Public relations crisis management

March 13, 2024 •

10 min reading

Public relations crisis management: A guide to overcoming challenges

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A crisis can hit any business at any time. It could start as negative news that snowballs, terrible online reviews, or even an ill-advised foray into social media. This type of event can tarnish your brand, harm your relationship with your customers, and have a damaging effect on key business outcomes.

So, what can you do? When a negative event occurs, a public relations crisis management plan can minimize the impact on your organization and help you ride out the storm. The key is to act quickly when problems arise and, better yet, put a crisis communication plan in place before the event occurs.


What is public relations crisis management?

Public relations crisis management is the process of reducing the impact a negative situation has on your business, its stakeholders, and your brand’s image through your communications with the public. There are any number of events that could cause this type of crisis:

  • A health and safety breach that causes harm to customers or employees
  • Legal claims against the business or its leaders
  • Serious flaws in your products and services
  • Discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, or gender
  • Engaging in activity that causes undue damage to the environment

Arguably, the most common crisis to hit large organizations over the last few years has been cyberattacks that lead to massive data leaks. Whatever the nature of the event, if it generates negative press, affects your brand image, and leads to a loss of public trust, it can be extremely damaging and potentially even fatal for your organization.

Public relations crisis management aims to reduce the damage this type of event causes. A good crisis management plan will have three aspects:


Taking measures to prevent a crisis in the first instance and planning your response if one occurs

Outlining the strategy your crisis response team will take and how you will communicate with stakeholders and the media

Fulfilling the commitments you make during the crisis and taking steps to rebuild trust and prevent another crisis in the future


Your crisis communications plan will provide a framework for how you will communicate throughout the crisis to minimize its impact on the organization, customers, shareholders, and employees.

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How to create a crisis management plan

A crisis management plan is a strategy that determines how your company will react to and address serious negative events. A recent study found that less than half of US companies have a formal crisis communication plan, 28% having an undocumented plan, and 23% admitting to having no plan at all.

Given the public scrutiny organizations now face and the risks associated with social media and cyberattacks, it’s more important than ever that you have a crisis management plan that you can adapt for every situation.

Your plan should detail the steps you intend to take and explain who will be informed and involved at every stage of the process. You should also prepare communications that you can release via various media, such as press releases, social media posts, and public statements. That will enable you to react quickly and get ahead of the story.

You’re likely to have some idea of the type of crisis you might be involved in based on the most prevalent risks in your industry. You can create a communication plan that focuses on those crises, is pre-approved by senior leadership, and is ready to kick into action.

Dr Laura Zizka, PhD faculty member at EHL Hospitality Business School Lausanne, offers valuable tips for proactive crisis communication management by outlining six things managers can do to prepare for a PR crisis before one occurs.


How to manage a PR crisis

Having a communication plan in place before the event is advisable, but what steps can you take if a crisis occurs that you’ve not planned for? Here’s some guidance.

1. Check if it’s a fully-fledged crisis

A few negative comments on social media, angry emails, or bad reviews do not necessarily constitute a crisis. Before you fly into damage limitation mode, gather information about the story, investigate its origins, and understand where it is in the news cycle. The last thing you want to do is give oxygen to a story that was already petering out.

Creating an objective scale will help you determine the severity of an event. Media monitoring and social listening tools can be an effective way to get a quantitative assessment of a crisis.

2. Appoint a response team

Once you’ve determined that it’s a story you need to respond to, appointing a response team will ensure the right people speak on behalf of your organization and you communicate with one voice.

The best response teams are usually made up of experienced in-house communications professionals and external experts. They may also include senior business leaders, lawyers, someone with operational knowledge, and HR representatives.

3. Determine your stance and strategy

The next step is to gather all the relevant information, including answering these questions:

  • What is the situation?
  • Who is involved?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place ?
  • Why did it happen?

Based on your findings, you can determine the stance and approach the organization will take. You should also decide whether to be proactive or reactive in your messaging, who will communicate with the press and the public, and what media you will use.

One example of a brilliant response to a crisis came from Proctor & Gamble when they took a three-pronged approach to the Tide Pods Challenge crisis, where teenagers filmed themselves eating concentrated laundry detergent capsules for social media. In addition to issuing statements warning the public of the dangers of this silly trend, the brand engaged celebrity sportsman Rob Gonkowski to tweet a short video telling teens to stop eating Tide pods, and it was a great success.

