Crisis management guide: How to manage a PR crisis

A visual representation of crisis management.

Many aspects of our lives are unpredictable. Unforeseen events are always just around the corner, from small waves that can be ridden with ease to seismic events that can flip everything upside down. The same is also true in the worlds of business and charity.

One type of event that always has the potential to damage an organisation is the dreaded public relations (PR) crisis. The truth is, most organisations with any real longevity will, at some point, face some kind of PR problem. This is almost unavoidable, especially as your organisation grows. However, it is the business insurance policies you have in place and how you choose to respond to the crisis that will ultimately determine how impacted your brand’s image is.

With this in mind, in today’s world of social media and viral news stories, all organisations need to be ready to respond quickly and efficiently, via all relevant platforms, should a PR crisis hit. The best way to prepare for this eventuality is to put in place a well-drilled crisis management strategy, and take the additional advice and support you can from your insurer.

In this handy guide, we provide our top tips for managing a PR crisis. From looking at how these events can unfold to the practicalities of putting a crisis management plan in place, all bases are covered. We also look specifically at whether or not your business insurance policies can help if the worst happens. 

What is a PR crisis?

A PR crisis is experienced when negative events or reviews start to threaten your business or charity’s brand reputation. This could be, for example, a scandal involving a senior employee coming to light, or a string of negative product/service reviews making it into the wider public’s view. Anything that can ultimately result in a negative impact on your organisation’s reputation can turn into a PR crisis.

Whatever the source of the incident, PR crises have the power to taint an organisation's image in the eyes of customers/stakeholders. Although it’s almost impossible to fully control the outcome of a PR crisis once it’s started, by having a strategy in place, you can work to mitigate potential damage and own the narrative to the best of your ability. This is where PR crisis management comes in.

What is crisis management in PR?

Put simply, PR crisis management refers to the actions an organisation takes to identify, fight and ultimately diffuse a potential or ongoing public relations crisis. As we will look at in the next section, this typically involves putting in place a plan which can be followed step-by-step by all relevant members of staff, should a crisis arise.

Typically focused around a detailed communications strategy, addressing the issue via a range of platforms and mediums, all organisations should have some kind of PR crisis management protocol in place. However, according to research conducted by specialist risk, crisis and business continuity management consultancy CS&A International, only 62% of companies currently have crisis plans on standby.

What is a crisis management plan?

If PR crisis management refers to the overall actions an organisation can take to protect its brand identity from a crisis, a crisis management plan refers specifically to the documented strategy that enables this management to happen. Crisis management plans tend to be flexible templated strategies that can be quickly adapted for any PR emergency, and rolled out as quickly as possible.

Designed to be used by employees and other stakeholders alike, a good PR crisis management plan will lay out the different stages of the plan, from start to finish, in clear and easy-to-follow language. This can help to ensure all stakeholders are kept on the same page, pulling in the same direction when it comes to the organisation's response to the crisis. Plans typically include everything from the outreach of press releases and initial responses to ongoing media/social media guidelines for staff.

How to create a crisis management plan

Building your organisation’s PR crisis management plan can be done in four steps:

1. Creating a crisis leadership team

In times of crisis a strong team is required. By putting a leadership team in place, ready to mobilise in times of crisis, you can get one step ahead. For this reason, your plan should outline the individuals who will be required to actually take action should a crisis occur. This team should meet on a regular basis, crisis or not, to ensure they remain as prepared as possible should the strategy need to be enacted. If you’re the only individual in your business or are one of few employees, this point won’t be applicable to you however it’s still a good idea to put some time in your diary every so often to review your crisis management plan and ensure it’s up to date.

2. Assess risks and potential damage to the organisation

Part of putting the management plan together involves thinking of worst case scenarios. This should involve discussions and assessment of the various risks your organisation could face and the probability of these problems actually occurring. Once the most likely crises have been highlighted, the plan should also address how each incident outlined could potentially impact the organisation.

Different risks pose different levels of potential impact. Therefore it’s important your plan analyses different threats separately. For example, one highlighted threat could most likely cause reputational damage while another may lead to regulatory fines. Assessing each risk could help form a stronger response if the worst happens.

3. Plan potential responses

Once risks and potential impacts are identified, it’s time to agree upon your organisation’s unified response strategy. This part of your plan should outline who needs to do what in the event of a crisis, as well as what the organisation’s collective response should look like. For example, should a product your business sells need to be recalled due to a dangerous fault, your plan should identify who in the business is responsible for creating a press release for media usage, managing the actual logistics of the product recall, handling increased customer queries/complaints, etc.

The plan should also include details on how internal communications, that provide general guidelines for employees and stakeholders, should be distributed.

4. Review and update

Finally, after your plan is put in place, it is important to regularly review and update it when necessary. Risk and potential brand impact can change over time, and this needs to be accounted for. Additionally, changes in staff and management may also mean updates need to be made.

Does professional indemnity insurance cover PR crisis management?

Yes, in many cases, professional indemnity insurance and charity insurance policies do cover the cost of certain aspects of PR crisis management. Many insurers offer business insurance that will help pay for PR and crisis management costs - such as purchasing media space and hiring reputation management experts - in the wake of a crisis. However, it’s important to speak to your insurer to be clear on which potential events, if any, are covered in this way.

Here at Markel Direct, many of our policies come with access to our public relations crisis management firm, The Counsel House. This means that if a PR crisis arises, we will help you manage any potentially damaging claims against you, helping to protect your organisation’s valuable brand identity. 

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