Robert Durand and Jonathan Taylor
Robert Durand (L) and Jonathan Taylor co-authored this article.

The case for having a crisis public relations plan—especially in the world of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and trial by press release—now applies to all organizations.

A reputational crisis can come to almost all public-facing enterprises, not just refineries, factories and airlines, where accidents must be anticipated and trained for.

Reputation attacks can happen instantly, launched overnight or even within hours against any organization, from litigation and boycotts to demands for remedial legislation and criminal sanctions.

The opposition will attack suddenly, bursting onto the public stage—fast, furious and surprisingly forceful—but not necessarily factual. The truth may be on your side, but until you respond, public opinion is being shaped by your opponent. You need a swift and strong response, which requires a plan and practice.

Practice telling the truth

Develop, test and regularly drill a crisis response plan so you’re ready to react confidently and quickly in telling the truth. Engage swiftly, even if it’s a bridge: “Here’s what we know now, we hope to know more soon, our next brief will be at 2 p.m.” Have an experienced executive team ready to say, “Activate the plan!” The first hours are vital, even critical. An ad hoc or on-the-fly response to a reputation challenge will be chaotic, defensive and overly emotional. Planning and practicing prevent panic.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '23 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

Institutional reputation takes years to build. Undefended, reputation can be destroyed in days. Make crisis response part of an ongoing reputation management program and not just a binder on the shelf for when an alarm sounds. Response plans must be maintained—regularly reviewed, constantly monitored, carefully evaluated—and vigorously drilled.

Your team is as important as the plan. Your responders must be a team, players who know each other well and have worked together through active exercises at least once a year. The primary and alternate responders must be comfortable in their roles to reliably act quickly and decisively. And your team needs a strong reserve; today’s 24/7 media landscape requires a team that can sustain 24/7 operations until the storm has passed.

Traditional crisis communication—fires, floods, product recalls, accidents and incidents—tends to focus solely on the emergency. Those “common emergencies” are seldom confined to the event itself and are compounded by reputation challenges.

Anticipate “reflash”

The media and influentials will ask: How could this have been prevented? What warnings were ignored? What’s being done to prevent future accidents? How are those impacted being taken care of? These issues can and will appear without warning after the fire appears to be out. Just as firefighters set a “reflash watch,” your crisis response needs to anticipate issues and get ahead of them to repair, maintain or even improve your reputation.

A crisis is an unplanned test of every aspect of your organization. Are you competent? Prepared? Truthful? Responsive? Compassionate? We believe that a crisis that’s properly handled can improve your reputation. Today’s leaders gain trust when they demonstrate leadership through moments of public stress.

Again: an effective response takes a plan and practice.

We call our Crosswind program CPR+, which is crisis communication focused on an active, pre-crisis engagement that paves the way for a rapid, organized and smooth crisis response and reputation enhancement. We can help. So can the several experienced specialty firms we work with who share our view that reputation management is an ongoing challenge—and a contact sport.

Whoever first said “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots” (the quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Thomas Jefferson, but the actual author isn’t known), the wisdom of the phrase is absolute. Misinformation thrives today. It can be spread cheaply and easily, gaining momentum and the veneer of authenticity because it’s becoming “common knowledge.” Failure to respond—or poorly executed responses that come too late—creates an environment where misinformation and slander can rule the day.

Boots laced, hard hats ready

When more nimble organizations take active charge of their reputations, the price of misinformation goes up. When you have a plan and a process in place to monitor and respond, your boots are always laced up and your hard hat is always within reach. And lies can’t get very far when you are ready to answer with authority and truth.


Rear Admiral Robert Durand, formerly Vice Chief of Information for the U.S. Navy, is VP of Corporate Communications at Crosswind Media and Public Relations, where he provides strategic media and spokesperson services. Jonathan W. Taylor, who served his country as a frontline combat medic with tours in Afghanistan, supports Crosswind clients on corporate issues. He was formerly a staff sergeant, combat medic and combat advisor in the United States Army Reserves.