Jan 11, 2019 / in PR 101Crisis Management / by Sarah Parker

TrendKite's Comprehensive Guide to Crisis Communications


A recent headline in PR News shared something we all know, but don't love to admit: "Brands See Risks but Fail to Plan for Them." Sound like the crisis strategy you know you should have in place? The crisis strategy with contingencies for everything that could go wrong on top of the crisis itself—  like not being able to get ahold of the point person for executing the plan or someone else in the chain of command for approvals, for example.


Maybe your team does have a plan in place, but that plan is a few years old, or it was put together before you joined the brand. Maybe your team hasn't run through it in a while or discussed the chain of command for approving messaging around a crisis during a holiday when people are harder to reach.


Does your whole plan fall apart if the point person is in a remote cabin without wifi?


There are many reasons it's time to pull out and dust off your crisis strategy for this year and beyond. We're here to help you make it the very best it can be, so you're prepared for anything that comes your way.


Preparing a crisis strategy in the era of Digital PR
Ideally you've done the heavy lifting this year to assess your current situation, invest in the best tools for your brand, and ramp up your PR strategy in the era of Digital PR. With a platform like TrendKite in your arsenal, your public relations strategy, efforts and results are regularly communicated to executives in a language they understand— without the slow-down of hand-compiling critical data.
The right platform keeps you ahead of any crisis situation, because you have a complete PR workflow solution at you fingertips, customized to fit what's most important to you and your brand.


Any crisis strategy should be a part of a larger PR strategy. To shore up your PR strategy first, you need to organize your PR strategy for impact, setting meaningful metrics. Second, you need to look back and benchmark to measure your efforts going forward. Third, you must look out and get more selective to be purposeful with your pitches, growing and optimizing your content creator community in the process— from journalists to contributors to social influencers. Finally, you need to look in to align and define to ensure you're using earned media to maximize impact across the PESO model.


That foundation gives you what you need to implement any crisis situation that arises.


Bottom line? You measure to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Data helps you make confident decisions, whether the the numbers reveal success or failure. After all, there’s strategic intelligence to be had either way.


And in the words of Caitlin Copple Masingill from Oliver Russell, "In PR, it’s not if, but when it happens to you."


There are power plays in PR

And we're going to explore them. What PR situations offer power play potential?

  1. When you spot a possible brand crisis brewing.
  2. When you decide to influence the influencers.
  3. When you see your competition getting major attention.

In each case, research and benchmarking set you up for success. When PR pros know their value and efficacy and are able to communicate it to the rest of their team using the framework of Digital PR, they are ready to make opportunities and control challenges.


Let's break it down, starting with your crisis communication strategy as part of your larger PR strategy. 


Using your crisis strategy as a power play


A PR emergency may be self-inflicted (like when Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk had to settle with the SEC over a tweet he made suggesting he was taking the company private) or entirely outside of the company’s control (would you care for a Tide Pod?).


No matter what industry you are in or how ethically management behaves, it is possible that your brand will suddenly experience an event that results in bad press, poor reviews, and negative social media mentions. When bad news hits online- especially on social media- it can feel like a wildfire.


Crafting a crisis communication strategy is a bit like installing a carbon monoxide detector; you hope you’ll never need it, but will be glad it’s there if you do. For most PR practitioners, potentially devastating news isn’t something you deal with every day, but being prepared to respond is arguably one of PR’s most important responsibilities— particularly in the era of social media virality and relentless 24/7/365 news cycles.


Combine this with the critical role of reputation from the brand itself all the way up to the highest person in the company. CEOs are being compensated, judged, and even fired, based on company and brand reputation. This bodes well for the importance of PR, but also puts a lot of pressure on crisis strategy.


With endless examples of poorly handled situations, we all know there’s no hiding from crisis. Better to be prepared, and re-frame your crisis communication strategy as a power play that you’re ready to run at the speed of Digital PR.


We’ll break down how to prepare that play, how to run it, and how to assess it after it has been run. Let’s dig in.

First: Prep the play

Disaster time is not the time to start using data. The best PR crisis management strategies start with creating baseline measurements for mentions, sentiment, and social sharing. Be sure to gather PR intelligence when things are calm.


As we touched on earlier: Set benchmarks. Define topics important to your brand. Monitor your brand’s place in the conversation. These metrics will also help manage a bad situation. The best way to notice when something has changed is to understand PR metrics that matter and track them over time.


