What is a PR Crisis?

Aug 28, 2018

Identifying a Public Relations Crisis 

As a Denver crisis communications firm, we are often asked two simple questions: What is a PR crisis and how do we know when we have one?  

We tell clients that a PR crisis is:

  • Anything that can damage the reputation of your organization
  • Anything that can cause a loss of trust
  • Any risk to the health, lives or safety of staff, clients, patients, providers, or other stakeholders

If whatever is happening falls into one of those categories, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. So now what? Do you need to respond or can you keep things quiet and hope it goes away? You can start by asking yourselves these questions.

  • Would reasonable people expect a responsible organization to respond?
  • Would silence be seen as not caring or a sign of guilt?
  • Are others already framing the story? 

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you have a problem and the next question to ask is not “should we respond?” but “what is the appropriate response?” There are tons of variables that could affect your response to a crisis, but what you do and say in the first minutes of the response sets the course and the tone of everything that happens going forward.  

Typically, in a crisis an organization can face a range of communication challenges:

  • Lack of information and lots of internal confusion
  • Escalating flow of events
  • Loss of control
  • Intense public scrutiny
  • Intensifying media attention

Sounds serious, right? That’s why the midst of a crisis is no time to decide that you need a plan. An hour after the negative story airs is not the time to sound the alarm. The time to call in the troops is when they are ready to execute a well-crafted crisis communications plan that’s been practiced, tested and updated on semi-annual basis. 

PR crisis

While no plan can completely anticipate each and every scenario, your crisis communications plan can outline the core principles that can help your team minimize the chaos and loss of trust that so many organizations find so challenging.

When Pushkin PR develops crisis communications plans for clients, we use a set of basic principles to provide a foundation for those plans. 

Core Principles for Crisis Communications

  • Manage the message from the top:Establish a command structure and follow the chain of command. This helps to control the flow of communication, which is so important during a crisis. Your organization should speak with one voice. Anyone who is not authorized to comment should direct questions from the media or the public to the designated spokesperson.
  • Set the optimal tone: Be in control, proactive, transparent, compassionate and truthful.  Any official statements or other messaging should use a voice that conveys trust, calm and compassion.  
  • Stick to the facts: Fact gathering and verification should precede any communication. Any official statements should employ only verified facts. Never speculate.
  • Keep stakeholders in the loop: You don’t want stakeholders hearing about it on the evening news. Your stakeholder communication should be direct and immediate. What are their needs? What are their primary concerns and priorities? How will their reputation be affected by your crisis?  

The bottom line is this: If a reasonable person would expect a responsible organization to respond quickly, truthfully, and compassionately, then be ready to do that or be willing to face a loss of trust. As Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”  

Don’t wait until the hounds are at the door. If you have questions or need help putting together a crisis communications plan, let us know. We will be happy to help you make sure you are ready before the barn door opens, not after the horses have left the stall.   

Jon Pushkin


Jon Pushkin is the president and founder of Pushkin Public Relations, a full service Denver PR firm. He likes dogs, baseball and swing, in that order.

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