The Need for Speed: PR Crisis Communications & Issues Management

PR crisis communications are crucial in mitigating damage to brand reputation and maintaining public trust. Companies that act quickly and transparently can often regain control of the narrative and prevent long-term consequences.

Why this matters:

Effective issues management hinges on prompt action and clear communication, emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive crisis communications plan.

By the numbers:

  • Companies responding to a crisis within the first hour are 85% more likely to retain public trust than those delaying action (PRSA).
  • 63% of consumers expect a company to provide a public response within an hour of a crisis breaking (Edelman).
  • Organizations with a well-prepared crisis response plan are 53% more likely to recover within six months (Institute for Public Relations).

The speed at which a company responds to a crisis could ultimately determine its fate. News travels fast, allowing teams to stay updated on global events in real-time. Because of this, PR teams must react quickly and accurately when responding to issues that can significantly damage a brand’s reputation.

The Importance Of Speed In PR Crisis Communications

Speed is paramount when handling a PR crisis.

An accurate and timely assessment of what’s happening and the impact must be relayed to minimize damage. In a crisis, every second counts.

The Social Media Echochamber & Its Impact On Crisis Comms

The rapid spread of a crisis is fueled by consumers’ eagerness to be the “first one” to break the news with their networks. Consequently, prompt reactions are crucial when dealing with a PR crisis.

Social media will always amplify the issue. The ongoing debate, article sharing, and trolling will spark old issues that most people have forgotten. However, there is a delicate balance between swift responses and the potential pitfalls of hasty decision-making. Decisions made too quickly may lack careful consideration and worsen the situation. It can also present new problems due to misinformation or spread rapidly across social media platforms.

To effectively navigate an issue, companies must balance control and responsiveness. Achieving this equilibrium demands strategic planning in advance and adept execution when crisis management in PR is necessary.

A prime example of leveraging speed during a PR crisis is Amazon’s handling of the LGBTQ book sales rank issue on Valentine’s Day in 2019. The company quickly apologizes for an error caused by incorrect product categorization, detailing the practical measures to enhance their technology to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Another example of agile crisis management is Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol tampering incident back in 1982. Upon discovering the poisoning deaths linked to their product, the company wasted no time recalling tens of millions of bottles from stores across the U.S. within a week. This decisive action laid the groundwork for ethical business practices, which are now embraced by many successful companies today.

The Risks Of Delayed Response

A slow response to a PR crisis can harm and even devastate a company. It prolongs the impact of a potentially damaging story, eroding customer loyalty and trust while wasting critical time.

It is widely acknowledged that decisive action is essential for issues management. Therefore, companies must act promptly to mitigate any negative consequences. The importance of this rapid response is supported by research, which shows that companies that react quickly and transparently during difficult situations are far more likely to preserve their reputation than those who stay silent or attempt belated damage control.

J&J’s quick decision-making significantly improved customer trust after the recall, proactively communicating with the media, addressing risks associated with their product, and offering full refunds for opened bottles. As a result, customers continued to place their trust in the brand and use its products.

Preserving a Brand’s Reputation During a Crisis

A brand’s image has become increasingly vital as the digital landscape expands. An unanticipated PR crisis can pose a threat to a brand’s reputation, putting its future success in jeopardy.

Achieving success depends on transparency, honesty, and prompt action. Anticipating questions from the media and having key messages that convey the situation is crucial. This is one of many reasons why brands must always be prepared for issues and be ready to activate their crisis communication plan.

Amazon’s issue in 2018 exemplifies how swift and resolute action can significantly restore a tarnished brand image following a PR crisis. The public outcry led to substantial changes within 48 hours of widespread awareness.

Analyzing the causes of particular situations with reviews and assessments is crucial for identifying issues and applying fixes to avoid future recurrences. Johnson & Johnson has developed effective proactive strategies, like the tamper-proof seals introduced after the Tylenol incident 30 years ago, to prevent unexpected problems.

Developing a PR Crisis Communications Plan

To enhance crisis communication, it is vital to implement the following three strategies: devising a crisis response plan, closely monitoring all communication channels for updates, and promptly and transparently addressing questions or concerns.

A crisis response plan is a pre-established strategy outlining the steps to take when a company encounters a PR crisis. This plan provides a structured approach for reducing potential harm and protecting the company’s reputation.

Essential elements of a crisis response plan include planning and coordination, articulating the company’s stance, managing stakeholders, pinpointing existing processes and systems vulnerabilities, tracking media coverage, seeking support from public relations advisors or risk consultants as necessary, and routinely reviewing and updating the crisis comms plan.

