Crisis: From Chaos to Credibility – 5 Keys for Taking Control During PR Firestorms

Posted by Kaden Jacobs, APR
April 26, 2024

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. And in the world of public relations, few situations raise more heat than an organizational crisis. Whether it’s a damaging product recall, a workplace scandal or a social media wildfire spiraling out of control, crises put intense pressure on companies and their leaders to get in front of a situation quickly.

When handled poorly, a crisis can bring lasting damage to an organization’s reputation and bottom line. There are numerous examples of this over the last 40 years, from consumers driving past Exxon stations after the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Tesla facing declining sales possibly triggered by controversial statements made by Elon Musk. With careful preparation and deft execution of crisis communications principles, the fallout can be limited, and public trust can be maintained or restored. As the saying goes, it’s not the crime but the coverup that gets you in trouble.

Here are five key tenets of effective crisis communications every leader should know:

  1. Being first matters. In a crisis, the court of public opinion moves swiftly. It’s critical to share your side of the story and express empathy quickly, before ceding control of the storyline to others. Credible spokespeople should be prepared and ready to engage with key audiences and communications channels.
  2. Bad news doesn’t get better with age. Reluctance to address a crisis head-on usually backfires. It’s better to put all the facts on the table upfront, take accountability where appropriate and chart a path forward. With media and stakeholders, you should commit to regular updates as more information surfaces. In a crisis, transparency can be a strong ally.
  3. Perception is reality. How an organization is perceived to have prepared for and responded to a crisis is almost as important as the crisis itself. Demonstrating an appropriate sense of humility, concern for those impacted and a strong plan to make things right can go a long way.
  4. Context is king. Every crisis is unique, so anticipate tough questions and skepticism. Come armed with data, expert perspective and a reason why audiences should extend your company good faith as you work through the challenges.
  5. Ask for help. Even in the heat of a crisis, leaving an information void will be perceived negatively. Seek guidance from experienced crisis communications counsel to determine an appropriate response strategy, even if the full truth takes some time to sort out.

The last point is perhaps the most critical: Ensure you have access to legal and PR crisis experts at the first hint of a developing situation. Too many organizations have learned the hard way that “winging it” through a crisis is a recipe for disaster, while those who worked closely with savvy counsel have often survived and, in some cases, emerged stronger. An ounce of prevention through crisis preparation and prompt counsel from the pros really can be worth a pound of cure. 

Ready to prepare for your company’s next potential crisis? Just ask our team how we can help. 

Kaden Jacobs, APR, is a vice president of our media relations team based in Augusta, GA.