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Crisis Management 101: Key Insights from the World of Public Relations

Nathaniel S Hatcher


  • Understand potential harm to the organization, brand, employees, or other stakeholders, consider both real and perceived risks, and seek agreement within the company on these issues.
  • Assess the authenticity of information sources, investigate the credibility of claims, gauge audience impact, and determine the speed of response based on the likelihood of information accuracy.
  • Consider both internal and external stakeholders, tailor responses based on the level of potential risk and harm, evaluate required responses from governmental or regulatory agencies, and understand that responses often require ongoing communication and follow-up.
  • Select a credible spokesperson who demonstrates authenticity and expertise, avoid "no comment" responses, refrain from lying or making promises that cannot be kept, and focus on providing truthful information while acknowledging uncertainty.
Crisis Management 101: Key Insights from the World of Public Relations
Chuck Savage via Getty Images

A crisis can present itself in numerous ways—product recalls, environmental contaminations, and negative social media posts, to name just a few. What are the critical issues to address when your client or business finds itself in a crisis? This article addresses those issues. It is adapted from an interview I recently conducted with two public relations experts, Karen Kirchenbauer and Bill Herbst. Karen and Bill are vice presidents and partners at SeyferthPR, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. SeyferthPR is a leading Midwest public relations agency, serving clients across the country in crisis communications and reputation management, ranging from environmental contamination to product recalls in a broad range of government and not-for-profit industries. Together, both Karen and Bill bring more than 40 years of experience in public relations (PR), as well as media relations.

Our goal during the interview was to identify and explain the primary public relations concerns when managing a crisis. We first approached this generally, focusing on the initial steps and best practices that would apply in most crisis management situations. While there are both proactive and reactive elements to crisis management, we began by discussing the reactive elements. Thereafter, we applied those best practices in a hypothetical scenario in which negative social media comments regarding a new pharmaceutical begin to build. We also discussed emerging public relations issues in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, as well as proactive measures that businesses should take to prepare for a crisis. The full audio recording of the interview can be found on the American Bar Association’s Sound Advice webpage here.

What are the initial steps to take in a crisis?

Kirchenbauer: First, we need to identify what the risks are: harm to the organization, the brand, employees, or other constituents. In doing so, we are looking at both real and perceived risks. We are also looking for agreement on that issue within the company. Second, we want to know the life cycle of the triggering event. Are we into something early or late? The timing may determine our response.

Herbst: Another initial consideration is the source’s authenticity. Living in 2020, information is everywhere. We must gauge how likely it is that the information is true. That applies whether the source is a media report or a social media post. Oftentimes, from a PR perspective, the first step is to investigate the source similar to how you would if you were a journalist. Then you look at audience impact and the speed with which we need to respond—obviously, responding quicker if you have reason to believe the information is true.

How do we form an initial response to the crisis?

Kirchenbauer: We look at all of our internal and external stakeholders with the goal of arriving at a measured response. The specific response will depend on the level of potential risk and harm to the organization. Not all crises need a response. Some may only require more listening, more understanding. I think there is a falsehood in assuming that if something breaks on social media or in the media, that everything deserves a response.

We also look at any required responses from governmental or regulatory agencies. We are not going to go into the specifics on that here, but that is part of that measured response. It is also important to keep in mind that when we say “response,” it is typically not one and done. Once you begin responding to the situation, there will likely be many follow‑ups. Be prepared for that. That follow‑up could be more social listening or maybe it provokes more questions, so just know that any response will often require further communication.

What do you mean by “social listening” and what might that look like when determining a measured response?

Kirchenbauer: Bill mentioned earlier the need to validate the source. Oftentimes today, things are happening on social media. Once you verify the source’s legitimacy, the social listening might be done after taking the conversation off-line. We might reach out directly to the person provoking a situation and try to understand where they are coming from, try to provide facts as we know them, and then see how they respond. For example, I was just on a livestream industry announcement last week, and certainly you always have supporters, but you always have detractors as well. And this detractor, we were able to, within the 30 minutes that we were online, answer his question behind the scenes, so he voluntarily shared with the entire audience that we were able to resolve his issue. That was a wonderful way to calm down a very vocal opponent by resolving his issue in real time.

What are the top do’s and don’ts for framing a response?

Herbst: One of the most important things to do is to find a believable spokesperson. Whoever is going to be out speaking on behalf of the company needs to have authenticity. They need to show that they care about the situation. They need to be the appropriate spokesperson for the given situation. It is great to put the CEO of a company out front, for instance, but if it is a medium-level crisis, the CEO might not be the best choice. It could make the crisis look more severe than it really is. A better option may be a specialist within the company who works in the specific area of the crisis. For instance, in an environmental crisis, if the company has people in that space, then consider if you can train one of them as the spokesperson. Generally, people’s expertise will come across in an interview very naturally and then that helps calm the crisis.

One “don’t” is to avoid saying “No comment.” Do not try to stonewall the media. If someone is complaining on social media, do not tell them that their concern is not important. All that will do is upset people. Also, if you don’t tell your story, no one else is going to tell it for you. If there is a story out there and you do not take your opportunity to tell your side, then everybody else gets to tell your story. And the most important “don’t” is don’t lie. Do not tell a small lie. Do not tell a big lie. Do not make promises that you cannot keep, because eventually somebody will find out. Somebody will prove that you lied and often the lie will end up becoming a bigger crisis than the crisis that you had. By lying, you are going to lose trust either in the moment or going forward, and that is going to hurt your company in the long term.