A well-prepared plan conserves valuable time during issues by offering clear guidance for those responsible for managing the crisisProactively preparing for potential issues allows companies to retain control over their messaging during tumultuous periods, minimizing the likelihood of misinterpretation or confusion in the market.

Crisis plans enable companies to proactively address unexpected issues rather than merely react to them. This crisis comms plan delineates roles and responsibilities, ensuring all team members understand their expectations without requiring lengthy discussions during high-pressure situations. This method reduces the possibility of errors or mishaps that could intensify risks, whether communication-related or otherwise.

Vigilant PR Communication Channel Monitoring

Throughout a PR crisis, companies must stay updated on conversations and publications spanning all platforms. Failing to do so may lead to considerable reputational damage. Brands should consistently monitor social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to remain up to speed about any posts or comments pertinent to the situation.

Closely observing news outlets is equally important, allowing companies to swiftly address any story inaccuracies with direct, timely responses. Additionally, social brand monitoring of internal communication networks—including employee emails, intranets, and staff meetings—is crucial since negative sentiment can originate from within during a crisis. Transparent and level-headed messaging is vital to reaffirm the brand’s integrity.

Swift and Transparent Action

An effective crisis communication strategy entails immediate, honest responses to a situation. PR pros must recognize and address negative news or social media posts with statements before external sources distort the information.

While downplaying an issue or covering up mistakes might be tempting, such actions fuel further distrust among consumers. Transparency is vital in PR crisis management; stakeholders must receive all pertinent details regarding an incident’s cause and impact, enabling them to make informed decisions.

Moreover, apologizing for misconduct showcases humility and openness, which can help preserve a company’s reputation during difficult times. Amazon’s PR team quickly identified the mistake and issued official apologies across multiple channels, including Facebook updates and official statement posts, immediately following public outcry.

Preserving Message Consistency

During a PR crisis, the media, influencers, employees, customers, and competitors monitor and dissect every company’s actions.

Maintaining a consistent message is critical, as even minor variations can harm a company’s reputation. Inconsistent messaging can create confusion and inaccurate information, endangering stakeholders and everyone involved.

Crisis PR management teams must ensure uniform messaging across all communication channels, including press releases, social media posts, and public statements. Rigorous checks on outgoing content from all departments involved in crisis communication are essential to maintain consistency.

J&J’s handling of the Tylenol tampering case demonstrates successful practices in maintaining consistent information sharing during a PR crisis. They promptly delivered honest, fact-based responses throughout the process, providing timely updates from the investigation’s start to implementing new safety initiatives and preventative measures.

Engaging Stakeholders

In any crisis communication situation, keeping stakeholders informed is crucial. Providing accurate and timely information to those involved and the general public helps prevent panic and misinterpretation.

It is essential to promptly share all necessary facts with key stakeholders, including employees, customers, and investors. For example, during the Amazon crisis, shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. They felt they did not receive adequate notice about the decision and accused Amazon of making false representations in SEC disclosures.

In this scenario, insufficient communication escalated shareholder tensions, transforming an internal change into a full-blown PR crisis for Amazon. Therefore, companies must maintain open lines of two-way communication with various stakeholder groups, even during challenging times, to minimize risk and prevent potential disruptions caused by miscommunication.

Navigating PR Crisis: A Comprehensive Approach

A successful response strategy to PR crises hinges on three key components: a prepared crisis management team, the effective use of technology for rapid response, and a commitment to transparent and honest communication.

Forming a crisis management team is a proactive step that ensures readiness and proper response when critical events strike. This team should include decision-makers, a clear chain of command, a designated spokesperson, and other necessary roles tailored to the company’s size and industry. Regular training, drills, and practice sessions are essential to achieve peak performance during a crisis. Companies can ensure swift and well-crafted responses in challenging situations with a designated spokesperson and a communication plan.

Utilizing Technology To Aid Response Time

Amid a crisis, using technology for rapid response is paramount. Technology assists PR pros in quickly monitoring all communication channels in real-time. Social media listening software enables teams to detect early warning signals and take proactive measures when needed. 

The effective use of technology creates opportunities for faster crisis management and more accurate impact assessments. Real-time marketing and monitoring tools like Talkwalker empowers companies to track conversations across social networks, allowing quick responses before issues escalate in the fast-paced digital landscape.

Being Transparent In Communication

Transparent and honest communication is crucial during a PR crisis. Brands must be open and truthful to build stakeholder trust and positively influence audiences. This involves admitting mistakes, sharing details about the incident, and outlining plans for rectifying the issue. Furthermore, companies may need to be upfront about potential delays or changes implemented in their solution. Finally, maintaining consistent messaging ensures accurate understanding, even when it puts the brand in an unfavorable light.

