Practice For A Crisis PR Situation

Posted in Marketing, PR by David Oates

Practice for a crisis PR situation: this seems like a counterintuitive statement.

How can one practice for a crisis? More to the point, wouldn’t prudence dictate that organizations should spend that time avoiding getting into a sticky situation in the first place?

Well, sure, if a perfect world existed. However, we live in a one populated by humans who, even with the best of intentions, make mistakes. Take the recent Delta Airlines mishap when flight attendants made a rather embarrassing faux pas by forcing a family off one of their flights by citing a regulation that required their two-year-old to sit on a parent’s lap for the long Maui to Los Angeles flight. It turns out that the rule doesn’t exist and the family posted a video.


To Delta’s credit, and probably keen sense of trying to not look like another United, they sprang into quick action once the video went viral. The company issued a formal apology within hours. The airline also reimbursed the family for their flight and provided additional compensation. While the family remains understandably irked at the matter, and Delta’s taking some well-deserved hits in the media, the airline’s response ensured that the Crisis PR situation isn’t an even more expensive problem.

Best-Practices for Crisis PR

Delta’s actions didn’t come about completely by improv. While I don’t hold any inside knowledge of the airline’s operations, I can tell you from a couple of decades of experience that their timely and appropriate response soon after the video was posted came about because they’ve practiced what to do when this kind of incident occurs. Granted no one can predict the exact circumstances involved in every situation, but that doesn’t mean general plans can’t be created to work through practically every kind of circumstance.

Think of it like creating an offensive playbook for a football team. There are roles, responsibilities and actions to perform in a variety of situations. Practicing for them, though, doesn’t limit the ability — or for that matter the need — to improvise. Quarterbacks call audibles at the line of scrimmage all the time, and so can the leadership team of companies dealing in a Crisis PR situation. Organizations can’t modify a plan, however, if they don’t practice the playbook, let alone have one.

If your company is having a hard time knowing where to begin planning for the next Crisis PR situation, here are a few steps.
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Step One for Crisis PR

Brainstorm the general things that could go wrong. This is helpful in grouping Crisis PR matters into broad categories, such as ones that are employee related, customer-centric, operational breakdowns, logistics, IT/cyber-related and others. From there, you can create frameworks to deal with those issues, customizing the plans to specific actions.

Step Two for Crisis PR

Identify the specific internal roles and responsibilities. Outline the policies and practices that determine who will be notified of a developing matter and when. Specify these individuals by name if possible. It’s also a good idea to identify secondary contacts should the primary person be unavailable.

Step Three for Crisis PR

Identify the key corporate messages to convey. This will most certainly not be all encompassing, but a good start to ensure that the organization practices key points to articulate for each audience segment; employees, customers, stakeholders and media.

Step Four for Crisis PR

Set aside time to practice. Hold scheduled as well as unscheduled training sessions to test the ability of the entire team to respond to a Crisis PR matter. This is arguably the most important part of ensuring that organization can deal with such situations. Practicing for a wide range of contingencies will not only help you deal with those matters well but for other instances that your organization may not have ever thought you’d encounter. Mix up the elements of the incidents to test the team’s capability to think critically and call audibles.

The key takeaway here is for organizations to understand that they not only can they plan for a Crisis PR matter, but should. Moreover, training for such occurrences is essential if you are to recover from them well.

About David Oates

David Oates, APR, is Founder and President of Stalwart Communications, a Pay-On-Performance PR and Marketing Agency. He possesses 20 years of extensive experience directing marketing and public relations programs on a tactical and strategic level through a long and successful career that spans both agency, corporate and military environments. David is an accredited public relations expert affiliated with the Public Relations Society of America. He can be reached at
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