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PR Strategy

PR Veteran Shares 5 Crisis Management Tips

June 28, 2016 11:00 AM
Sean Couch

Sean Couch

Sean is a digital marketing swiss army knife with a diverse background working for various technology startups in Austin. Now leading content marketing at TrendKite.



Every brand or company is vulnerable to a crisis. If you don't have a plan or know how to ask the right questions, your stakeholders will suffer as a result. We sat down with Bill Coletti, CEO of Kith Consulting, a PR crisis management veteran with over 20 years of experience, who shared some vital knowledge.

1. What would you classify as a crisis in PR and what are the objectives in crisis communications?

A crisis is anytime there is an unexpected event that impacts a company or an industry and has the potential to gain a great deal of public attention. The objectives really depend upon what type of crisis it is. We identify three categories of crisis: strategic, preventable, and external.

Strategic are things you intended to do, but people were confused by. Preventable are things you should have a zero tolerance for that you did not intend to do. And external are things like weather or an active shooter situation that are out of your control.

The way to handle each type of situation is somewhat different, but generally speaking, you need to respond quickly and try to get back to normal as fast as possible.

2. What are the most common mistakes brands makes when handling a crisis?

Not responding is the most common mistake brands make when handling a crisis or not understanding that people do care. Another big mistake that companies make is that they don't use their employees. By not doing so, they are not using their key stakeholders as ambassadors.

And a final error is not being able to determine smoke from fire when listening to media (social and traditional.) Often we hear comments like “this is blowing up on Twitter.” As a communicator I have no idea what that means. Companies need a tool that clarifies the noise and highlights the issues and influencers that matter.

3. Are some industries or companies more prone to crisis?

I don't know if certain industries are more prone. Certainly, those that are highly regulated have more scrutiny because they provide critical services such as utilities, etc. The food industry is another example of one that really impacts the daily lives of people, particularly when issues like food recalls occur.

Generally speaking, consumer brands because they have so many different things that impact what they do, they generally manage through these relatively well.

The institutions that get impacted by crisis are oftentimes the ones that don't realize they're in a crisis.

4. How do you plan for a crisis?

You plan for a crisis by taking the time without the bright lights on to think about issues and organize them.

We like to use this strategic, preventable and external framework for categorizing potential threats. 

I think at a minimum organizations should prepare a phone tree of who the key decision-makers are and who needs to be involved should a crisis occur. Then do an actual crisis simulation--gather all of your key constituencies from legal, operations, communications and actually simulate a crisis in a desktop setting and walk through it to get everybody’s level of understanding. Follow-up with a debrief to review what worked and what didn’t work.

5. How would you assemble a crisis management dream team?

I think the key to a dream team is to have people with pattern recognition—people who have been involved with crisis issues and have seen them evolve. That’s the most important aspect. We’ve written a lot about pattern recognition and being able to connect the dots.

A dream team would be having the CEO or a business leader who has the clarity and understanding of the organization’s mission to help drive decision-making as opposed to reacting to the situation based on other people’s inputs.

Finally, you need to have a general counsel who understands the long arc of ligation and doesn’t hamper the communications response at the outset because there’s a court of public opinion that the company needs to win as well.

Sean Couch

Sean Couch

Sean is a digital marketing swiss army knife with a diverse background working for various technology startups in Austin. Now leading content marketing at TrendKite.