4 answers

How do you handle or bounce back from a PR crisis?

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As a PR major, should you always assume the worst of any situation in order to be prepared? I feel like we learn a lot about PR in school, but a lot of it is washed down and doesn't always sound as bad as it is. I would like to be prepared for real-life situations. #public-relations

4 answers

Matthew L.’s Answer


Hi Jordan. Great question. Theresa makes some great points about avoiding personal PR crises.

If you are asking how to prepare to handle a professional client's PR crisis, that's more complicated. Some PR professionals do specialize in handling a PR crisis that arises for a company, an executive, a celebrity or a politician. If they don't handle it right for the client, they can lose their jobs, families and friends.

The best PR people are able to think quickly and think on their feet. You can't be afraid to tell the person or company you represent what you think. Chances are they're going to be in panic mode and watching their company, career, marriage, and finances all go down the drain at once. This is incredibly stressful and they usually won't be thinking rationally. That's what the PR pro is there for.

One of the best learning tools you have is just watching how people in the public eye are handling crises that hit them. You can always find a company or politician or actor that is having a problem. Usually they have someone who stands out in front and handles the media. Watch how they handle things.

For example, you're lucky right now (or unlucky) that there seem to be a ton of PR crises going on all around us. All the sexual harassment allegations that are coming out of Hollywood and Washington DC are excellent examples of how to handle (and how not to handle) a PR crises. As we've seen it's very easy for a powerful person like Harvey Weinstein or Steve Wynn to lose control of their companies that they themselves built.

Luckily we also have the internet so you can easily also look back and see how well or how poorly some people handled PR crises that they were faced with. Look at things like videos, press releases, and newspaper articles. Try to watch and read things in chronological order so you can get a sense of how the story unfolds and how the PR spin changes, depending on what is going on in the press and with public opinion. For politicians, check out their favorability polls from before, during and a few years after.

Some great events that I would suggest you look at are:

  1. The Deepwater Horizon Disaster - This happened a few years ago (there is a new movie out too). It involved an oil rig that blew up and leaked a ton of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for a long time before they could fix it. British Petroleum did some things well and some things not. Senior management at BP were indicted criminally. Does not get much worse. See how the PR people handled it.
  2. The Las Vegas Shooting - The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas is another interesting one. The most interesting aspects are how the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Vegas police department have handled all the attention. It's very sad and horrible, so if you don't care to read about this one I don't blame you.
  3. The Bill Clinton Impeachment - Incredibly interesting study in how how professional politicians handle scandal that they created. Clinton had many really good, smart people handling the spin. Worth watching again. He's popular again so it worked.
  4. The Current FBI Scandal - This one is ongoing and it's interesting to see how a real PR crisis unfolds. It's particular interesting to watch the drip, drip, drip of new facts come out just when you think it can't get any worse it does.
  5. Britney Spears' or Amanda Bynes' Meltdowns - Classic.

There are plenty of other good crises out there to study. Find some that appeal to you.

Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:

  • Compare similar events and see what the different outcomes were for the celebrities, politicians and executives involved.
  • Find some big scandals from the past. Read news reports, press releases and watch videos in chronological order to see how the professional PRs handled things.

Robert (Rob)’s Answer



The good news is that as a PR professional, unless you specifically decide to focus on crisis communications, the liklihood of having to deal with a major crisis is relatively slim. That being said, it can happen. In my 20+ year career in Public Relations and Communications I've had to deal with one major crisis (an incident of workplace violence). The good news is that the company bounced back and is doing well.

The three biggest factors in making it through a crisis in a position to bounce back are planning, transparency and flexibility.

Planning: Develop a comprehensive crisis communications plan; involve the right people and ensure they know their roles in case a crisis hits (remember that a major crisis isn't just a communications issue - tap the resources you may need such as legal, product development, HR, etc.); develop a message framework that can be rapidly fleshed out as information is gathered; identify the right spokespeople and ensure they are prepared to deliver information in as timely a manner as possible for as long as the crisis exists.

Transparency: Be as honest as possible; if you're in the wrong, accept responsibility and apologize; don't try to shift blame; if appropriate, outline plans to address the root cause of the crisis, even if it wasn't strictly your fault; keep the lines of communication open and continue to answer all of the questions you can; don't go silent.

Flexibility: Remember that things don't always go according to plan; be prepared to pivot if necessary; adapt the plan based on new information; Don't panic.

Theresa’s Answer

First, know yourself. Make up your mind early that, for instance, you never swear on the job. Period. Or you never talk about anyone negatively with anyone else at work. Period. If you want to talk about someone, wait til you get home. Make these rules for yourself and never break them. It will save you more trouble than I can tell you.

Rick’s Answer


First a great PR person handles each situation the exact same especially when it's a crisis. The calm cool head is what you need to develop so that you can deal with a crisis when it comes time. Having a crisis plan is the next step in being ready to handle a PR crisis but that's an entirely different discussion.