The swift dissemination of news today necessitates that brands control the narrative quickly, as delays only lead to further criticism. Companies like Pepsi, which experienced backlash after mishandling the Kendall Jenner campaign, demonstrate the power of rapid, transparent communication. A prompt apology statement and corrective actions restored public sentiment and customer faith.

Anticipating Potential Questions And Concerns

Anticipating questions and concerns during a PR crisis is essential to effective crisis management. Companies should develop comprehensive crisis response plans in advance. Monitoring all communication channels for signs of trouble and acting quickly when needed is crucial. 

Technology is vital in implementing strategies for gaining insight into public reactions, providing accurate answers, and expressing concern, sincerity, and accountability when appropriate to preserve stakeholder trust. Embracing transparency keeps stakeholders informed, instilling confidence during difficult conversations involving mismanagement or leadership failures.

Burnett’s Crisis Management Model

The Burnett Model of Crisis Management offers a comprehensive approach for brands to effectively navigate turbulent situations. This dynamic framework enables PR pros to take control of the narrative, mitigate damage, and ultimately restore their reputation. By understanding the key components and stages of the Burnett Model, companies can better prepare for and manage crises when they arise.

At the heart of the Burnett Model lies the concept of proactive planning. PR pros must identify potential risks and develop strategies to address them in advance. This foresight can mean distinguishing between a quickly resolved issue and a full-blown crisis. Once a situation unfolds, the model emphasizes timely response, transparent communication, and genuine empathy to foster stakeholder trust and understanding. Companies must also evaluate the effectiveness of their crisis management efforts, learning from mistakes and refining their strategies for future success.

Burnett's PR Crisis Communications Model

Case Studies: Learning from Effective PR Crisis Responses

Examining cases where companies have swiftly and effectively addressed PR crises offers valuable insights for managing future incidents. Three notable examples include the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, Amazon’s LGBTQ book sales rank controversy, and Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol tampering incident.

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad, released in April 2017, became a major PR crisis for the brand. Featuring Jenner offering a can of Pepsi to a line of police officers as a peace-making gesture, the ad faced severe backlash and criticism from media outlets, celebrities, and activists worldwide. Critics on social media accused the ad of trivializing state violence against people of color by ignoring issues like racial prejudice and inherent bias within policing.

The controversy expanded into broader discussions about race in America, with many highlighting the insensitivity of Jenner’s character in addressing complex cultural issues. Pepsi responded by quickly pulling the advertisement and apologizing for any offense caused. This incident underscores the importance of speed, cultural context, and sensitivity when responding to a PR crisis to protect a brand’s reputation.

Amazon’s LGBTQ Book Sales Rank Issue in 2009 presented the company with a reputational crisis when they removed the sales rank from hundreds of LGBT books, leading to accusations of discrimination. Amazon needed a swift response, as customers voiced their concerns on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook regarding the company’s lack of transparency.

Amazon restored promotion for the excluded materials to tackle the criticism and bolster its reputation. This case exemplifies the necessity of rapid responses to PR crises, as delays might have further harmed Amazon’s reputation. It also highlights the need for companies to have effective strategies for managing potential reputational challenges, including a comprehensive crisis communication plan.

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced a major crisis when bottles of Tylenol were found laced with cyanide. The company’s quick response involved an immediate product recall, halting all advertising activities, and implementing a robust crisis management plan. In addition, J&J offered clear instructions to distributors on reporting suspected tampering, assisted local authorities in investigating the incident, and established a hotline for concerned customers.

To enhance consumer safety and minimize future reputational risks, J&J introduced tamper-proof packaging seals and launched caplets instead of capsules. Johnson & Johnson’s exemplary response has become a case study for other companies facing similar situations. Their swift action, taking ownership and responsibility, and providing a comprehensive crisis management plan allowed them to regain consumer trust.

The Benefits Of Speed And Effective Communication In PR Crisis Management

Speed and effective communication are essential when dealing with PR crises as they can help control the narrative by providing accurate information promptly to both internal stakeholders and external audiences.

Establishing a crisis response team, monitoring all communication channels, staying on message, keeping stakeholders informed, and acting quickly while being transparent and honest at every step are key elements of successful PR crisis management to ensure swift response time from the company.

Companies such as PepsiCo Inc., Johnson & Johnson, and Amazon have successfully navigated their respective crises through quick action based on clear communication underpinned by ethical values that demonstrate customer care, which helped mitigate financial losses due to reputational damage.

It is always better to be prepared for potential issues before the scenarios arise; therefore, companies need to formulate proactive strategies so they will know what steps must be taken if disaster strikes.

Michael Brito

Michael Brito is a Digital OG. He’s been building brands online since Al Gore invented the Internet. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.