Preparation can lessen impact of crisis

Claire Papanastasiou
BridgeTower Media Newswires

The thought of a PR crisis is daunting for one predominant reason: timing. It’s the great unknown, and given the dearth of clairvoyants, crisis anxiety is understandable.

However, preparation — specifically, developing a crisis-communications protocol — can serve as a steadying anchor when a crisis arises.

By following a working outline, firm leadership and its communications team will be able to handle the substance of the crisis at hand in a more meaningful way.

The key aspect of a protocol is to define and understand the audiences that make up an enterprise’s brand and reputation — in the case of a firm, its lawyers and employees, and current and prospective clients — and navigate from there. At the risk of sounding Zen, all a firm and its PR team can do is adjust the sails and ride the tide when a crisis hits.

Having a protocol in place will help alleviate stress. While a cookie-cutter approach is not a strategy, having a checklist in place will help a firm keep the appropriate folks informed and provide some sense of structure.

What’s more, a protocol helps avoid damaging disconnects that can compound crises by making an enterprise seem unfocused, reactive and inept. Below is an outline of what a firm and its clients can do before, during and after a crisis-communications issue.

• Identify the core crisis-communications team.

The team will generally include leadership, internal and external communications, HR, firm counsel and a PR point person.
• Identify backups for these members, if possible.
• Identify the communications structure for the core team.

Frequency of communication will depend on the level of crisis. Usually, there is constant communication, though it is essential to establish a communications structure to catch any loose ends and include regular updates to the team to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

• Determine the best mode of communication, whether it is real-time emails or daily conference calls.

• Establish protocols for each type of crisis. A crisis can have one of these elements, or two or three. (Team members from each group may be added depending on the type of crisis.)
Executive (firm leadership)
Organizational (HR, firm counsel)
Financial (Accounting)
During Crisis

• Determine the type and scope of crisis and alert core teams.


• Determine if other members should be added to the core team.

• Identify key audiences, and create internal and external messaging.

• Determine communication vehicles, i.e., in-person meetings or emails (or both) for internal messaging.

• Discuss the media plan and approach, whether it should be proactive or reactive.

• Identify a spokesperson or spokespeople and method of communication to the media, i.e., statements, on-background interviews, or a combination of both. Identify a spokesperson and other people to connect with the media, on or off the record.

• Determine whether internal communications are necessary or not.

Should you give employees a heads-up of pending negative coverage, or let it ride?

If internal communications are necessary, determine the message, mode of communication (email, voicemail) and messenger, whether an executive or firm counsel.


• Perform a post-crisis review. Questions to ask include:

How was the process?

What worked?

What didn’t?

Were the appropriate people notified?

How was the coverage and its impact?

What could be done differently?

Crises wouldn’t be crises if they were smooth sailing, though the reality is that they can be mitigated by preparation.

• In addition to instituting crisis-communications protocols, firms would benefit from creating and discussing what-if scenarios regularly, as opposed to waiting for a crisis to hit.

Familiarity breeds confidence and calm, which go a long way in handling both internal and external audiences during a crisis.


Claire Papanastasiou heads the professional services group at Matter Communications, a national public relations firm based in Newburyport. A former journalist at Lawyers Weekly and American Lawyer Media, she was senior PR manager at Bingham McCutchen before joining Matter.


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