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Surviving a PR Crisis when it all Hits the Fan

– By Marc Cowlin

Warren Buffet famously observed: “‘It takes years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it.” Given how precious that reputation is, you need to be prepared for the fact that it might come under threat, sometimes through no fault of your own. When that happens, the temptation can be to stick your head in the sand and hope it goes away. But being an ostrich is the last thing you should do. Instead, be prepared and follow a few simple processes to turn the crisis around. 

Step 1: Take a deep breath. When a PR crisis arises, the first thing you need to do is nothing.  Stop, close your eyes and take five deep breaths. You need to be calm because people are depending on you. We make better decisions when we are calm and in control than we do when we panic. Depending on how things go, you may need to repeat this step a few times.

risk-002Step 2: Circle your wagons. Get in touch with everyone who might be impacted – your customer-facing employees, PR team members, customer service, etc and brief them on what happened. Lay out the steps you will follow to react to the issue, initial instructions on how/if they should communicate externally, expected timeline for reaction and how they can help. Ask each of these individuals to begin tracking the PR crisis on their individual channels and keep you informed of any and all developments.

Step 3: Investigate what happened. Now that everyone knows what is going on, (which will drastically reduce your inbox submissions from your colleagues), you need to determine exactly what happened. You need to know the entire story from an internal perspective as well as how your customers perceive might perceive things. This can be the most time consuming step, but also the most important. NEVER react to a PR crisis if you don’t know exactly what happened and why it happened.

Step 4: Understand the business impact. Is this crisis having an impact on business? Will it have an impact in future? Before you react, it’s important to know how your decisions will affect your business, revenue and brand reputation. This step will be very important as you begin to make decisions on messaging and your overall stance on the crisis.

Step 5: Watch and listen. Has the issue made it to the attention of your customers or the media? Take the pulse of the reaction and gauge the significance of your PR crisis: just how big a deal is it? Are there hundreds of people talking about it, or only a few? What is the overall sentiment? Are people supporting you? Is the media reacting? Have any stories been published?

Step 6: Decide on corporate position and messaging. Armed with the full story, an understanding of the business impact and a complete picture of the reaction so far, you will have a clear idea of the position your company should take. From there you can write up these messages and get buy in from your executive team. Expect a bit of back and forth with key decision makers, but with the right preparations, the process can be relatively smooth.

Step 7: Make decisions on channels of distribution. Based on your corporate positioning and overall messaging you need to determine the channel/s that best deliver them to your audience. These days there are many channels to consider: you can post on your corporate blog, through social media, in a press release, directly to the media, or a combination of these.

Bear in mind the basic differences in each channel. Social media only works if you are prepared for a dialogue and accept the fact that it will be hard to control your message. A press release or a blog post are both great options if you want to broadcast and control the conversations around your message. Every situation will be different, and you’ll need to use the info you’ve gathered so far to decide on the best distribution.

Step 8: Get the word out. You’ve done your homework, there is now buy-in on messaging, and the distribution channel has been decided. It’s now time to get your message out to the channels you’ve chosen.

Step 9: Monitor reaction and react. You’re not done yet! With your message out in the world you need to circle back with your public facing teams and monitor the reaction. Is your PR crisis still a crisis? What happens next will ultimately depend on the reaction of the media and stakeholders. Keep in mind that it can take a few days for a fire to die down. Sometime you need to be patient and give it the time it needs, other times you may need to step in and offer additional statements or interviews. There are no hard and fast rules and you’ll need to make the call in real time.

Step 10: Learn from the process. No one wants to see a PR crisis pop up, but I promise you one thing: no matter how things go, you will learn something valuable. Everything you learn will help your company understand how to avoid future crisis and will help you to efficiently manage your next crisis.

Every PR crisis is stressful and complicated, especially when you take into account the need to move very quickly. So always aim to get through step 10 in hours, not days – faster if possible.

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Marc CowlinMarc Cowlin has over 15 years of in-house public relations and marketing experience with companies such as Birkenstock,, Meltwater and Thismoment. A longer version of this piece first appeared on


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