PR Crisis Management Planning: How To Get What You Need To Know About COVID-19 To Survive

PR Crisis Management Planning Does your business have a PR Crisis Management Plan?

If you don’t know, your firm probably doesn’t have one!

With the increase in Coronavirus cases and related business and stock market reactions, your organization must decide how to address this growing crisis.

As a marketer, your must:
Keep your customers, employees and local community safe and
Minimize damage to your brand, reputation and profitability.

You have a responsibility to act rationally and not cause undue panic or fear.

During the coronavirus outbreak:

  • Determine what your business will do,
  • Decide the actions you will take to keep yourself safe and healthy, and
  • Respect the decisions of coworkers, family members and others.

To help you sanely approach the coronavirus challenge:

PR Crisis Management Planning Table of Contents


PR Crisis Management Definitions

In the age of social media and fake news, every marketing, PR and communications professional must be ready to handle a crisis at any time!

Whether the incident started due to something your organization did or due to public misinterpretation, your senior management team must respond quickly and calmly.

Further, your response must be truthful and avoid offering false hope. Otherwise your business risks further erosion of your brand and trustworthiness.

To clarify these differences, use these definitions:

  • A BUSINESS CRISIS occurs when something unexpected creates a risk for your organization. It can be either internal or external. They can arise from a financial, personnel, organizational, technological and/or natural cause.
  • A PR CRISIS, by contrast, has the potential to damage your business’s reputation and/or brand. So the public loses trust in you.

PR CRISIS MANAGEMENT is required when an issue can no longer be contained. So your organization needs to take action. Often after executives have waited too long to act. As a result, you face a larger problem requiring more resources and having a bigger impact on your organization’s bottom line.


PR Crisis Management Planning: Why You Must Think Beyond The Coronavirus

With the Coronavirus, it’s NO LONGER business as usual!

Because COVID-19 spread from one province in China to the entire country in 30 days, take this fast-moving disease seriously.

To understand how COVID-19 spreads and infects people relative to other viruses like Ebola and SARS (via PopSci March 2020).COVID-19 or Coronavirus chart

Further, the coronavirus is NOT an equal opportunity disease! It strikes older populations worse.

Corona Virus Spread

To help reduce the spread of this virus, support activities like social distancing. They help to flatten the curve. In turn, this improves the ability of the system to cope with it.

Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, you should assume any business environment has potential risk from unknown factors.

Factors from which a PR crisis can emerge include:

  • Lawsuits and/or legal actions,
  • Local, state and/or federal government issues and/or laws,
  • Product problems including recalls, accidents and/or deaths,
  • Business acquisitions, sales or consolidation,
  • Customer defections, especially big or high profile ones, and/or
  • Employee issues.

Before the coronavirus outbreak the environment had the potential for instability:

  • Unstable politics due to the US Presidential Election and Brexit as well as other governments.
  • Interconnected nature of the global economy. So a problem in one country could have an impact on other countries. And the recent plunge of US markets shows this change may be starting.Is the longest growth cycle in U.S. history about to end?
  • Changing demographics. Millennials and younger generations don’t see a positive future. 

In this context:
The coronavirus may be considered an unexpected factor.

This global coronavirus pandemic underscores how ill prepared we are for unexpected elements that could harm our lives.

How To Initially Assess PR Crisis Scope


Before running around with your hair on fire, assess the initial indicators of a PR crisis.Click To Tweet


Examine internal and external data related to:

  • Third party news. Watch out for fake news especially on social media.
  • Social media monitoring. Are there discussions or issues with your management, customers and/or competitors? Pay attention to when the tone and content of the conversation changes. Determine level of response needed.
  • Internal data. Look for early signs of products or sales weakening.

Get an outside perspective. Check that you really have a PR crisis. Ask other colleagues.

Scott MontyAs Scott Monty, veteran of early social media firestorms, advises:

“[W]hat’s more harmful than an epidemic is an infodemic: when unreliable information spreads far and wide. One of the most important things you can do is to seek out reliable sources of information.”




How To Assess the Initial Business Impact of a PR Crisis

Notify senior management and appropriate personnel across your organization. Ideally have this list in place and up-to-date before the crisis starts! Include electronic and voice contact information as well as personal contact information.

Include these departments:

  • Senior executives,
  • Human Resources,
  • Legal,
  • Marketing including PR and/or communications,
  • Technology including website support,
  • Customer Service,
  • Customer facing jobs like retail and sales,
  • Investor relations (if your firm is publically traded), and
  • Outside PR or crisis management agency.


  • Get key people up-to-speed,
  • Determine scope of the impact, and
  • Have authority to make decisions.

Create processes to speed up decision-making, communications, and implementation. During a PR crisis, like coronavirus, you need to react quickly regardless of day and time including holidays or weekends. So establish how decisions will be made and what approvals will be needed.

Select a contact person to communicate updates and handle key contacts. This calms the public and reduces concerns since people feel they’re getting trustworthy information. Also, have plans to communicate with different constituencies.