Next, put on your PR practitioner hat and ask: What are the possible forms crisis could take for your business? Brainstorm to gather ideas on possible crisis events.



  • Crises that have already occurred in your industry.

  • Potential ethical or legal pitfalls in your business.

  • Possible risky employee, stakeholder or influencer actions.

  • Product shortages, accidents, defects, or recalls.

  • Business growth, churn, labor relations, or executive turnover.

  • Events beyond human control (weather, fire, world events).


Once you’ve gathered your crisis concepts, brainstorm the language journalists would use to cover such events. These will become your “crisis terms” — terms you can use to monitor for trouble and search for crisis coverage.


You also want to have an idea of which journalists will be covering the crisis in addition to which you can tap to tell your side of the story. Include influencers and brand advocates (both internal and external) in this too, and keep a regularly refreshed list accessible to your team in event of a crisis.



  • Journalists who have written about your brand in the past so you have an existing relationship with them (you are building relationships with your influencers-- right?)
  • Influencers your brand has worked with in the past or whom you are currently working with that can help spread your brand’s message
  • Internal brand advocates, from passionate employees to executives as appropriate
  • External brand advocates, like repeat customers who are not part of an official influencer or advocacy program


You can never expect to control the narrative, but you should be proactive in correcting any misinformation being spread and sharing your brand’s message. The right journalists and influencers can help boost that message while also underwriting it with their own authority in the eyes of their audiences. Tapping internal and external influencers can also help correct misinformation, especially if it’s a story about your brand (as opposed to one about your industry your brand gets pulled into, or an influencer your brand is working with or has worked with in the past). Just be careful in activating employees since this can also backfire if everyone assumes they’re speaking out only in order to preserve their job and not out of sincerity.


These are powerful ways to counteract a crisis strategy and a compelling reason for keeping these lists updated and accessible to your team.


The final step in prepping your power play is to set up your crisis strategy team and the processes for your brand. Any internal bottleneck that impedes decision-making or the flow of communication is detrimental during a crisis. Before crisis hits, among other things, you need to answer the following questions:


  • Who will be on the crisis comms call list?
  • Who will be our key spokespeople and who are our subject matter experts?
  • If any one of the people we have listed is unreachable, who do we turn to next?
  • Are there external influencers or brand advocates we can turn to for help?
  • What about internal influencers or brand advocates?
  • What channels will we use to reach customers, investors, or critical external constituencies?
  • What are our communications guidelines and who is responsible for enforcing them?
  • What are the approval processes for crisis announcements?


Again, before there’s a crisis: Ensure that your executives — including your crisis comms team — understand the PR metrics that matter, and are accustomed to consuming timely PR reports to assess brand reputation and more.


Agreement about what to measure and why it matters will be invaluable under crisis pressure when decisions have to be made quickly.


What comes next? It's time to run the play, then assess how things went. We'll also run through a real-world example.

Here’s how you Run the play


Having a comprehensive monitoring system in place across social, prioritizing the platforms that are most important to your brand means you won’t miss anything. Then you can decide what you need to engage with and what you need to communicate.


We’ll break down the areas to concentrate on.

Start with monitoring  


Be on the alert. The first rule of crisis comms is to know when there’s a crisis. In a world of turbulent news, early detection counts, but it's also important to look deeper before reacting. What’s being said and by whom? Gauge impact in terms of visibility, readership, and social reach. Is the negative coverage a mere annoyance or a growing catastrophe that requires an immediate response?


Let the scale of the situation shape your response and take the time to understand the scope of it before you respond. Remember, your best response might be NO response.


Be fully informed. Early detection is great, but immediate response is not. Before you proceed, make a list of what you know and don’t know — then fill in those blanks. It’s OK to issue a placeholder statement. Let people know your brand is aware of what’s transpired, and will have more to say soon.


Tempted to jump in the instant crisis breaks? Don’t do it. A fast response won’t slow the spread of bad news, but an ill-informed response could certainly make things worse.

Engage where necessary


Be checking in. This is where influencing the influencers kicks into high gear. Check how the story is playing with your content creation community — people who’ve been quoted about, written an article about, or talked meaningfully with you about your brand.

Are they echoing your existing brand narrative or amplifying the new, crisis-related one?


Gauge the reaction of friends, critics, and familiars. These content creators have worthwhile context on your brand, and their reactions are informed reactions. Their concerns- or lack of concern- can help guide your response.