Responding to Negative Social Media: Practical PR Considerations

Let’s move to a hypothetical and apply the practices that we’ve just discussed. Assume there is a new cancer drug approved for use. Clinical trials have shown some side effects, but, overall, the manufacturer and the medical community are excited about its potential benefits for patients. Patients are informed about the product and its known side effects by their doctors, as well as by written materials made available online and in doctors’ offices. After the drug has been prescribed for a period of time, some patients claim to be experiencing new or previously unknown side effects. They go to social media to express their experiences and their concerns, and a groundswell of bad public opinion starts to result. How should the manufacturer respond? 

Kirchenbauer: This one actually hits close to home. I am a cancer survivor and I will tell you that on social media, any sort of cancer treatment or medication is a lifeline. It is a sign of hope. So you really have to understand the emotional storytelling here and not respond with just scientific facts. There is a face behind this, so it is best not to just respond with a barrage of facts.

Bill, how should the company vet the source of the social media comments?

Herbst: You have to be a detective and do the appropriate research. For instance, are the posts coming from 10 different people who all feel the same way or is it 1 person who created a post and then 9 other people have cut-and-pasted the content, which means they are involved in the issue, but they’re not necessarily coming to it from the same perspective.

Another important issue is where the posts are coming from geographically, especially if you are a local business. I worked in a crisis situation last year where a business was getting beat up pretty bad on social. We investigated and probably 90 percent of the posts were not from Michigan. Now, it is still an issue because people were criticizing the business and that hurts your reputation, but the criticisms were not coming from the actual customers of the business. We found that most of the local customers were not aware of this thing going on, so that helped frame the perspective and helped us figure out the messaging because it was not really affecting sales.

Karen, you mentioned earlier on in our discussion taking a confrontational discussion off-line. How might we do that in this hypothetical?

Kirchenbauer: We often would help develop a Frequently Asked Questions, or “FAQ,” page on the company’s website. If you are starting to see a trend of similar questions on social media or on the company’s customer service line, you will want to address them, and doing so in a Q-and-A format offers more control for the company. The individuals may just need more information. Another option could be a webinar to address some of the concerns. On social media, you will get debated on a particular response. It is better to have a general page where you have your Frequently Asked Questions.

How might we move the discussion away from negative issues to positive aspects of the product or the company? 

Kirchenbauer: It certainly needs to be authentic. Companies that have established trust banks with their communities will fare better. Consider if there are things that you can do in your community that would help show the caring concern of your brand in authentic ways—with words and actions. Are there other positive stories that you can share that highlight the company’s culture? That can shift the focus away from a particular area that might be in some trouble at the moment. 

COVID-19: Emerging PR Issues and Lessons Learned

Both of you are assisting clients with issues connected to COVID-19. What sorts of recurring issues are you seeing come up? Are you seeing examples of good responses, poor responses, and what can we learn from them?

Herbst: Certainly, there are examples of all those. One thing that has led to some poor responses is that COVID-19 is a complicated medical story, one that nobody has ever seen. Companies and brands are struggling from a PR perspective because they get into a mind-set of “Well, we don’t know anything about it, and we’re not the health experts, so we’re just not going to talk about it.” But there are still good ways for them to message a response.

Good responses have highlighted how companies are adapting their practices to the situation, their commitment to safety, and set a tone that “We’re all in this together. We’re learning.” It is OK, especially in this story, to admit that you do not know everything. Everybody is learning new information day by day, so it is OK to be honest about that. Just be honest and truthful, and if you can keep that attitude as it moves forward and as you respond, it really helps calm the fears and really helps settle things down.

Kirchenbauer: In a fluid situation such as COVID-19, it is OK to leave the door open to say that this is where we stand at the moment; we know things might change, but we’re doing our best. And that gives everyone a little grace.

Planning Ahead: Getting the Crisis Management Team in Place

In terms of being proactive, what sorts of steps and issues should businesses think through to create a crisis management plan?

Kirchenbauer: The focus should be putting together a good action plan and looking at all the audiences. Bill hit on some of them. Who is the voice of confidence modeling integrity in words and actions? What does the internal approval process look like and who needs to be on our internal team—Legal, Finance, HR? Are there specialty groups to include, like Environmental, for instance? What are the key messages? We also want to get internal agreement on what would constitute a crisis. Having a good playbook brings a lot of comfort and security to the organization. It will not cover everything, but it will give guidance and assure that you have thought through all your audiences.

Bill, who should be on the crisis management team and why is it so important to have the right people in place?

Herbst: PR issues are not just handled by the communications team, and sometimes that is where companies get into a quandary. Somebody has to be there from top leadership—if not the CEO, somebody very close. Obviously, Communications and Legal are very important because your crisis will often involve something that already is a legal issue or has the potential to become one. The right team may include someone from the board of directors. However, even if the entire board is not going to be the decision makers, you have to loop them in so that you avoid inconsistent messages to your audiences.

You do not necessarily have to have a 200‑page plan in order to prepare for a crisis. It is really about having the right people. If you know who’s going to figure out the crisis, that helps you as much as trying to predict what the crisis is going to be, because that can be hard to predict and you might over-plan for something that is not going to happen. For example, you can create a list of the four to six people, and their cell phone numbers, who will all jump on a call—regardless of what time it is—when something happens. Everybody gets the initial information. You can assign who needs to do what and then start attacking it right away.

Any final thoughts before we end our discussion?

Kirchenbauer: In today’s world, everyone is a reporter with a cell phone. So be aware that the mic and camera are always on.

Herbst: You have to keep in mind the emotional part of the crisis for those involved, but also do not make decisions based on emotion. Crises will pass. I often tell clients that a crisis is like a fire. If you have a small fire, you may be able to just put it out. If you cannot, then you must prevent the small fire from turning into a big fire. Try to stay calm, put emotions aside, and figure out the best way to attack it as a problem.

Kirchenbauer: Also, learn from it. What worked well? What would we need to do to change? That will set you up for success the next time around.