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5 Tips for CEOs on How to Survive a PR Crisis

Alex Jafarzadeh

Alex Jafarzadeh

Whenever a corporate crisis arises, it’s important to remember that brands and businesses usually aren’t broken by the crisis itself, but by how it’s handled. And, when the music stops, CEOs are the ones left answering questions about how their organizations managed through difficult times.

CEOs can’t wait for the music to stop. They need to make sure their communications teams – and the business at large – are ready for the unexpected. If their businesses are to survive a crisis with reputation intact, CEOs should make sure to follow these five key practices.

1. Have the right plan in place

The first step to handling a crisis is having a plan in place. But, plan wisely – the very nature of that plan will determine its success.

Some teams fall into the trap of assuming that a crisis plan can simply consist of sample statements, pre-approved by the CEO and ready to go when needed. But, when the panic button gets hit and the old plan is dusted off, those statements can appear stale and out of date, and the people referring to it find little comfort in stock content.

That’s because those plans miss out on the crucial details: in a crisis, a communications team doesn’t need a pre-approved, fill-in-the-blanks statement from ‘insert current CEO name here.’ They need resources, contact details, suggested processes and reminders to guide them through what can be a messy, complex and demanding situation.

2. Train the team, and the spokespeople

Once the plan is in place, every active member of the crisis management team should be fully trained on it. That means running them through each element, how it would apply to an active crisis, and answering questions on their role as it’s laid out in the plan.

Training doesn’t stop at the crisis plan, though. Each designated spokesperson needs to be ready to handle the toughest possible media questions in the event of a crisis. Journalists and the public at large look to an organization’s leaders, not their press releases, to shape their view of a company in its most difficult hours. Anyone whose role could involve fronting up to the press should be fully prepared to do so.

3. Put the plan – and the team – through their paces

Whether through a tabletop session or a live exercise, every crisis communications plan should be rigorously and regularly tested. These practice routines give the team familiarity with the steps they need to take so that they’re not scrambling to manage the basics when a real crisis hits. And, practice runs expose oversights in the plan that the team can either correct or prepare for, so that they don’t impact the real thing.

4. Learn from others

Practicing internally, though, isn’t enough. Look to other companies’ handling of their own crises to uncover new ideas or unforeseen problems that need to be taken into account. Perhaps the public reacted poorly to a statement that closely mirrors what your own CEO might say, or an unusually frank admission of responsibility helped quell the rising anger.

For example, how many crisis communications plans would have accounted for a CEO going rogue like pizza mogul John Schnatter did this summer? Have teams made sure their media-trained CEOs aren’t going to be accused of being ‘robotic,’ like Mark Zuckerberg experienced in the spring?

Public moods and opinions are constantly shifting, and there’s no better way to determine how best to handle tomorrow’s crisis than to assess how they’re being received today.

5. Know when to sound the alarm

Communications teams are often torn on this last point. In one corner, some argue it is better to overrespond to a crisis for fear of being caught off guard or accused of being unresponsive. Others suggest that an overly aggressive approach to a difficult situation can turn a minor issue into a full-blown crisis with far greater reach.

We would suggest that there is a middle ground – putting a team on a responsive alert while waiting to see how the situation plays out. A skilled communications team can prepare reactive statements and align its messaging before it decides whether to issue a statement. That way, if they do decide to manage the crisis publicly, they can do so quickly and with a clear voice.