Be vocal. Don’t be shy in times of need. Ask top influencers — people who support your brand’s mission and vision — for active help. If everyone else is buzzing about the crisis, ask brand advocates to remind networks why they became fans in the first place. These people may be willing to offer quotes you can use in your own materials or give to journalists.


During hard times, getting top influencers to create and share positive content can help readers see there’s more to your brand than crisis headlines suggest.

Communicate as necessary


Be rock steady. When crisis knocks, don’t stop your momentum when it's not necessary; keep operating and tracking your PR programs in flight when appropriate. Do review ongoing efforts to check tone or tenor in light of the crisis. But don’t let the crisis own all your coverage. Keep operating your strategy unless absolutely necessary.


Be the expert. PR should have a seat at the table with the C-suite at all times. In a crisis, PR must provide the data and insights CEOs and other top executives need to navigate the crisis successfully. With data in hand, you are the expert who can define what’s happening and make on-target recommendations as to how the brand should respond.


Practice clarity in reporting before crisis hits. PR can best shape crisis outcomes by providing the clearest possible picture of measurable media and public reaction.


Be the best source. Managing crisis is no fun, but your best bet is to have the conversation on your home turf. On your website, you control the narrative. Control the tone by being the most reliable source on the crisis itself. Change the topic completely by offering OTHER compelling information. Visitors may hit the site for info on the recall or shake-up. Once there, though, they might notice something else that catches their eye.


Search engines like fresh content. Outrank bad news by promoting positive content you control. Refresh your site and optimize for SEO terms you care about.

Let the human side of your brand show


Be empathetic. A PR crisis often means someone has been physically or emotionally hurt, disappointed, or worried. The best responses show legitimate empathy for the people involved. Do the work to optimize your apology.


Empathy will be appreciated. Perhaps your company did nothing wrong — but if people were harmed in any way, it is smart to acknowledge this and show compassion.


Be honest. Crisis deepens when “the coverup is worse than the crime.” In 2018, nothing is  secret. That doesn’t mean you have to share every detail about every situation with the world. It’s best to stick to the most relevant facts — but never lie.


Always assume relevant facts will come to light. Avoid big hits to your brand’s reputation by adding dishonesty to whatever else has already gone wrong.


That’s how you run the play. Here’s how you assess how a play. . .well, played out.

Assess the play

No matter how well you manage today’s crisis, let the event be your teacher. Each situation is unique, but once the dust settles, PR practitioners can analyze both subjective and objective information to better prepare for the future.

On the subjective side, ask questions about how it all went down:


  • Can something like this be prevented?
  • Are new procedures needed to shore up a weakness?
  • Do relations with customers, employees, community, or other stakeholders need improvement?
  • How could we have responded better?
  • Did everyone involved in our response understand and fulfill their responsibilities?


On the objective side, PR can measure how the crisis is impacted- or continues to impact- the brand over time. Some bad situations hit hard and fizzle fast. Others may linger and do more lasting damage.


You can help executives answer immediate and ongoing questions, including:


1. Are people still talking about the crisis? As you track media mentions, assign a topic or theme so you can compare those about the crisis and your crisis response with your non-crisis coverage. Is non-crisis coverage rising? If so, it’s a good sign folks are moving on.

2. How do they feel about the crisis? About us? Is this focused on the brand overall, or on a single person associated with the brand, like an influencer or C-level executive? What’s the prevailing sentiment in each mention category? How is sentiment trending over time? If crisis coverage is going down, great. If crisis coverage is still high, what aspect is still under discussion, and what is the tone of that coverage? If your brand is getting positive notice for the way you handled things, that’s a win.

3. Are they noticing other things about us? If so, what? Social sharing is a good proxy for audience engagement. When you get positive, non-crisis coverage, check the number of shares. This tells you whether positive stories are resonating with your most important audiences despite the crisis, and also helps you assess what OTHER information you have to offer is most compelling in the wake of the crisis.


Trends across key metrics can help you determine whether a sustained program is needed to repair crisis damage, or if a few quick actions will do. A PR intelligence platform like TrendKite can also help you see how effective PR activity is in resetting brand reputation, driving new traffic to your website, or even converting as new customers.


Obviously, the best crisis scenario is to avoid a crisis in the first place— but that’s usually out of your hands. What you can do is get the right strategy and tools in place so that when things go awry, you can jump into the action feeling prepared.

