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Jun 17, 2022 Paul Richardson

Managing perception in a crisis

When a crisis strikes, the reputation and perception of your organisation can be at risk. Existing messaging strategies and PR plans will not be agile enough to manage a fast-moving situation. Only a crisis PR plan, developed and tested ahead of time, will give you the tools to protect your organisation's reputation and public perception effectively.

The easiest way to identify a crisis that demands a crisis PR response is to assess any situation for three key characteristics.

  • The problem must pose an imminent threat to the organisation.
  • The situation must involve an element of surprise or shock.
  • The severity of the problem, as well as its unexpected nature, must place pressure on you to make quick, effective decisions.

A crisis PR plan is a set of protocols and processes that your organisation can use as a starting point for communications when a crisis strikes, giving you a much-needed head start in managing perceptions and protecting reputations. A crisis PR plan is never finished; it's continually revised, updated, and, most importantly, tested in some way.

Your crisis PR plan should include key message responses ready to be adapted to your precise circumstances. These messages will differ depending on which broad categories your particular crisis falls into, such as:

  1. Financial - e.g Bankruptcy, misappropriation, damages, etc.
  2. Personnel - layoffs, disgruntled ex-employees, gross misconduct, death, injury etc.
  3. Organisational - organisational wrongdoing - corporate crime - industrial accidents, spillages, pollution, fire etc.
  4. Technological - Data breach, data loss, data theft, significant & damaging IT errors, hacks, ransomware attacks etc.
  5. Natural - Pandemic, adverse weather/climate, flooding/drought/freezing etc. Animal/pest infestations etc.

This is not an exhaustive list, but anything that could impact or halt your business continuity should warrant deliberate communications with customers, stakeholders and the public through your crisis PR plan.

The saying "no plan survives contact with the enemy" is perfectly true. Your crisis PR plan shouldn't try to list every last action in every given situation. It should function as a jumping-off point and provide you with a clear set of actions and principles to build on, keeping your communications consistent, truthful and aligned with your key messages. Your crisis PR plan will enable you to take the initiative in communications rather than being trapped in a reactive cycle of responding to misinformation, rumours, social media trolls etc.

When a crisis strikes, you rarely have time to make slow, deliberate decisions, and you are often trapped in a fast thinking pattern - that is to say, making emotional, instinctive, and reactive decisions in the teeth of an emergency.  This can be disastrous for PR and reputation unless you have a clear crisis PR plan to direct your decision-making and messaging.

Your completed crisis PR plan will bring together individual crisis plans that can be activated in the event of an emergency or crisis. A crisis plan should only be able to be activated by a selected number of staff, best qualified to judge when a problem or issue requires a crisis response.

Your crisis PR Plan should:

  • Have an explicit goal - e.g., "This plan will help communicate with internal and external stakeholders in the event of a crisis that puts our reputation and/or normal business function at risk."
  • Detail the stakeholders - who is the plan designed for? Public, employees, clients, emergency services, local government, colleagues, etc.
  • Clearly define the sharing hierarchy - showing how information should be cascaded internally, when and to whom.
  • Assign a team ready to produce fact sheets for the crisis - compiled within a specific time of the plan's activation. Having a "live list" of sourced facts is important to combat disinformation, so you may want to have this ready within a few hours of the crisis being called.
  • Identify likely crisis scenarios. Using the categories above as a guide, If you undertake regular risk assessment exercises, then this will provide a good starting point for your list of critical vulnerabilities, each of which can lead to a crisis scenario.
  • Identify the questions that are likely to be asked in the event of crisis X, and answer them.
  • Identify any potential risks in enacting the plan, such as how competitors may react or unintended consequences of other crisis PR communications.
  • Define social media guidelines.  Offer as much transparency as possible. Teams should prepare press materials and share information about the crisis as well as procedures for social monitoring to pick up negative social media and deal with it effectively and consistently.

A good crisis PR plan is reviewed periodically to account for new and deprecated risks and should be tested. You can test the whole plan through a simulation or tabletop exercise or test individual parts to ensure they function the way you expect. Having a crisis PR plan prepared, practised and ready to deploy won’t stop a crisis from happening but it will help you manage the messaging and the media during a time when you have a lot of other things demanding your attention.

If you would like to know more about how we can help you create and test your crisis PR plan, we are at Event Tech Live 2023 at ExCeL London between 15th and 16th November, where Paul will be on the 'Ask the Experts' hub, simply click the logo to book a time: 



Published by Paul Richardson June 17, 2022