There’s only one way to say this. The numbers are scary. The number of headlines denoting a company crisis has nearly doubled when comparing this decade to last, according to McKinsey & Company. Those numbers show that in 2015, corporations paid $59 billion in fines, a more than five-fold increase over the $11 billion paid in 2011. The U.S. auto industry recalled 53 million vehicles in 2016, a staggering 90 percent increase over 2011.

Public relations professionals handle these sorts of crises, and when they do, they have to keep their cool under very stressful circumstances—helping save both small and large businesses from financial ruin. How do you do that? In addition to handling the pressure at the moment, there are six steps you can take beforehand to help you prepare:

1. Have a Plan

It’s funny how the simplest steps are the ones we so often forget. Having a plan should be step one. In times of crisis, what is the first call you’re going to make? Do you have a crisis team ready to distribute your message to the media? Are you prepared to act quickly and decisively so you can control the narrative? These are some of the questions you should be asking now so that you’ll be prepared when crises arise.

Forbes’ piece on crisis communications steps is an excellent read, whether you have a plan in place or not.

2. Research

This is a step to take BEFORE the crisis hits. How have other companies reacted to crises? What did they do well? What were their missteps? PR Daily lays out effective and ineffective strategies. For example, denying that a crisis even took place is fraught with peril since you could damage you and your company’s credibility once the crisis comes to light.

Playing the blame game can also be damaging because you give the impression that you are deflecting the issue at hand instead of proactively solving the problem.

3. Keep Perspective

You’re not the only one who has a point of view on this issue. The media will ask tough questions that you may not wish to answer. And the public will have a viewpoint based on early information. There may even be some internal company strife as people begin to form their own judgments.

To handle these issues and maintain a proper perspective, take a step back and try to understand everyone’s point of view—whether you agree with it or not. The more comprehensive your understanding is, the better you can respond.

4. Be Honest

Leaving out information, skirting the truth, or outright lying is the worst thing you can do. The media and your competitors will eventually uncover the true story. And when that true story comes to light, you will have created another crisis you’ll have to dig out of.

A better approach is to release the information that you know to be accurate. Then, refrain from releasing anything more until you know the truth.

5. Get Ahead of the Issue

This may be the most important step of them all. As soon as you hear of an issue, act fast. Get your perspective out—don’t let others drive the narrative. Even if you don’t have definitive answers, assure your audience that you’re working on a solution and will report back as soon as possible.

Getting ahead of an issue prevents situations from spiraling out of control, and if you can stay several steps ahead of potential issues, you’ll be able to manage any crisis well.

6. Have a Well-Crafted Social Media Plan

“We’ll post updates on Facebook” is not a social media PR plan. A good social media PR plan will help you, and a bad one will cripple you. Research how to use the various platforms to your advantage. For instance, answer these questions to ensure you are using social media optimally: When’s the best time to post content of Facebook? What type of content is best for Instagram? What specific buzz words should we use on Twitter? Should we turn on comments or turn them off? Do we respond to comments? All of these are essential questions to answer if you want to maintain a positive image amidst any PR crisis.

Final thoughts

Take a breath. That’s the first big step. You’re the spokesperson for the company, and you can’t be flustered. You can handle a crisis by having a plan that determines who to call first when the issues arise. Research how other companies have handled crises to find out what works and what does not.

Remember, everyone has their own perspective, so it’s critical to try your best to understand them. Be honest. Don’t avoid or evade problems, and if you don’t know an answer, say so. Getting ahead of an issue means you stand a better chance at controlling the narrative, and social media can be your friend (or your enemy if you have a bad plan).

These simple steps will put you on the road to staying calm during a PR crisis. What steps do you suggest for handling a PR crisis efficiently?

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Martha Brown

Martha Brown is a freelance reporter and researcher. She has over 15 years of experience working in public relations for some of the world's top firms. She writes about PR, professional relationships, and careers for several websites. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

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