Crisis situations can be defining moments for PR professionals and the companies and organizations we work with. As the world around us continues to evolve, so too do the modern crisis trends impacting our industry and our clients.
Reacting to rapidly changing news cycles, working across departments—especially those in flux due to labor challenges—and deploying messaging across a variety of channels requires a unique skill set. The ability to keep this toolkit sharp led to the creation of the PRWeek Crisis Comms Conference.
Held in April in Washington D.C., this first-of-its-kind event dug into the current state of crisis communications and what the future may hold as consumer demands and communications channels change. Not only that, but discussion centered around the ways brands can get a step ahead of issues that threaten their reputation on a daily basis.
In a standing-room-only, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder setting, I was joined by our industry peers who were eager to learn important lessons from the toughest situations any business, agency or government agency today can face. An expert slate of presenters and panelists showed to the audience that being ready for a crisis is more about preparation before a problem than patchwork after one arises.
Reflecting on the conference, these modern crisis trends stand out as critical considerations:
Legal Teams: Allies, Not Adversaries
In the PR world, legal departments can sometimes be seen as chief antagonists—the purveyors of red tape that halt creative projects and communications communicators want to let loose. But in times of crisis, there may be nothing more important than having a good relationship with the general counsel overseeing your business.
An airtight legal team is not that unlike the safety features in a car — you might not need them everyday, but when you do, you really need them. In periods of stress—like when a company has gone viral for all the wrong reasons—businesses are operating under an intense microscope. During these circumstances, any message broadcast to the world will be subject to extreme scrutiny. A legal team working as an ally can help stop the problem from snowballing and, in many cases, save the company from financial vulnerability from sending the wrong message to the wrong people at the wrong time.
Want to Predict the Future? Impossible
Even when everything is seemingly humming along and crisis plans are in place, unexpected problems can pop up under circumstances completely out of a business’ control. Nothing showcased this as being among modern crisis trends better than former-NASA press secretary and current Lockheed Martin Senior VP and CCO Dean Acosta’s talk about preparing for handling high-profile crisis moments.
As NASA’s one-time lead communicator, it’s obvious an emergency can arise quickly if something catastrophic takes place. One of the anecdotes shared was NASA’s role in communicating to the public in the aftermath of the tragic Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. The agency had learned so much from a previous crisis moment, the devastating Space Shuttle Challenger disaster 17 years earlier, and shifted how it gathered and disseminated information to the public. There are already unique complexities at play when sending human beings into space. When the worst-case scenario appears, an organization needs to determine how it will communicate and the level of transparency needed to meet the moment.
What’s less predictable is when personnel matters and a love triangle become public, in what inevitably becomes a national news story. That’s exactly what NASA experienced in 2007, when a female astronaut drove 14 hours across much of the U.S. to confront the new lover of a former boyfriend. While it may be an extreme case, it’s also a great example of how there is absolutely no way to predict some of the crises brands may experience as they grow and experience national exposure. It also speaks to the vital nature of having a comprehensive risk plan created before a problem becomes an international headline.
Crunchtime: The First 24 Hours of a Crisis
As a panelist at PRWeek’s Crisis Comms Conference, I had the opportunity to address the crowd on how Identity approaches the first 24 hours of a crisis moment. This critical time period sets the stage for how the problem develops and its public perception in the immediate future. Companies must have an ear to the ground, on all platforms, around the clock during the waking hours of a crisis. Having a team with a strong tech background enlisted to monitor the conversations across the internet for what’s normal versus what’s abnormal is one of the modern crisis trends that emerged as the internet gained popularity and continues to be imperative in today’s world of PR.
It’s clear our crisis management work involves the intersection of technical expertise and the highest-degree of communications counsel, supported by our award wins Crisis Management Campaign of the Year.
Using advanced technology, including elements of AI-driven monitoring, to track online conversations in the first 24 hours means the ability to tamp out major fires before they spread. Ideally, immediate reactions and thoughtful responses will often mitigate a PR crisis or put a company on the path to recovery. Having the plans and processes in place to prepare for when it happens is the only way to handle these situations in a way that won’t have your team scrambling for answers. You cannot build these things in real time; you must have them ready at the hip beforehand.
A Collaborative Future for Crisis Communications
The overwhelming turnout at PR Week’s Crisis Comms Conference 2023 shows there is a need for a setting where professionals can come together to further discuss modern crisis trends, the challenges in navigating them, and the tech available.
We live in a technology-led, rapidly changing business climate. Businesses and brand managers must be prepared for crises that can arise overnight and out of nowhere in order to protect their company’s image.
The discussion at the conference allowed PR experts to learn what has worked—and what hasn’t—in an environment where every type of crisis response idea was on the table. There’s no doubt attendees took away a career’s worth of pragmatic information, ready to be used in their own unique set of circumstances. I’m looking forward to attending this event in the future and continuing to share our experiences with crises with others in our industry wherever possible.