March Twitter Chat Highlights: Crisis Communications

We’d like to thank everyone who participated in the March #NPPRSA Twitter chat focused on crisis communications planning. We discussed what is required for any thorough crisis communications plan, which departments to include and how to prepare employees.

PRSA Twitter Chat Highlights: Crisis CommunicationsSpecifically, we’d like to thank Valerie Merahn Simon, senior marketing executive and Director of Marketing Communications for Plymouth Rock Assurance. She is also the co-founder of the #HAPPO and #PRStudChat Twitter chats.

Join us again on April 3 for our next #NPPRSA chat and stay up-to-date with PRSA New Professionals on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Review highlights of the chat below. What did you learn from the March chat? How can you plan for unanticipated events for your brand? What methods can you use to prepare co-workers and executives for dealing with the public? Who can you collaborate with or who should you include in a crisis plan?



Lauren Rosenbaum

Lauren Rosenbaum is the PRSA New Professionals Social Media Co-Chair and Co-Founder of Soversity, a public relations and digital marketing company. You can connect with her on Google+LinkedIn or Twitter.



Crisis PR: A Winning Decision

Crises have never been as transparent and ubiquitous as in this millennium. It requires a skilled person to manage information during a crisis, as well as to predict and plan for a future one. Within three months of my internship with The Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries located in St. Louis, I created a crisis communications plan that has since been implemented throughout the organization.

If you find yourself working for an organization that does not yet have a crisis communication plan in place, consider being the person who develops one. Doing so is a definite challenge, but it brings with it several specific rewards – such as

  • Gain access to people at all levels and functions within the organization.

When I was tasked with developing this plan,  I began by generating a list of potential threats. I formed this list by talking to everyone throughout the organization, which was a great excuse to formally meet all the staff and interact with them on a personal level. From the janitor to the CEO, each will have a unique perspective and invaluable input that can change the course of a company in crisis.

  • Put yourself in a role that lets you educate employees and advance the company’s best interests.

One of the biggest challenges faced by public relations professionals is validating our projects and efforts. This is as true as ever in crisis communications (at least, until a crisis happens); employees may not understand why a crisis communication plan is important, and this will be your first hurdle in creating one that’s effective. You must be able to explain three things: why communication is important, the difference between the court of law and the court of public opinion, and how having a solid crisis communication plan in place will affect an organization’s bottom line. Once you get everyone on the same page, you’ll be in a position to move the company forward and gain genuine respect.

  • Be a change agent who strengthens the organization in a visible and concrete way.

No one wants to admit that there are weaknesses in their organization, and they most certainly do not want to discuss them. However, weaknesses exist in every organization and cannot be ignored. Talking to colleagues throughout the organization showed me that most had never thought about that “worst case scenario” in their respective functions. They expressed concern because there were potential incidents that they felt unprepared to handle. These are the things you must uncover and address in your plan, in order to strengthen the organization in a real and effective way that’s felt by employees at all levels and in all areas.

  • Learn to plan ahead and gain a crisis-ready mindset.

Crisis happens quickly and never as anticipated. When writing a crisis plan, you have a unique opportunity to visualize what the day of a crisis will be like. What are you most likely to overlook? What do you need to do so you gain a comfortable level of control? What will be the most stressful part of a specific crisis? What will be your first reaction? These questions are just the start of what it takes to really focus in on a crisis situation. Without ever being in a crisis, writing a plan and practicing it is the closest you will ever be to the real thing.

  • Add a unique and desirable skill set to your resume.

Get those hands dirty! While this tip may be worn out, it is something worth repeating. You have to make sure to challenge yourself during your internships and jobs. It teaches you a great deal about yourself and especially about your capabilities. Building a crisis communication plan will help you to develop a skill set that not everyone in public relations has, and it will teach you things that will undoubtedly come in handy down the road.

No matter the reason for your interest in crisis communication, remember that you have chosen one of the most intense aspects of our profession.  Do not be nervous; embrace the challenge and make the most out of it. Accepting this challenge gave me irreplaceable experience and helped me become invaluable to my organization. Next challenge, please!

Robert Fischer was adopted from Guatemala, raised in St. Louis and now resides in Los Angeles.  With a passion for localized talent, he graduated with a degree in public relations at the University of Central Missouri.  He works in the music industry, representing local bands, and hopes to expand to entertainment and fashion clients. Find out more about Robert by visiting

Intro to Crisis Communications

Almost 17 years ago, I started my career in public relations after a five-year stint as a trade journalist.  Since I have a social butterfly/people-person personality, I thought PR was all about mingling with the celebrities, traveling and promoting great news journalists were sure to write about.  After I took off my rose-colored glasses, I realized PR wasn’t always peaches and cream and often involved using skill sets like crisis communications to protect my company’s image and brand.

