How to Defuse a PR Crisis

At Caster, we have managed a fair share of PR crises over the years. With the right response, however, a crisis downgrades to an issue fast.

Popular meme used in PR to indicate staying calm while a crisis unfold around you.

Popular meme used in PR to indicate staying calm while a crisis unfolds around you. Credit: Gunshow, 2016

We had the Kaleidescape account when the DVD Copy Control Association (DVD CCA) filed its headline grabbing lawsuit against the hot start up. The DVD CCA, at the time, was an association controlled by the six major motion picture studios in concert with the largest consumer electronics and computer companies. The DVD CCA licenses the copy control system used on DVDs. The organization sued Kaleidescape in 2004 for creating a DVD server that enabled users to “copy and store” copyrighted movies (thereby bypassing the need for the hard copy). The software and UI were unprecedented: Kaleidescape created a library dashboard of the movie information (think Netflix minus streaming in 2004; seriously, it was AMAZING and so ahead of its time). I was on my way back from a Kaleidescape press conference in NYC when every phone in the car started ringing. At this point, we were long past launch, Kaleidescape had already graced the front page of the technology section of the WSJ and the NYT, we had stories publishing in Wired, CNN, and so on. Now all of those same reporters were on the phone looking for statements on the lawsuit. That, my dear readers, is a crisis. Just go ahead and Google that one if you want to know how it all played out. Where it went from there is a very long story that journeys for decades, but those first few weeks taught me more about crisis PR than I had learned in my career, and that initial crisis soon downgraded to an issue as they went forward with business as usual and spent more than a decade in the courts seeking resolutions.

Issues and Crises in the Social Media Era

It was almost three full years before Twitter would debut, and as I type this, I think of how EASY I had it when this story erupted. The team was working against deadlines, but for outlets like the six o’clock news and the evening edition of the Times. Today, you must immediately determine how big the issue is. It is important to understand the momentum of the chatter and follow the reactions of the media and different online communities. This is how you gauge the significance of the potential crisis. Are there hundreds of people talking about this incident? How important are they? What is the overall sentiment? Are people supporting you? Have any stories been published? Is the media reacting? If the incident is in fact more of a critique rather than an attack, you do not want to overreact, but you do want to watch and monitor it closely. At Caster we use sentiment and tracking tools across thousands of outlets. We monitor social, forums, and key industry voices, and we analyze for three key elements: Impact. Urgency. Time.

  • Impact – A situation or event is usually a crisis if it threatens lives, the environment, or the organization’s reputation (there are of course variations to this theme, but these are the biggies). While an issue can have an impact, it is usually not critical.
  • Urgency – If you are under immediate pressure to make decisions and resolve a problem, you have a crisis.
  • Time – While an issue can span years, crises generally have a clear start and end. Issues management involves a sustained effort of activity and monitoring over time, whereas crisis management is an immediate response.

There are of course varying levels to a PR crisis. Aside from the legal skirmishes, most PR crisis activities happen to protect a brand or reputation. Managing a PR mess is never fun. But effective crisis management comes from having a plan in place (or an awesome PR firm) that will guide and steer the company’s response. Depending on the severity, extent, and touchpoints necessary to address a crisis, you may have a slightly different approach to each situation. There is one thing you need to accept, though: Remaining silent in the face of a reputation crisis is not an option.

Responding to a PR Crisis

Once you’ve determined you are in a crisis, you need to address it as quickly as possible.

Dumpster fire burning

Not even the best PR pros can prevent a dumpster fire if the client doesn’t listen.

  1. Make sure you understand what happened to ignite the crisis and the extent of the damage so you can craft a response specific to the situation. Use your findings to decide on corporate positioning and messaging. Identify the important spikes in the conversation and assess how you are covered by the media.
  2. Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging, determine the best channels for delivery. There are myriad options: publishing on a corporate blog, posting on Twitter or LinkedIn, and distributing a press release are common, but I would also recommend giving the story to a key media person or industry influencer. You want to reach your stakeholders quickly. Please keep in mind the basic differences in each channel. Social media is a fantastic choice if you are prepared for a dialogue. Understand that it will be difficult to control your message here, but if the crisis started on social, you should absolutely respond there. A press release or a blog post are great options if you want to craft a longer message that helps control the conversation. Every situation will be different. Listen to your PR expert: They’re usually right.
  3. While prep work is essential, speed is key. Be very careful not to wait too long before responding. This could result in a secondary crisis and your brand is already being cast in a negative light. Do not make your negative PR worse by giving the impression that you are hiding something, or do not care enough about the situation to issue a response. The only way you can let your audience know you are in control and avoid speculation and rumors, is to acknowledge and address. As I said before, staying silent is not an option.

Managing the Aftermath

What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media, your community, your customers. The haters are going to hate, but what are you hearing from those who matter most? As you monitor, keep in mind that it can take time to die down. If the  PR crisis happened because a series of issues snowballed, you will find this to be particularly true. It will take twice as long to extinguish a crisis as it took to become one. Sometimes you need to be patient and give it time, other times you may need to step in and offer additional statements or interviews. With your message out, it is important to track how people are responding and how sentiment is shifting. Be sure to keep a pulse on social, the media and key players who are trying to shape the message (such as your competitors).

While some crises can truly suck, every crisis can be managed. It is smart business to have an action plan that can be quickly implemented in the event of a crisis, and there is no time like the present. It is important to remember that “No comment,” much like “Pleading the Fifth,” conveys guilt and hubris, and historically irks the media and those key stakeholders about whom you are already worried. Since most people do not have crisis management experience, fortunately for them, having a PR firm that has experience across an array of situations from issue to crisis level is incredibly useful. You will never go wrong having a trusted communicator who holds your best interest by your side in the event of a crisis. If you do not believe me, I have a few dozen people you can ask.

Kimberly Lancaster


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