Public relations crises are facts of life for most organizations. At some point, one of their services or products will attract negative publicity, a link to another group or event will require careful clarification to stem the tide of related bad news, or a public safety incident will necessitate an immediate response. These events can be make-or-break situations for some institutions, especially start-ups and small- and medium-sized businesses, which often struggle to recover reputation and revenue in the wake of any significant crisis.
Even large firms such as airlines, telecoms, and media publishers are vulnerable to damage from poor PR, as illustrated by recent incidents such as their broad advertiser boycott – spurred by a newspaper exposé – of the top-rated cable news talk show “The O’Reilly Factor.” In this context, a lot of companies now invest in professional PR services that cover not only crisis response, but also online reputation management, thought leadership, and award entry/recognition, in an effort to lower the odds of a crisis emerging – still, that is easier said than done.
How social media amplifies modern PR crises and shapes their management
The stakes for such effective, comprehensive PR crisis management have been raised dramatically in recent years by the rapid rise of social media. For example, after a 2008 incident in which his guitars were damaged by a United Airlines ground crew, a singer-songwriter posted a song chronicling the ordeal to YouTube: It attracted 150,000 views within 24 hours, prompting the airline to quickly make an offer to right the wrong, after having previously denied the customer’s request for $1,200 in travel vouchers as compensation.
Similar incidents, albeit usually on a much smaller scale, are common for today’s businesses, nonprofits, and governmental agencies, all of which must grapple with the unique challenges and opportunities that social networks create for PR. Events that might have slipped under the radar in the past are now routinely in the public eye for several reasons:
The long arm of the social network
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are ubiquitous, touching a growing portion of their users’ lives. The Pew Research Center has estimated that 69 percent of Americans were using social media in 2016. Over 70 percent were active on Facebook, while Pinterest, Linkedin, and Instagram were each used by 25 percent of the U.S. population, and Twitter was only slightly below that level. As recently as 2005, the national usage rate was in the single digits and all these networks except Facebook did not exist.
Whose line is it, anyway?
Social networks blur the line between the professional and the personal. A LinkedIn profile is often a top result for a Google search of someone’s name, usually offering up his or her photo alongside a detailed work history. Instagram accounts are also common first-page results, and they may reflect negatively on the individual, depending on what types of photos have been posted to them.
Organizations also have to be wary of a social media manager’s own views spilling over into official accounts. This happened to McDonald’s in early 2017, when a social media manager’s personalized political tweet appeared on the verified McDonald’s Twitter account and garnered immense likes and retweets before being deleted.
News at the speed of social media
News moves at tremendous velocity across social channels, upping the ante for timely responses but also for clear thinking under sometimes confusing circumstances with incomplete information. Southwest Airlines excelled in this respect when one of its jets landed nose-first at LaGuardia Airport; the company Twitter account updated within minutes and then provided new info as it came in. In other instances, social media account managers may have to respond to numerous individual inquiries, along with general trending topics that go viral.
Planning for PR crises: What preparations should PR teams make?
Social media is far from the only realm in which PR professionals operate, but its particular dimensions make clear the minimum proficiencies that PR teams now must possess to adequately prepare for the most likely disasters. More specifically, effective PR crisis management should be proactive, with frequent risk assessment, relationship building, social account monitoring, readiness simulation, and message refinement essential to performing well under pressure.
Why these skills in particular? By planning ahead, PR specialists ensure that they have the right resources to draw upon in a variety of situations. The sources of many PR meltdowns may be somewhat surprising, and they should be identified and addressed early on:
- A survey of U.K. workers conducted by Igniyte found that respondents identified individuals in senior management positions as the biggest threats to good PR; they were cited in 39 percent of responses. Examples of the harm they could do include inadequate safety oversight and failure to follow standard company and/or industry procedures, either of which could lead to crises such as the Chipotle E. Coli outbreak of 2015 or the Volkswagen recall of 2016.