I started my career in technology PR and quickly discovered strategic crisis communications were must-have skills to survive in one of the most stressful jobs in the professional landscape. Why do you ask?  At most of the companies I worked for in the telecommunications segment in the 1990s, acquisitions, restructurings, layoffs and management upheavals were commonplace. Therefore, it was essential for me to develop crisis communications skills early on in my career to prepare my company for the worst.  Thinking on my feet, developing strategic counseling and planning skills were drilled into my DNA as a PR professional early on.

Fast forward to the last few years. What’s been the big trend in PR?  Whether you are a new PR or veteran PR professional, no one can forget the crises that have affected big companies like Chick-fil-A, BP, News Corp., Penn State, Netflix and HP. The common theme in many of these crises is that the PR and marketing teams didn’t develop solid communications plans to react to the media quickly enough and preserve their brand’s image.  Whether your company is in the technology, healthcare or travel and tourism field, you always need to be prepared for potential situations involving lawsuits, accusations of impropriety, sudden changes in management and other volatile situations on which your stakeholders — and the media that serves them — often focus.

Crisis communications is at the heart of my current job today.  My company provides essential information that helps customers across all industries and government predict, assess and manage risk. We provide products and services that address evolving client needs in the risk sector, while upholding the highest standards of security and privacy.  To that end, upholding my company’s standards of compliance in a highly-regulated industry is a natural extension of why crisis communications is so important.

For me, every day is different.  I have to stay on top of what’s happening with my company in the media landscape by reading and studying trends, including privacy and security changes, regulatory and compliance issues, to name a few.  In addition, I avidly monitor the news and potential crises through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.  In a highly-regulated business like mine, it’s essential to respond appropriately to media inquiries as well.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is helping our spokespeople and marketing teams develop strategic messages that help protect, preserve and raise our brand in key markets like financial services, government and insurance – ultimately so we can influence the key influencers – the media and analyst community.

Therefore, developing an issues or crisis communications playbook is the way our small communications team prepares for a potential crisis that could involve a technology issue, an executive appointment, a natural disaster or on-site employee issue.  This is our guide or instruction book for communicating quickly and decisivively to our key publics, including the media, the industry analysts, partners and customers, charities and investors.

Change continues to be the only constant in my job.  However, here are five for new professionals looking to add crisis communications skills into their careers:

  1. Take courses on crisis communications through PRSA and other outlets like PR News.  The only way to effectively learn how to become an effect crisis communications pro is by learning from the experts who have years of experience managing them the right way.
  2. Ask your key spokespeople what the five biggest risks would be to your organization’s business.  Asking the hard questions and preparing the answers to potential risks your organization faces, will help you prepare your talking points, Q&As and issues management playbook in the event a crisis happens.
  3. Study what has happened with some of the biggest PR crises over the last few years and learn from their mistakes.  Mistakes are bound to happen in the PR profession because communications aren’t always effectively managed or rolled out. But you can magnify those mistakes by a magnitude of 10 when a crisis is mishandled. So you can learn from what other companies or organizations have done to repair or resurrect their images and brands in the wake of disasters that will help you in the long run.
  4. Put your crisis communications skills into practice.  Start small by simulating a crisis communications drill.  Once your crisis playbook is developed, set up a war room and temporary phone lines and prepare your spokespeople to be trained to take questions from the media.  Practice makes perfect and drills help to make sure you are properly prepared if a true disaster happens.

Crisis communications is far and away one of the most difficult PR skill sets to master, but you need to learn to be prepared in case your company has to deal with a crisis.


Stephen LoudermilkStephen Loudermilk is global media and analyst relations director at LexisNexis, where he heads communications for the company’s Business Services and Screening practices.  In his spare time, he is actively involved in PRSA, where he serves as chairman of the Technology Section and treasurer of the PRSA Southeast District.

pr strategy… Do’s and Don’ts of Crisis Communication Management by Travis K. Kircher

It was an undercover drug bust gone bad.

In the early morning hours of January 3, 2004, Police Detective Darren Richards (not his real name) was about to arrest a suspect who had allegedly tried to sell him narcotics in a convenience store parking lot. But 19-year-old Frederick Sizzle (also not his real name) decided he wasn’t going to be taken easily. They struggled. Richards drew his weapon. Sizzle tried to take it and an errant shot struck the pavement. Somehow Sizzle managed to fight Detective Richards off and he headed toward a nearby vehicle.

He never made it.

A few minutes later, Sizzle was dead with three bullets in his back.

The facts of the case are disputed. Detective Richards claimed he shot Sizzle out of self-defense when he thought he was reaching for a pistol. Eyewitnesses claim Sizzle never reached for anything and was in full retreat. A handgun was discovered in the waistband of Sizzle’s pants.