4. Craft your message

Once you have a team and strategy in place, you can start communicating your response. We have seen over the years, including crises at Facebook and Uber, that attempts to deflect or misdirect are unlikely to be successful.

Instead, being honest and accepting liability straightaway is typically the best approach. You should also respond quickly to avoid giving the impression that you have something to hide or don’t care about the situation. Getting out there early and being as transparent as possible, without blaming external parties, and explaining how you intend to make the situation good can diffuse the situation and allow everyone to move on.

Humor has sometimes been used to good effect in these situations. For example, Aldi, the German-based discount retailer crafted a funny response to being sued by Marks and Spencer over their too-similar version of a famous caterpillar cake. As part of their crisis management response, they posted a series of funny social media posts using Twitter to troll the rival supermarket. They tweeted what appeared to be live views from ‘the courtroom’, including a ‘courtroom sketch’ that showed Cuthbert the Caterpillar standing trial with the hashtag #FreeCuthbert.

While this approach may not be suitable for more serious situations, it’s important to note that there are many ways to address unfortunate and uncomfortable situations and using different media, tone of voice, and showing other perspectives can help to diffuse tension, as long as the sentiment remains authentic.

5. Monitor the situation and address concerns

Just because you’ve said your piece, it doesn’t mean the crisis is over. You should keep monitoring the news outlets, social media, and inbound emails and address any follow-up questions or concerns.

Again, honesty is the best policy; however, you should be wary of stoking the fire. If you say too much, the internet can be flooded with negative articles from powerful sources that rank well in the search engines. A 2019 study found that the impact of negative news on an organization’s reputation is three times greater than the effect of positive news. Another study found that organizations with only one negative online article risk losing nearly a quarter (22%) of their prospective customers. You’ll then be left with an expensive and time-consuming clean-up job.


PR Crisis Management in Hospitality & Tourism

The hospitality industry is particularly vulnerable to PR catastrophes due to the very close and immediate relationship that hospitality businesses have with their customers. Being mistreated in a hotel lobby or getting sick from eating food from a restaurant has a truly personal impact.

An unfortunate incident in a hotel, restaurant, or airline is often highly visible because it directly impacts the customer experience and can be easily recorded with mobile phones, then posted on social media. Things can quickly get out of hand.

The United Airlines passenger removal incident of 2017 provides valuable lessons for hospitality businesses in crisis management:

  • First and foremost, hospitality-related businesses must prioritize the safety, well-being, and respect of their customers.
  • Due to the human-centric nature of the business, empathy and effective communication are essential during a crisis.
  • Crisis communication must demonstrate a commitment to customer satisfaction and address concerns in a timely and compassionate manner.
  • It is vital for hospitality businesses to have clear protocols in place for handling overbooking, unruly customers, and health- or safety-related situations to ensure that incidents are managed professionally and with minimal disruption to other clients.
  • And finally, hotels and restaurants should be prepared to adapt and learn from crises, making necessary changes to policies, training, and customer service practices to regain trust and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

In hospitality, experts often refer to the crisis resolution process as Service Recovery, and it is an important process for fixing problems, making amends, and protecting brand trust in the industry. You can learn more about this topic with these articles


Preparing to manage a PR crisis

You never know when a crisis is going to hit, so it’s well worth putting a crisis management plan in place that guides you on what to do when one arises. That will help you align your thinking and reduce the risk of making the situation worse with an inappropriate or delayed response. If you handle things well, this example from KFC shows that you could even turn a negative situation on its head and gain some positive PR.

Upskilling in communications and crisis management is an excellent investment for executives, PR managers, and members of their teams. For this purpose, EHL Graduate School offers a range of customized programs deilvered by subject-matter experts with content coming straight from the latest industry challenges. If you feel the need to brush up on your communication skills or crisis management approach, then we invite you to learn more about these programs.


Designed to accommodate busy hospitality professionals, delivered 80% online

As a student of the MBA in hospitality, you will benefit from a holistic learning experience that combines online courses with three weeks of campus-based learning.

"Companies like Enron and Volkswagen both endured a crisis, but one went bankrupt while the other is thriving. What made the difference in these cases? Communication. No company is immune to crisis, but it is the manner in which they react to it that will make a difference.”
Dr Laura Zizka, PhD, faculty member at EHL Lausanne