Real world crisis communications: Tide Pod Challenge

Tide Pods are like a dishwashing pod, but for your laundry. Less of a mess than measuring out liquid detergent, right? This revolutionary concept in laundry has encountered a few problems on entering the marketplace, however. The brightly colored pods tended to attract little kids, and we all know little kids put stuff they like into their mouths.


Tide made changes in both packaging and product design, with fixes from prominent poison warnings to childproof pouches, to making the pod’s coating thicker and less likely to dissolve on ingesting. But when teens began eating — or pretending to eat — Tide Pods on YouTube as a prank, Tide responded differently.


Teen Tide Pod eaters were misusing the product on purpose and the brand was doing nothing to inspire or encourage this crazy behavior. Still, Tide avoided acrimony and responded to the “crisis” in a way that shut down criticism, and won thoughtful coverage on NPR, in Time Magazine, and more.


The brand put out new content across multiple channels about the safe use of Tide Pods for laundry. Meanwhile, PR teams hit journalists with a thoughtful discussion of the product’s history, and the moves the brand had made to make the pods safer.


Using honesty, they gave content creators thoughts on pod history, and the reasons behind each design choice, from the product’s formulation to its size and color.  


Showing empathy, the brand began responding to Tide Pod eaters (regardless of if eaters may have been joking) with sincere and fervent advice to “call poison control, and let us know when you feel better.”


Crisis Strategy Empathy Tide Pods

Engaging key audiences with humor, the brand released a public service announcement video featuring New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, or “Gronk,” telling teens in no uncertain terms to avoid this particular viral trend.

Crisis Strategy Example Tide Pods


In the end, Tide’s crisis comms play helped changed the conversation. Tide’s honesty helped keep media musings on product design choices neutral-to-positive. Without putting down teens or making light of the situation, Tide’s empathy and engagement helped everyone focus on the sometimes strange combination of teen behavior and social media.


Brands still need to realize that they can’t control the conversation; here’s what the #TidePodChallenge looked like on Twitter vs. the conversation around Tide at the Super Bowl the same year (this data is from TrendKite Social’s Echo):


How TrendKite can help in a crisis: The TrendKite crisis comms dashboard


A recent study from Deloitte noted that of the CEOs and board members surveyed:

“Roughly half of respondents lack the ability to detect, monitor, and analyze reputation risks. More than 50% of leaders lack a plan to develop or acquire tools to address reputational risks, including crisis response capabilities. While leaders recognize the importance of reputational risks, they’re not completely aligned on which risks pose the greatest threats.”

 Be the smarter half of that pack. Find the platform that’s right for your brand. You need a comprehensive solution that can not only monitor the key crisis terms you’ve identified, but help you identify and build relationships with journalists and other influencers, in addition to benchmarking your metrics so you can optimize your PR strategy over time.


TrendKite can do all of this, and more. Once you’ve sat down with your team to consider the possible forms crisis could take for your business, set up a customized TrendKite dashboard to be ready to manage and respond in the instance of a crisis.


Start by combining your brand name with crisis terms you’ve brainstormed; monitor these over time and drill into any relevant coverage that’s detected. Set up alerts to notify you in real-time if there are spikes in coverage across all mediums, including social. (This is, after all, where most crises are made and communications deployed in response.)


You want to identify a “crisis bucket”- a group of 20-50 journalists, contributors, social and thought leaders; all different kinds of influencers in their own way- you’ll use to gauge reaction in the event of crisis. You can tag the group and monitor their latest content all in your TrendKite dashboard. Keep this list updated and make an effort to nurture these relationships over time.


How? Use Pinpoint Contacts to cut through the noise and reach the journalists who are the most relevant to your brand and situation, then use Story Kit to send them everything they need in one place— a place where they can also easily send you feedback and you can see every element you sent that they’ve opened and used. (Bonus? That helps you streamline your pitching process in the future.)


Take this further by tapping into the list of influencers (you know, that bucket?) you’ve prepared. You can always update and supplement this list using TrendKite Influencer Management. Remember that building relationships is the most important element of an influencer strategy; your first ask to someone shouldn’t be to defend you in a crisis.


If you have all of this in place, you’ll feel ready to take any crisis head on. As PR pros like to say, always be prepared.


(You can get even more prepared with our crisis strategy resource page—  it has everything you need before you need it.)

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About Sarah Parker

Sarah A. Parker is the Content Marketing Manager for Cision, planning, producing and curating content across channels. She previously managed content and social media for several different brands, in addition to working as a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @SparkerWorks where she is happy to talk all things social media strategy, the dynamic world of PR, and mastiffs.