The Basics of Putting Out a Fire: Crisis Management 101


When you find yourself unwittingly in a PR crisis, do you know what to do? Warning: the instinctive actions you would normally take to defend yourself are diametrically opposite to what it really takes to get out alive.

Look at these two groups of companies and compare them:


  • Amazon
  • Google
  • Walt Disney World
  • Publix


  • United Airlines
  • Goldman Sachs
  • Monsanto
  • Comcast

One of the things you might have considered about was that Group 1 were companies with a positive brand image and Group 2 had a negative brand image. You may also notice that the companies in Group 1 are successful, expanding and in some cases, at the top of their respective markets. Those two comparisons hold weight with each other and provides insight into what divides the “good” from the “bad.” (1)

Excellent brand image is a crucial aspect for a business. Without it, companies struggle to get new clients in the door and lose existing customers to competitors. All you need to do to see this is look in a comment section of social media post regarding a company after their brand image has taken a blow from a crisis. It is U.G.L.Y.

A “crisis” in PR is an event that takes place that negatively impacts the brand image of company. It doesn’t matter if it was fair or even true. It is a situation that warps the public’s perspective of a group. It can be a negative-perception issue that starts small, but grows out of control within hours if not taken care of with expediency. A crisis could be large or volatile enough to destroy a company. But, surprisingly, it is not something that is dealt with inside PR firms around the world on a weekly basis. Crisis Management PR is an entire specialized field of Public Relations that requires its own set of codified rules and acumen to handle crises effectively – and I would gander less than 10% of the PR Firms in the world actually handle Crisis Management.

[Aside: We’ve showcased many PR crises in this blog if you want to read about some of the headlining stories.]

While TV shows often portray PR professionals in a crisis as cold-hearted and only wanting to “hush people up,” that is not how real PR pros operate. In fact, it’s the opposite. There is an emphasis on honest and real communication that is backed by the hard facts of a state of affairs. The speed of your message, the facts and even supporting documents can put out a majority of the fire crises start, if done correctly with the right timing. If not done well, or done at all, crises tend to whip up more drama than what truly occurred.

There are hard-bound rules in Crisis Management that if not complied with exactly as prescribed, will destroy a brand.  In fact, Crisis Management PR methods are the polar-opposite of what someone’s natural impulse is to defend or protect his or her reputation. The reality is, if you do those actions you will end up in more hot water than you were originally in. Even PRs get it wrong and advise their clients incorrectly, leading them to total failure or lost revenues and a tarnished reputation that take enormous amounts of money to repair. I cannot warn this strong enough, only deal with Crisis Management Specialists at those critical times and not a “general” PR professional.

What are two of the biggest rules that go against the grain of what people normally think they should do?

  • In Crisis Management PR, never get trapped on the side of defending yourself. Always take the offensive. This may seem crude, but it is vital – and HOW is done is where the real skill lies. Do it wrong and be prepared to pay the piper.
  • Silence is fatal. It is not honorable. Go ahead, don’t take a reporter’s call or say “no comment”…TO YOUR PERIL. You are not being honorable when you decide not to speak up – you are being selfishly stupid.

There is an entire body of codified Communications knowledge on handling a reputation crisis.  But if you are not in a crisis at the present time, it is more beneficial to discuss why being proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to brand image management is way more profitable – as you can protect your brand against a crisis before it happens. It’s rather obvious that a business should have a PR Crisis Plan in place before one occurs, but what is even more lucrative (and I choose my words deliberately) is to have PR work being executed before a crisis is even ever remotely extant. The best thing you can do for your brand to mitigate the damage of any future reputation crisis is have a solid foundation of goodwill publicity so that if something ever occurs, it can be eradicated quickly and as smoothly as possible. There are immediate steps that are vital to the make-break point of a crisis, but a solid ongoing proactive PR foundation determines how much work will be needed to put out a fire later – something which is always difficult to predict, and again, something which companies typically and usually get wrong.

To put it simply: if people already like you, they won’t be as mad at you later. A groundwork of goodwill publicity will make a future crisis hurt your finances much less. It’s a powerful application of controlling public opinion for good. And its works. A company that promotes all of its good works via third-party credibility sources will build a strong shield against a crisis’ bombardment.

Despite months of preparation and work, no business is 100% safe from a potential crisis around the corner. There are competitors looking for an edge, unhappy customers who turn to spite, employees that go rogue… or just a stroke of bad luck. What makes the difference between a crisis happening for someone like Amazon compared to a crisis like what happen with United Airlines in early 2017? Many love Amazon. That is not an accident. But even more passionately dislike United, evidence by customer service complaints high on social media. A PR Crisis for Amazon at this time of writing has a much better chance of being quickly resolved or going unnoticed due to the public general affinity for the company – and the wealth of positive PR the company garners daily.

Final Points: there are some things that must be done immediately after a crisis has occurred:

  1. DON’T WAIT, hire a Crisis Management expert immediately.
  2. Respond in a timely matter with the right The wrong message – or no message – will make things worse. If you were in the wrong, express real empathy in an apology. Do not use cookie-cutter language. Use genuine communication.
  3. Sequester off the crisis to the Crisis Management PR Team, while
  4. You run the business.
  5. Find your error or weakness and correct/strengthen it. The best Crisis Management plan is dealt with on the PR front, but also internally. There is always a reason something happened.

There’s no beating around the bush, a crisis is going to hurt business. It sets goals back, it slows down or halts sales and it will make the marketing department burn the midnight oil trying to salvage any lost business.

The size of the mountain to climb is determined by the crisis, but all can reach the summit if they organize a plan, stick to it, learn from the crisis and become a better business because of it.

If you would like to discuss setting up a foundation of goodwill for your company, please take our online PR evaluation or give us a call at (888) 202-4614.

If you are reading this in the middle of a crisis, please call us and we will get someone on the phone with you immediately. We know timing is everything.


Advice Disclaimer. This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional public relations or legal advice. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay seeking professional PR or legal advice because of something you have read here. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an agency-client relationship between JoTo PR and the user or browser. 

Advice Disclaimer. This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional public relations or legal advice. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay seeking professional PR or legal advice because of something you have read here. Contact an attorney to obtain advice on any particular legal issue or problem. Use of this Web site or any of its e-mail links do not create an agency-client relationship between JoTo PR and the user.