WHAT IS CRISIS PR:
Crisis management is the process a business or organization utilizes when a sudden emergency situation occurs. An emergency situation could happen to any company or business and could really be anything - a threat to stockholders, the organization or their reputation. We don’t expect them but we can definitely prepare.
Our role as public relations professionals is to help manage the incident by advising the best strategic approach to take, identifying the audience that needs to be communicated with, and collecting material that supports the strategy - statements, questions and answers, and briefing documents.
Public relations professionals need to be on top of the incident before it becomes public, while it is public, and support communications after its publicity to ensure that steps are being taken to prevent it from happening again.
When it comes to crisis PR, one key point to keep in mind is that every crisis situation is different. Just because a specific strategy helps resolve one situation, that doesn't necessarily mean those same strategies will help another. With that being said, here are some general do’s and don'ts according to Seitel (2017) in his textbook The Practice of Public Relations:
[Source: Seitel, F. P. (2017). The practice of public relations (13th ed.). Pearson.]
EXAMPLES OF PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT
Here are some real-world examples of PR crisis management for some of the world’s biggest scandals.
The scandal that brought us tamper-proof packaging on medicine was the country’s biggest crisis at the time. Johnson & Johnson’s came under heavy scrutiny when in Chicago seven people died after taking Tylenol tablets that were laced with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson’s response was to pull over 31 million bottles of Tylenol from the shelves all over the country, at the heavy cost of $100 million in losses for the company, and halting production and advertising completely. They also got involved with police, FBI, and FDA to help catch the killer, offering a $100,000 reward. When production began again, they introduced tamper-proof packaging to help ensure this never happens again.
This case is renowned for its success in crisis management as Johnson & Johnson, as well as their product, Tylenol, were able to make a complete recovery and strong comeback. Because the company showed great concern for customer safety and made gestures that showed that customer safety came first, they were able to keep their name in a good light and gain appreciation from the public.
While Johnson & Johnson’s example was the perfect example of crisis management, Domino’s Youtube scandal can teach us a thing or two of what not to do. In 2009, two Domino’s employees posted a video on Youtube of them doing a number of unsanitary acts to customer’s orders before giving them out. Because 2009 was a time of baby steps when it came to the internet and social media, Domino’s didn’t respond to the video until 2 days later, which proved to quite damaging as it gave the situation 48 hours to become viral and nation-wide news.
Domino’s eventually managed the situation by posting a response video from the Domino’s president, firing the employees, shutting down the store where it happened, and opening up social media accounts for a stronger online presence. But perhaps had they responded earlier, it still wouldn’t be a topic we discuss almost ten years later.
Sometimes the a company’s crisis has nothing to do with outside sources; the crisis could be you! When Justine Sacco, a PR exec at IAC, tweeted out before a trip to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” it stirred a social media storm. To save their reputation, the company fired Sacco and issued a statement distancing themselves from Sacco’ actions and the tweets implications. While the company was able to walk-away from the incident more or less unscathed, the same can’t be said for Sacco.
It’s important to remember this example as future PR professionals. The company used crisis management to save their reputation but it came at the cost of their PR chief who should’ve been aware of the power of social media and public image.