- Cyberattacks on company assets (35 percent) and social media mishaps (27 percent) were also popular responses. Regarding social media, only 10 percent of those polled said that their firms currently monitored online comments on a full-time basis.
- Similarly, a mere 22 percent of survey-takers confirmed that they were fully familiar with the crisis management plans of their organizations. 17 percent reported that their employers had no such plans in place.
A proactive strategy can greatly reduce the likelihood of a PR crisis, triggered by anything from a lack of planning to an errant tweet spiraling out of control. Let’s return to the skills we mentioned above and look in more detail at how you can hone them to improve your PR standing:
1. Risk assessment
What disasters have befallen organizations similar to yours in the past? Could a competitor’s crisis become yours because of an issue that affects your entire industry? Is there any company history of struggling with applicable rules and regulations?
These questions are important to ask throughout crisis preparation. Moreover, relevant risks – including but not limited to the ones identified in the Igniyte survey – must be assessed and acted upon if appropriate.
2. Relationship building
How you work through a crisis depends in large part on how you leverage relationships inside and outside of your organization. On the inside, you’ll want to have already established trust with key stakeholders in IT, human resources, accounting, and executive leadership in order to streamline and coordinate your response.
On the outside, reliable contacts within the media are particularly useful to have in the midst of a PR crisis. Networking with popular influencers on social platforms is also helpful, since their reach can broadcast your message to a large audience and/or pick it up in blog posts, articles, etc.
3. Social account monitoring
Dealing with misinformation, negative coverage and requests on social media can be a draining, time-consuming task without the proper tools and protocols at your disposal. Accordingly, PR professionals who focus on the social sphere should first and foremost have an agreed-upon workflow to ensure that any responses they deliver via Facebook, Twitter, et al. are consistent with organizational policy.
Specific technical solutions for monitoring multiple accounts – e.g., TweetDeck or Salesforce Radian6 – in real-time are also nice to have. However, they are only as good as the PR strategies and processes that they ultimately support.
4. Readiness simulation
A real PR crisis should not be the first time that your contingency plans are put to the test. A dry run, in which you evaluate how well your messaging supports your PR strategy, is essential.
This way, you can find out in the safety of the test environment what does and doesn’t work, how to shore up glaring weaknesses, and what adjustments to make to your messages. Thorough documentation of your simulations of, and approaches to, PR crisis management is also recommended so that you know exactly what you learned.
5. Message refinement
Hammering out the key language in advance for statements about a developing situation is a common PR practice. For example, a fill-in-the-blank format offers the basic structure needed to first acknowledge virtually any event and then state that updates will be made and appropriate actions taken.
As your messaging and branding evolve, they should be clearly defined in your crisis plan documents and reviewed on a regular basis by the PR team. These reviews ensure that your strategy is up-to-date and well-rehearsed in advance of any possible disaster.
PR disaster prep 101: How to put these concepts into practice
Although PR crisis management is often perceived as a strictly reactive activity, PR specialists can benefit immensely from taking the proactive approach we have outlined here. In light of the fast-paced situations that often arise on social media, PR professionals should ideally be comfortable with best practices for consistently planning, testing, and re-evaluating their approaches to crisis response.
An online Master’s degree Strategic Public Relations will equip you with the conceptual knowledge and practical experience you need for top-notch PR crisis management in even the most challenging situations. You can learn more about GW’s SPR master’s degree program and requirements on our main program page.
A Public Relations Disaster
How Much Does Public Relations Cost?
Be prepared: 10 steps to take now for crisis readiness
Prepare for PR Crisis with These 6 Tactics
Crisis Communications 2014
What Causes a PR Meltdown? The Biggest Threat of PR Crisis Comes from Top-Level Exec Teams, Research Finds
Worst PR Crisis of 2015: The Volkswagen Emissions Scandal
CRISIS MANAGEMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS
Social Media Fact Sheet
3 Great Examples of Crisis Management on Social Media