3 ways PR pros can weather a crisis and come out on top

These takeaways from a chief communications officer can help you respond to a negative situation in a way that quickly boosts your brand and can get you through the storm.

How to weather a crisis

Crises are an inevitable and often unpleasant part of a PR pros’ life, but they can also serve to strengthen your experience.

When handled the right way, an outstanding crisis response can repair lost trust, diminish skepticism and bolster the organization’s image for what lies ahead.

As the chief communications officer of Clover Health, Jason Alderman uses data analytics and machine learning to help talk about health insurance. In his current role, along with his former executive positions with DraftKings, Visa and Pacific Gas & Electric Company, he also has gained many lessons for how to handle a crisis.

Here are three of his top takeaways to employ the next time you find your organization in the hot seat:

1. Inform your employees first.

“An employee should never learn about a crisis by seeing it in the media before they hear it from you,” Alderman says.

This becomes increasingly more important when the news affects employees, such as big financial announcements, implementing a new business model, store closings and layoffs.

There are many ways communications pros can share crucial information, directives in relation to an ongoing crisis or even negative news with their employees. These include newsletter announcements, intranet or other internal social media channels, meetings with the entire organization and all-staff list serves.

Letting your employees know what’s going on doesn’t require a lengthy message. Rather, be sincere and get to the point.

Alderman says:

I’m a fan of Slack for sharing information quickly with employees. Shouldn’t be long and try to answer every potential critique. Explain what has happened, attach your media statement and say when there will be internal follow up, such as an all hands meeting. Better to be fast and genuine with employees than take too long and try to answer every potential question in advance.

Ultimately, the more transparent you are within your workforce, the better your chances that will reflect positively on your organization’s brand image in times of a crisis.

“Remember that your employees are ambassadors of your company—for better or for worse,” Alderman says. “Even if announcements aren’t shared internally beforehand, employees may be approached by media for their insight. If not armed with some context, employees may respond unpredictably.”

[Learn more from Alderman about navigating crises in the digital landscape at Ragan’s Crisis Communications Conference at Nebraska Medicine, on May 9-10 in Omaha, Nebraska. Speakers from Ben & Jerry’s, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Denver 7, Muck Rack and more will also share insights.]

2. Drop the corporate apology.

Don’t issue an insincere mea culpa unless you want further backlash to accompany your response.

“Sometimes we just need to say sorry, with no ‘if,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts,’” Alderman says. “In life, but the corporate world especially, we often ruin our apologies with excuses.”

Mistakes can happen to any organization and communications team. Alderman says the important part is to immediately own up to those mistakes—and mean it. That means speaking simply and apologizing as sincerely and transparently as possible.

He says:

Be implicitly honest—never use phrases like “I’m going to honest with you.” These phrases imply your past statements have been false. And, never use jargon. Jargon can make an authentic apology sound stilted.

Also outline in your apology what you plan to do to rectify the crisis and then achieve the commitment you set. Otherwise, your words will come across as empty, destroying the work you’ve set out to do in terms of rebuilding trust and your organization’s reputation.

“A sincere apology followed by corrective action often allows for future justification to be heard,” Alderman says. “Right actions in the future are the best apologies for bad actions in the past.”

Taking action can also quiet backlash and help your crisis to end quicker.

Alderman says:

If you’re going to be forced to do the right thing as a company eventually, better to avoid the painful delay and just do it from the outset. You’ll get credit in some quarters for doing the right thing and you’ll likely shorten the duration of the crisis.

3. Be savvy when handling backlash online.

Social media has sped up the already fast-paced news cycle, but it’s also made organization’s communications teams (and sometimes, executives) more accessible to consumers and other stakeholders.

Though this can nurture trust and respect, it also can bring PR and social media pros a headache when a mistake or negative situation goes viral.

Though it can be tempting to switch off your notifications and ride out the storm, interacting with angry consumers can go a long way in repairing your reputation. To effectively communicate with outraged social media users, listen—and don’t escalate already heightened emotions.

Alderman says:

If you can just listen for a while and then respond as your kindergarten teacher did when you had a tantrum, you can likely defuse the situation and move to an area of common ground and respect. That doesn’t mean going down a rabbit hole with a troll, but it does mean you give angry consumers the benefit of the doubt and are always kind, even in the face of petulance and social media snark.

If the consumer or fan won’t let up, don’t get stuck in an endless loop defending your organization. Instead, offer a solution, state your message and move it offline.

Alderman suggests abiding by “the rule of two”:

Oftentimes, angry customers will go back and forth with you on public channels, sometimes escalating unnecessarily. If you stick to just two responses on public channels, you’ll appear responsive and respectful, but not petty or argumentative. Keep in mind that you are the face of a company, not an individual. Beyond two responses ultimately puts you in a position to be perceived in a negative light. Take it offline if more correspondence is needed.

Following this rule of thumb can also help you avoid interacting with social media trolls.

Monitoring online conversations and measuring social media sentiment can also help you stay on top of a crisis situation. However, when employing social media tools (of which there are many), don’t forget to add a human touch.

Alderman says:

My biggest tip is to remember to track sentiment, not just volume. Also, keep in mind that while tools may help aggregate the conversation, it’s important to have someone really immersed, constantly checking in on the tone. Only humans know humans, and by having someone immersed in the commentary, you’ll have a better sense of how to respond in a way that addresses concerns authentically—and doesn’t just appear like a corporate cold shoulder.

You can learn more from Jason Alderman, along with speakers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Nebraska Medicine, Ben & Jerry’s, Omaha Public Schools and more by attending Ragan’s Crisis Communications Conference on May 9-10.


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