clamors for more.

    The Next Crisis Is Around the Corner

    The data incident that affected Asiaciti Trust, Fidelity Corporate Services Limited, and a dozen other service providers was not the first of its kind. Nor will it be the last.

    Preparation can’t prevent such crises. But it can turn the odds in favor of those affected and transform adversity into opportunity. 

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