What Is PR Crisis Management?

Every brand is at risk of facing a public relations crisis. […]

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Every brand is at risk of facing a public relations crisis. In the age of cancel culture and the 24/7 news cycle, we’d even go as far as to say that for today’s brands facing a PR crisis isn’t a matter of ‘if’, it’s a matter of when. 

Many organizations find themselves in emergencies due to internal problems or corruption. However, even when organizations are fortunate to have visionary leaders, a solid communications team, and a great product or service, external factors can quickly create a crisis. 

Whether a problem originates internally or externally, there is one commonality: you must quickly determine if you need to respond and if so, what the appropriate response is. When faced with an angry public armed with tools like Twitter and a drive to see brands held accountable, choosing not to respond to criticism or controversy is a poor decision in most situations. 

Before we dive into saving your brand’s reputation, let’s back up for a minute and cover exactly what constitutes a public relations crisis.

What is a PR Crisis?

A PR crisis is an event that harms an organization’s reputation, credibility, or operations. In these moments, negative media coverage reaches new highs. PR teams often drop everything to focus on the problem.

Recently, we analyzed 300+ crises across nearly 90+ companies spanning over 25+ industries. Pulling this data together gives insight into how a crisis could play out during the initial shock period of media reporting.

pr shock life

These crisis shocks have little warning. On average, crisis chatter grows rapidly in just a day to reach peak negativity, or when the media firestorm reaches its highest point.

On one hand, crisis shocks are generally short-lived. Negative coverage usually returns to pre-crisis levels in little over a week following a rapid decline within the first two days.

On the other hand, there is very little time to respond. The news cycle may move on after a few days, but public opinion cements quickly and can generate lasting reputational damage.

We found that the best PR responses occur within 12 to 48 hours after peak negativity. This window is when counter-messaging is most effective and communicators can mitigate the long-term reputational damage caused by the crisis.

What are the different types of crises?

Understanding how crises are different can also help predict how bad they will be. We grouped crises into three broad categories:

  • Governance Crises: Triggered by lawsuits and regulatory investigations, these occur most often in the corporate landscape.
  • Consumer Impact Crises: Issues like product failures, safety concerns, and price hikes fuel this type of crisis.
  • Environmental and Social Crises: These crises are tied to a company’s socio-political standing

Quick effect: how bad the most negative day?

In the moment, some crises can be worse than others. To compare how bad crises are as they’re happening, we analyzed their peak negativity. We examined how bad the most negative day of a brand crisis was by comparing it to the brand’s negativity during an average day. 

Crises like Product Failures and Safety lead to the most negativity. A failing product can generate 150x more negative coverage for a brand than during an average day. Product stories impact everyday news readers, so they quickly catch the attention of mainstream outlets.

issues like Executive Behavior and Environmental Misconduct only receive 40x more negative coverage than during a brand’s average day. Those crises are serious, but they may generate less news. Their impact on the public may be hazy and the media pickup can be limited to niche trade publications.

Long term effect

Once the initial shock dissipates, the PR work isn’t over. Even when the media cycle moves on, the effects of a crisis can linger for months or years.

To understand the long-term effects of crises on brand reputation, we compared the average media tone of each brand six months before and after a crisis.

The results showed that some crises are easier to recover from than others. Data Breaches stand out for their enduring negative impact on reputation. Companies with data breaches had the most negative media sentiment six months later. Leaks from hacks can generate panic and concern among key stakeholders. Data breaches also attract lawsuits and regulatory responses which draw out their lifespan.

Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal is a good example of it. Facebook faced lots of challenges and trust issues from stakeholders to normal users.

Similarly, governance crises that erode shareholder trust can have lasting repercussions on a company’s reputation. Executive Misconduct, for example, had a persisting negative impact. This was despite those crises seeing less coverage when they first occurred.

Notably, social and political crises are easier to recover from. Backlash to a company’s Political Stances or Diversity & Inclusion initiatives did not often generate long-term negative reputational impacts. Stakeholders may ultimately judge companies on their commitment to core business goals over their social and political values.

Examples of PR Disasters

Here are some of the most popular PR disaster examples of top brands;

  • Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal
  • Chipotle’s E.coli outbreaks and data breach.
  • Wells Fargo’s fake accounts scandal.
  • Volkswagen’s emissions controversy.
  • Toshiba’s accounting fraud.
  • Starbucks Racial Bias Incident
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol Crisis
  • Domino’s Pizza Turnaround


A PR crisis occurs when no one expects it. And usually, it spreads quickly among business news. But it is not the end of the world. The key is to know how to react in such a pressure situation.

I advise you to start by listening to the online chatter about your brand. Then develop a PR crisis management plan. As I mentioned in this article, a well-prepared plan can contain 7 steps.

PR disasters are stressful situations. Your employees need to know the strategy. Otherwise, they might panic.

Once a crisis hits, you will know what to do. Some troubles you can’t prevent, but surely you can minimize the damage.

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