It happens to the best of us. You’re going along with daily operations as usual, and then someone makes a mistake, or there’s an unfortunate misunderstanding or miscommunication and all of the sudden you’re plunged into a PR crisis, no lifeboat in sight. 

The longer you’re in business, the more it becomes apparent that no one is impervious to a PR nightmare. While there is certainly a spectrum when it comes to just how bad the crisis is, if it’s your business — and your reputation — on the line, then even a minor misstep can seem like a major catastrophe. The key to getting ahead of it? Don’t panic, and start acting right away to win back the trust of your stakeholders and customers.

There is no one trick for managing a PR crisis. Instead, you need to have a coordinated plan of attack that acknowledges both your own needs and the needs of the people who you are trying to impact with your outreach. Read on for four steps that will help you take control during a PR crisis and steer your company back to calmer waters.

Step #1: Assemble Your Crisis Management Team

Depending on past experiences and the size of your company, you may or may not already have a crisis management team ready to go. If you do, great — get everyone into action. If not, pull aside a few key people who are most engaged with your PR/media relations strategy and set them to work.

A crisis management team is critical for responding to the immediate fallout from the crisis as well as ongoing reputation maintenance. Their first order of business is going to be getting a full understanding of what happened. From there, they should strategize a response plan and then facilitate all actions needed to put it into practice.

Not sure exactly who should be on your crisis management team? To make sure it’s most effective, choose a variety of people who are experts in your business identity and outreach. This includes:

  •  Department heads
  • Customer service reps
  • Media advisors and/or marketing managers

The sooner your crisis management team can get to work, the better. Mobilize your team members as soon as you become aware of a crisis, even if you don’t understand its scope yet.

Step #2: Act – and Fast

Timing is key when it comes to how you respond to a PR crisis. Research shows that the longer a brand waits to act, the more likely they are to lose customers in both the short and long term. 

A rapid PR strategy in the face of a PR fiasco is necessary for maintaining a positive brand reputation, both in the immediate aftermath of the situation and for the long haul. While you certainly need to put some thought into what your response is going to be, don’t let indecision hold you back. Come up with a plan right away, and then put it into action — there is no time to waste.

Step #3: Get Everyone on the Same Page

Your crisis management team is on the front lines of the clean-up efforts, but your entire company needs to be privy to what’s going on and why. Send out a company-wide email outlining your strategy and filling your employees in on what their own role in crisis management is, including where they should direct any questions or comments that they receive about the situation.

Presenting a united front is crucial, as is having a cohesive strategy enacted from both the top and bottom of the ladder. Not every employee will have a direct role to play, but you’re all still in this together.

Step #4: Be Transparent and Keep the Lines of Communication Open

This is no time to mince words or wiggle around the facts. Be as transparent as you can in your communications with stakeholders and customers, and provide regular updates on how you’re handling the situation so that people on all ends can see just how seriously you are taking it. Nobody likes to be lied to, and nobody likes to feel like they aren’t being heard. The more you can engage with the people whose trust you are working to win back, the more headway you’ll make toward switching perceptions back to your favor.

Not all companies survive a PR crisis. To make sure you’re one of the lucky ones, follow the advice above and never assume that you can just sweep a PR problem under the rug and hope that it goes away. Your brand is only as strong as your reputation, and you need to protect it with as much strength as you protect your bottom line. Go in with a plan, and you should eventually come out on top.