How COVID-19 Is Rewriting the Textbooks on Crisis PR

Guest post contributed by Kristin Nelson, Director of Public Relations

Most crisis situations—even when they are in the same realm—are unique. Simply Google “PR crisis example,” and you will find more than 80 million results. As public relations practitioners, we learn from others’ successes and failures in order to prepare our clients for potential crises. No crisis situation unfolds exactly the same way, but we have learned to extrapolate similarities across incidents, industries and responses to inform our respective approaches moving forward. Uncovering similarities, identifying formulas, and thinking ahead to craft the next response makes us good at our jobs.

Because of this crisis management is a planning game, not a wait-and-see approach. At their core, crisis management plans are intended to do all the time-consuming researching, planning and preparation in advance so that if a situation occurs, the team can quickly move into its agreed-upon activation mode. We invest a lot in the upfront but know we are establishing a solid foundation for our clients’ businesses and reputations if they enter crisis mode. If we believe the sports cliché that “champions are made in the offseason,” then crisis prep is our wind sprints.

Now imagine you are running those wind sprints backward down the court because that is exactly what COVID-19 has done to many communicators. It’s taken something you have done before but altered it just so.

Depending on your industry, you typically plan for a crisis by thinking of all the things that could go wrong and working backward. This helps your organization identify how to avoid triggers but also how to respond if the triggers do happen. You bring together key stakeholders across operations, manufacturing, finance, legal, HR, communications and more in order to give each area a voice in the planning and subsequent response. These efforts dovetail to a formulaic approach to crisis management:

Pre-Crisis Preparation + Informed Crisis Management = Post-Crisis Resolution


Let’s say you do communications or public relations for a restaurant. You’ve likely identified that a food recall would constitute a crisis situation. To prepare, you work with your supply chain, your restaurant-level operations, your legal department and your communications team to map out how you will determine if a food recall is warranted, how to operationally execute a recall, and then how to communicate the recall to the public. The crisis will be resolved when you can safely serve customers again and have maintained or regained their trust. Albeit oversimplified, that is a pretty basic, textbook crisis situation.

But what happens when your restaurant is caught up in a pandemic that forces all locations to cease in-restaurant dining and institute even tighter sanitary measures? And what happens when you don’t really know how or when this crisis situation would be considered resolved? Where is the textbook for that?

It’s being written right now. In this moment. As you are reading this blog, in fact.

The core tenets of crisis communication still remain in this new normal: identifying your key audiences; defining your communication objective and supporting messages; maintaining control of the narrative through selective channels, credible spokespersons and consistent message delivery; and always—always—prioritizing honesty.

But now no one knows what’s next and how to fully prepare for it, yet we are expected to communicate it. We are forced to change our way of thinking about crises in this age of uncertainty. We are leaning even more heavily into our company values and addressing the crisis in steps for sequential wins along a resolution spectrum. Today, our formula looks more like this:

Values-Based, Real-Time Strategy + Compartmentalized Crisis Management = (Intermediate Resolution) X Infinity


Communicators will forever be changed by this open-ended state of crisis management. We are forced to wade through ever-changing and conflicting information, politically charged opinions, and universally life-altering challenges and changes. (And that’s just at the professional level; let’s not even factor in how it impacts us on a personal level.)

Granted, we still have past experiences (both owned and observed) to learn from, but the likelihood of finding a good example to model is slim. Rather, many communicators are learning and sharing in real time. We benefited from others in the past, and we are doing so now. Before we studied textbook learning modules, but now we are approaching this as group project work. Unless there is a PR practitioner out there who coached his or her client through the 1918 influenza outbreak, we are truly venturing into uncharted territory.

But that’s where PR folks shine. We are quick to triage situations and find similarities that ground us, which leads us to make fast yet informed, strategic decisions. Our key tenets remain the same—but we are breaking our journey into more incremental steps instead of one big leap.

Wading through crisis management in the new normal? You’re not alone.

Partner with us at GS&F, and we’ll work together to bring out the best in each other. The road ahead may look a little rocky, but we’re here to navigate every twist and turn by your side.

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