The ABCs of Crisis PR

Do you have a contingency plan to handle the public relations fallout from unforseen crises?

Written by Susanne Ruder

Product contamination. Rumors of insolvency. Lawsuits, injury or fire. Any number of events can threaten your company’s reputation. Do you have a contingency plan to handle the PR fallout from unforseen crises?

In this era of warp-speed information transfer, every company needs a crisis communications plan, says Ken Evans, VP in charge of corporate communications at Toronto-based Apex Public Relations Inc. An effective plan reduces stress so you can make clearer judgments during a crisis, and reduces or mitigates the odds that you’ll make a major PR gaffe.

But too often, busy entrepreneurs push crisis planning back on their agenda, says Evans. That’s a mistake, a crisis can destroy your firm’s reputation, and “reputation is absolutely everything,” says Evans. “It impacts everything from future business development prospects to the viability of the business.”

Here’s how to develop an effective crisis communications plan, and how to respond when faced with a PR crisis:


1. Assemble your team. Gather your top-level executives, marketing representatives, front-line managers, plus any key employees who can tell you what happened or what’s gone wrong in a crisis, says Nancy McHarg, VP, Strategic Counsel at Vancouver-based PR firm James Hoggan & Associates Inc. Include a lawyer, facilitator, and a well-trained media spokesperson.

2. Think the unthinkable. “List out and consider all possible incidents that could damage your company, its reputation and its viability,” says McHarg. Then, determine your response to each scenario, including whom you’d need to contact (and in what order), and what you’ll say. Develop pre-written statements, key messages, lists of key phone numbers and supporting documents, and a hidden website that can go live with key information if necessary. “Be as detailed and as prepared as you possibly can,” says Evans. “Having these things organized mitigates some of the mistakes that can happen.” Next, delegate who’s responsible for each scenario and task, and document the plan in an easily accessible binder or electronic format.

3. Run a dress rehearsal: Simulate a crisis to test your plan and how people react, suggests Evans. “You can never over-prepare.”

4. Assess your goodwill. Conduct focus groups, polls, or internal and external audits to gauge how well liked you are by key stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, employees and the media, suggests McHarg. Companies perceived as good corporate citizens will benefit from goodwill in a crisis. If necessary, find ways to bolster your reputation before a crisis occurs. “You want to make sure that the people close to you are going to say things in support of you.”


1. Don’t hide. “It’s a cardinal sin to bunker down and isolate yourself from your stakeholders and the community in which you work,” says Evans. “That will create a lot of anxiety, questioning, potential misconceptions, and it will also start to erode trust.”

2. Act quickly and be forthcoming: Take immediate steps to become the authority on what’s happened and why, what you’re doing to fix it and how you’ll prevent it from happening again, says McHarg. Delays create mistrust, undermine your leadership, and take away your control as people seek answers elsewhere. “For various regulatory, governmental or legal reasons you may not be able to tell the entire story, but at the very least, explain the steps you’re taking,” says Evans. Communicate in stages if necessary. The more active and ahead of the game you are at communicating in a concise and specific, detailed way, the better you’re going to weather the storm.

3. Listen to your audience: Poll key stakeholders to find out what messages are getting through, says McHarg. “Understand what they know and don’t know and what they’re concerned about so you can make sure they’re getting the information they need.”

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