Additional facts: Frederick Sizzle was African American. Detective Darren Richards was Caucasian.

The case ignited a powder keg of racial tension in the city. The public was already on edge over a handful of previous police shootings that some said were questionable. As a result, local civil rights leaders scheduled weekly protests at police headquarters. They held several press conferences, along with Sizzle’s family, over a period of weeks, each hammering home their belief that Detective Richards was a trigger-happy, racist cop who was just looking for an excuse to shoot an African American. Before it was over, the riot gear was out, four protestors had been arrested and the police chief’s office window had been shattered.

The police department, on the other hand, refused to comment on a pending investigation. Detective Richards and his family refused to speak to the media on the advice of his attorney. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office soon announced that a grand jury would be convened to determine whether Richards should be tried on murder charges.

* * *

That was the state of the case one Saturday weeks after the shooting. As an assignment editor at our local television news station, I had to find a story for our nightside crew, including a reporter and photographer, to cover. The choice seemed obvious: The day before, we’d received a press release from Detective Richard’s family indicating that a rally would be held in support of him. It looked as though we might finally be able to hear from his family to get their side of the story.

I quickly picked up the phone and dialed the contact number on the release. When a family member answered, I told them our news crew planned to be there and would love to speak with Richard’s friends and supporters.

His answer? I’m paraphrasing:

“We don’t want you there. We know how you hacks are in the liberal, drive-by media. You never want to tell our side of the story! All you want to do is trash the cops!”

I told him that the reason we hadn’t been able to tell their side of the story was because no one on their side would come forward to tell it, and that this would be the perfect opportunity to do just that.

“Yeah whatever,” he said (I’m paraphrasing again.) “We don’t want you anywhere on the property. It’s a closed-door meeting. Stay away from us!”

We did, and that night we ended up covering a different story that was so insignificant I can’t remember what it was. That conversation stands out to me as one of the more startling examples of how NOT to handle the media during a crisis. It was a bit confusing because (a) they had sent us a press release about the event, (b) nowhere on that release did it say it was a closed door event, and most importantly, (c) in the process of attempting to get their side of the story, we were accused of not being interested in getting their side of the story.

Did the conversation bias us toward the case one way or another? Certainly not.

Did it affect our ability to cover the story completely? It might have appeared that way to the viewer. When one side is talking while the other is mum, the tight-lipped often find public opinion rapidly turning against them.

When it comes to PR, there is a time for silence, but this wasn’t it.

How can folks who find themselves in similar situations respond more effectively?

1. Get a spokesperson. This doesn’t necessarily mean retaining the services of PR firm, but a good spokesperson has to have a basic understanding of the art of public relations. They also have to be able to build good relationships with the media. Sending conflicting messages and firing off accusations against them does nothing to accomplish that goal.

2. If you can’t comment on the case particulars, don’t—but say why. Some departmental policies or legal situations mandate silence, but the public often doesn’t understand this. In this case, the spokesman could have made this clearer: “Detective Richards is eager to explain what happened that night, but his hands are tied by police department policies that restrict public comments during internal investigations. He looks forward to the day when he’ll be able to talk more freely.”

3. Reach out to friends. He may not have been able to comment on what happened on the night in question, but Detective Richards was former U.S. Marine and a five-year police veteran. Perhaps there are citizens who could tell how his quick-thinking and brave response protected them from crime over the years. Perhaps Richards had African American friends and colleagues who could speak out in his defense and refute charges that he was racist. Friends, family members, old schoolmates, sports league teammates, fellow church members—all of these could work together, with the supervision of the spokesman, to paint a much more balanced picture in the mind of the public.

4. Get a good picture. When a major story like this one breaks, one of the first things the media is going to be asking for are pictures. They’ll want images of the suspect and any cops involved. In some cases, a single image can define an individual throughout any follow-up coverage in the weeks and months ahead. Whenever that story is mentioned, even in passing, stations will throw that image up. That can be a major problem if the only image the media has is an unflattering one—or worse yet—a mugshot. If this is the case, it’s important to have a more flattering picture and offer it to the media as an alternative on Day One.

5. Make sure statements or press releases are clear. When the media receives a news release, the immediate assumption is that the people sending the releases are looking for coverage. If you’re announcing a closed-door event, make sure the release makes it clear that it’s private and media will not be allowed on the premises. Otherwise, don’t send the release at all. Above all be truthful. Show the positive aspects of your case, but don’t spin or make dishonest statements.

“Detective Richards” was eventually tried for murder and found Not Guilty. He has since moved on with his life and his career. Had his supporters understood public relations more fully, his time in the limelight might have been less painful.

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is a former TV news assignment editor and founder of WriteNow Creative Services LLC. He can be reached at