When Crisis Knocks: Being PR Savvy Through Social Media

May 24th, 2011   •   4 comments   




Social media has been a game changer for PR folks across the board.  No matter what type of business or industry you are in, no matter what size of organization you are in, social media means you can run for a minute but you sure cannot hide.  I have been in PR and marketing for more than 20 years, working mostly in B2B organizations, and I have witnessed the drastic shift in how we communicate the corporate messages: good, bad, and ugly.  I think that in order to appreciate and use what we’ve learned, it’s sometimes important to look back and think on what worked then, how things have changed and what lessons can we carry forward to improve our role as PR professionals.  In the “good ole days” when agencies had fat budgets and big offices, often the PR strategy was crafted to “spin” a story a certain way to try and control the outcomes.  Sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not. Either way, that control is largely gone with the use of social media, smart phones and mobile communications.  Corporations with big news to tell (good and bad) need to understand a few key points: 1.  The art of being proactive means always anticipating what can happen; 2. The discipline to use confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements; 3. The art of telling the story well and through the social channels as well as traditional ones.  

I hear and read often that companies can’t control their story.  That’s only true if they let it out of control in the first place.  Sometimes it gets out without anyone doing anything.  An explosion or fire would be this type of crisis.  The media is relentless when it comes to a crisis and a company has to be ready to be totally “bombarded” and handle all inquiries.  A very tough skin is needed for this as dealing with a heady crisis and doing good PR is not for the weak or inexperienced.  I have only had two really bad crisis client PR projects and—though we got through them as well as we could have under the terrible circumstances—it’s highly stressful and downright scary work.  I’ve had CNN, AP reporters, international calls and the local media all on my back at once and there is no class or training that can prepare you for the actual day that happens.  I learned a ton, didn’t sleep much and added great depth to my experience in PR under pressure. 


 Three important points:

1.  The art of being proactive means always anticipating what can happen:  When crisis comes— often by surprise—you must immediately be ready to anticipate what will happen next.  I cannot stress enough the importance of having a crisis PR/communications plan ALREADY WRITTEN before something happens.  The most common thing to anticipate is that people love to talk about a crisis which means you will have two major projects:  one is dealing with and getting accurate information to the media (you want them on your team and they can make or break you) and dealing with comments that are posted in the internet.  Immediately, you need a team that’s social savvy to monitor what’s being said and you will need this 24/7.  How you handle these steps is critical.  In dealing with the media you must be fair, straightforward and you must set the pace.  When we had crisis #1, I set up a system to communicate with all the media and used different tools to post information.  The first was the posting of updates and statements as they became available to the top of the client website.  This helped us do two things: control information in written statements and mass distribution (we didn’t have time to do press releases).  The second tool was the use of the wire; we monitored the internet.  It took a team of 4-6 people dedicated to this and I was with the client working remotely in their conference room for days.

2.  The discipline and intelligence to use confidentiality, non-disclosure agreements:  I hate to say “duh”, but I said it.  Companies and organizations that can’t keep information from leaking out deserve what they get.  And I would fire any communications staffer immediately if I found out they talked about highly confidential information.  Rumors cannot exist if you want good PR results.  For example, last year, one of my clients (and large employer) announced their decision to relocate their corporate headquarters to downtown Memphis.  The CEO, COO, CFO and legal team made everybody—including me—sign a non-disclosure.  I had the pleasure of coordinating the press for the announcement and the event we held on site (see previous blog post).  That was a difficult “secret” to keep quiet, but we did it and that’s proof that companies can indeed control when big news gets announced, how it’s announced and to whom it’s announced.

3.  Telling a story well through both traditional and social:  I think social media has given us the transparency we need to find real, truthful information and has forced companies and organizations to be more diligent about being truthful.  My Dad always told me that if you tell the truth all the time, you never have to worry about telling a story—a powerful lesson.  Social media gives us great channels to be truthful and to be transparent.  Social media has changed PR in many positive ways and I think that the positives far outweigh the negatives.  All of this is why companies need to already be “in” the game of social.  Establish your footprint and tell your story so that when you have to defend yourself in a crisis—you can.  As my good friend and social media consultant @GlenGilmore says, “Build your Tribe before you need it.”  And believe me, one day you will need it.  Thanks for reading this and I’d love to hear how social media has helped you or hurt you in a crisis. 


  1. Great post Amy. Do you create different processes for different crisis scenarios? Or just a crisis process in general?

    Thanks again!

  2. amy Howell says:

    Josh: Thanks for the comment. As every crisis is different, you can streamline some communication processes but you have to stay flexible and ready to adapt per situation. That's why having an advance "crisis plan" is helpful. It helps you think thru the "what if" scenarios. Also, depending on what kind of crisis, you have different issues. For example, loss of life or accidents where you have government agencies involved, etc. When working with law enforcement there are certain processes you must follow as another example. Hope this helped! Thanks for commenting. Amy

  3. Very timely article, Amy.

    We'll be discussing crisis communications in my online PR Writing course in the next two weeks.

    I plan to share your article with my students. 🙂

  4. Amy Howell says:

    Great Darrin! Thank you so much. Glad you found it helpful.

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