Curtis Sparrer
Curtis Sparrer

A crisis has arisen. Your CFO was arrested for insider trading, a cyberattack disrupted business continuity or a food product has been poisoned. Whatever the crisis, you realize the importance of PR and communications, but perhaps not everybody does. Maybe you’re calm when faced with a crisis. Or maybe you’re downright panicking.

If you’re calm, you probably have a plan in place to deal with the situation. If you’re panicking, you’re probably making decisions on the fly, which is the worst thing a company could do.

A best practice is to be prepared for a range of possible scenarios. Following are some pointers that may help you in the future.

Respond appropriately

When a crisis arises, it’s natural for people to panic. PR and communications professionals need to be the voice of reason, assessing the situation and explaining what it means and what the likely outcomes will be given the various possible courses of action. For example, if the IT team failed to patch a software vulnerability that allowed hackers to steal data, should the company admit that openly or say nothing?

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

Several years ago, a former client was referenced as being tangentially involved in a school shooting. Their initial reaction was to issue a press release claiming they weren’t involved. While the desire to get ahead of the situation was commendable, our job was to explain why this course of action was inadvisable. I told them to ignore the issue because people would likely forget about it, which they did. Had the company issued the press release, its relation to the incident would have been memorialized.

The best thing about many crises is that people tend to have a short-term memory, so often the best reaction is no reaction. However, because each crisis is unique, it’s wise to assess the situation and then decide how to address it.

It also depends on whether the story could turn into a viral nightmare. If that’s the case, our goal is to minimize the impact. One way to do that is to convince journalists that the news is old. You can even provide evidence of the low news value simply by directing them to a blog post about it on the company website. Just be sure that blog post is well-conceived and reviewed by other professionals who can identify any weak points before it’s posted.

Who should be involved

Crisis management works best when a task force has been identified before a crisis occurs. That way, everyone knows who will be responsible for doing what.

The task force should comprise a cross-functional group of people who represent the parts of the business that would be impacted by a specific type of crisis. For example, for a cyberattack, the task force would probably include the chief information security officer, the chief information officer, other members of the C-suite and the senior representatives from legal, compliance, PR and IR.

The “who” piece should be added to the “what” piece, which is a crisis response plan that explains what to do should a certain type of crisis occur. Without that, you’ll have to make things up as you go along, which is a very risky endeavor.

Beware of details that can make a bad situation worse

A non-profit organization established to help the victims of a company’s negligence faced a long, uphill battle. The damage caused was in the billions. Many lives and businesses were destroyed. In fact, some claimants died before receiving anything. Others waited for checks or direct deposits for many years.

Unfortunately, no one received a check; they received several checks as part of a phased payment plan that was based on milestones defined by law. Before the first round of checks was issued, claimants received a notice that payments would start on a certain date. However, on that date, the person who needed to sign the checks was vacationing in Paris with his family for two weeks. Then, a series of news stories broke which sympathized with the victims and vilified the fund’s managers.

The moral of the story is that anytime you face a significant crisis, paid time off should be examined under a microscope. Blaming the situation on family only makes the guilty party appear even more irresponsible.

The nature of a crisis defines what should be done

Not all crises are the same. Some are caused by humans, others are caused by nature, machines or some other entity. A good PR agency should be able to provide an effective tabletop exercise that walks the client through various scenarios, analyzes their actions and provides feedback regarding how to approach the problem more effectively. It should also include journalists’ likely reactions.

Also consider ways to minimize the effects of a crisis, such as issuing a mea culpa blog to dissuade investigative journalists. Attorneys tend not to condone this approach because any admission of guilt might backfire in court. That’s why cross-functional collaboration is so critical.

Don’t forget the impact of third-party crises

Third-party risk is something PR and communications professionals tend not to consider. Like the supply chain effects playing out in today’s economy, a crisis that impacts one part of a value chain can have upstream and downstream impacts. As incredible as it sounds, a laptop vendor had to halt production for at least two months because its only screen supplier couldn’t deliver.

As if that scenario wasn’t bad enough, the news came during COMDEX, which was the largest computer trade show in the U.S. at the time. The company had purchased a big, expensive booth that sat on big, expensive show floor space because it was the company’s official launch. The senior account executive who booked the press interviews had to inform all the reporters. One EIC chose to interview her at the appointed time instead because he figured she knew about as much as the company’s executives did and would be handling the messaging anyway. After the trade show, the parent company shut the laptop company down.

Seek a trustworthy partner

Some agencies are very astute at crisis management. Others aren’t quite as effective. One way to understand an agency team’s capability is to test them. Give them a hypothetical crisis so you can understand how they’d solve the problem and why they’d solve it that way.

At Bospar, we have several former broadcast, business and tech journalists on staff who help the account teams and clients test their ideas in a safe environment. They provide constructive feedback and aren’t shy about asking clients the hard questions. That way, account team members can hone their strategy, and the client is better prepared for real-world interviews.

This is an important point, because the spokesperson needs to appear natural as opposed to staged. Quite often, memorized statements come across as insincere, which undermines trust.

It’s also a good idea to have a group of friendly journalists with whom you can test different approaches. “This is a bad idea” might be exactly what the team needs to hear.


Curtis Sparrer is co-Founder and Principal of Bospar.