The PR News 2019 Crisis Summit took place in Miami last week. We went along to see what we could learn about best practices for covering a crisis, both on and off social media.

Last week, we attended the PR News conference in Miami about how to handle a crisis. Here are five things we learned.

A variety of speakers detailed all things crisis, from how to spot a crisis, to the importance of a timely response. Here are five things we learned:

Identify what to look for, and where to look

What does a crisis look like for your organization? Every company and agency should have a list of their company’s or clients’ key vulnerabilities. If you know what might go wrong, or at least have some idea of it, then you know what to look out for as a first warning.

Then it’s all about where to look, and what key things tell you about how bad it’s going to be. If the crisis starts on social media, you need to know what number of tweets means trouble, or how many Facebook engagements require some kind of response. Make sure you determine the thresholds at which you will respond, and communicate it to the rest of the team.

If you decide to respond, time is of the essence

When warning signs begin approaching the designated threshold, the next steps come down to both speed and timing.

Speed is the obvious one, the quicker you can identify a crisis, and have a plan for a response, the better. You don’t want to be hearing about your crisis for the first time when a reporter calls you to ask you for a comment. As such, you need to have all the tools available that reporters have at their fingertips to make yourself aware of what’s going on as quickly as possible, and get a comment out as soon as you are able.

Speed comes first, but it’s also important to consider the timing. Even if you don’t have a definitive statement immediately, you need to give a timely one, at least, to let the world know that you are aware of the situation and looking into it.

Keep the public informed about when you plan to next update them, and stick to that schedule, even if nothing has changed. The worst things you can do in this situation is not update the public in the first hour or so, or promise an update that never comes.

Have a crisis team with defined roles

Crisis management is a team game, and it’s vital to have a cross-functional team when the crisis hits.
This should have people from a few different departments, including but not limited to a team leader, someone from the comms department, someone from legal, and someone from the operations side of the business. The latter is especially important if the crisis arises as part of an operational failure, rather than a reputational one.

Ideally, these team members would all be of a similar level within the organization, so that a direct, honest conversation can be had about responses.

Lastly, it’s rare that the team you put in place will actually all be together when the crisis inevitably strikes, so make sure you have a back-up team member that is familiar with how the team works for each and every one of them.

Have a crisis plan in place

Once you have your team in place, how do you activate them? Big organizations can move slowly, so the more of a process you can have defined in advance, the better. This is true both of the roles within the team (see above), and the actual steps you take when a crisis hits.

If you can have some responses pre-written and pre-approved by legal teams then that’s a great place to be, as there won’t be as much back and forth time wasted searching for the exact right wording of a statement. You want to be doing as much of this work in advance as you can.  

Then, it’s up to you to maneuver those statements into the best responses that you can. A great way to do this is with crisis simulation drills, which is a service offered by many agencies.

Define who’s running your social media accounts

There has been conflict between teams since time immemorial, but this one is one for the digital age. Who runs your social media accounts? This is often seen as the purview of the marketing department, but that isn’t necessarily the way forward in times of crisis. Then, it may make more sense for the comms department to step in and run the channels, and you may need to upend the rubric you have in place for the community. For example, there may normally be rules against profanity on your page, but is removing those comments going to cause more of a stir than letting them stand while a crisis is unfolding.

It’s also important not to create a crisis where there isn’t one, and to isolate it as much as possible to the social media channel in question. If something’s blowing up on Twitter, don’t post a video to your YouTube channel about it just because you have one. These platforms often serve completely different purposes and completely different audiences, so don’t help the crisis move from one to the other for no reason.

Finally, something to remember when dealing with a crisis according to Andrew Sherry at the Knight Foundation, is that the best way to deal with a crisis on social is to get it off social as quickly as possible. The quicker you can move people to a private form of communication, the less likely the situation is to snowball and get out of your control.

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Benedict Nicholson

Benedict Nicholson is the Managing Editor at NewsWhip. An Englishman in New York, he is interested in the intersection of PR, brands, and journalism, and the trends and innovation around that.

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