Have a relationship with a crisis management or PR firm to support your internal crisis efforts. Ideally, make this decision before a crisis occurs to have time to vet a firm.

PR Crisis Management Checklist: How To Get What You Need To Know

Use this PR Crisis checklist to assess your organization’s potential risks. Also consider possible opportunities to reduce losses or increase other types of revenue.

Business Overall

  • How will the problem change or restrict your business? Think short, mid and long term.
  • What is the impact on related businesses? Are companies closing or modifying their operations up and down the supply chain? This means suppliers, distributors and logistics suppliers. Also assess the potential impact of local, regional and international inputs and buyers.
  • Can you create opportunities that don’t require a physical presence? Can you extend your business directly to your audience?



  • Will this issue have an impact on your entire business or only specific products and/or services and/or locations? Can you reassign your resources including employees to still necessary products?
  • Can you extend your current products to new markets or buyer segments? How much work is involved? Do you have the marketing resources to create demand and sales?
  • Can you reposition existing products to meet new or future needs? Further, can you do this with existing resources? Alternatively, can you use locally sourced inputs?
  • Does the situation create new opportunities for products and/or services? Can you expand production to meet a sudden increase in demand?
  • Will any of these changes create different pricing structures? If so, will they cover your fully loaded costs? If not, why are you doing this?
  • How will you handle customers who have bought your product or service and want a refund due to the crisis? For example due to Coronavirus, many people aren’t flying or going to conferences. How you handle this has an impact on your customer experience and bottom line. Remember, refunds have real internal costs! SXSW, for example, is NOT making refunds.

Here’s how the Coronavirus is projected to change product sales by category. 

Expected Impact Of Coronavirus On Sales By Product Category


Marketing Plans

  • Should you keep your current marketing plans across devices, channels, locations and customers in place? How will you determine what to pause, stop or change?
  • Should you demand refunds from your agency and media partners? Can you reassign your resources to other projects or areas that need support but don’t have budget? Or can you apply these payments to future media buys? Check your options with Legal before calling your partners.
  • How do you deal with events, conferences and other sales opportunities? Should you cancel your event? Are these sunk costs (meaning that you get no money back)? How will you create leads from other sources?
  • How will you address your community and communicate with customers, suppliers and distributors? For example, with the coronavirus many companies have restricted travel. This has an impact on related travel businesses.

Based on analysis of Chinese activity during the initial phase of the Coronavirus, you may have marketing and media opportunities. According to GroupM in-home media like TV received a 20+% increase in ratings compared to the last Chinese New Year period.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Media Consumption in China


Customer Relationships

  • How do you maintain relationships with your current customers? What type of offers and communications do you use to keep them from defecting?
  • Assess your customers by product(s) purchased, purchase frequency and seasonality. Are your sales concentrated in a specific product, region or segment? How can you diversify your customer base and pipeline?
  • How do you handle customers who cancel their contracts or just don’t pay because the crisis has destroyed their business? Do you proactively restrict credit to certain categories of customers?


Financial Budget


  • Assess sales shortfalls due to lack of product supply and/or customer cancellations. Be flexible by redirecting product and production capacity to match evolving demand.
  • Look for potential new revenue sources.
  • Implement electronic order and payment systems. (Hat tip: Deb Weinstein)



  • Estimate increased costs due to paid sick leave. This is particularly important since having employees work when they’re sick can put your employees at risk and cause additional PR problems!
  • Determine the net change in expense base and efficiency due to the crisis. This includes costs associated with employees working from home (aka: WFH).
  • Will reduced sales activity due to restricted travel options yield savings? 
  • Are there additional costs for technology and remote services like Zoom?


  Employees and Human Resources

  • Communicate regularly and honestly with management and employees. Gather information about the coronavirus and create a guide for employees. In the US, the CDC and/or your local government may have information you can use.
  • Assess how to handle employees who are exposed to the Coronavirus. For freelance or hourly employees who don’t have sick leave, determine how to pay them all or part of their income. Otherwise they may work and infect customers. This can cause a worse PR problem! Consider reducing salary or bonuses across your organization to cover these special costs.
  • Improve technology capabilities to allow employees to work remotely based on their job. Provide smartphones, computers and related technology. Also, have phone trees and buddy systems to get information out faster.
  • Allow flexible working arrangements for people who must go to your location. Let them commute during less popular times. This matters in densely populated cities.


Need Work From Home (aka: WFH) tips?


Susan MoellerSusan Moeller (@SusanCMoeller), a remote working veteran, suggests:

  • Stick to as normal a work schedule as possible when working from home. Resist the urge to work in your pajamas! Get up, get dressed for work, and keep regular hours.
  • Add a morning walk around your neighborhood. The steps are good for your body, and the change of scenery is good for productivity.


What to Do After a PR Crisis To Prepare For The Future

Review your PR Crisis Management Planning process and documentation on a regular schedule.

Schedule a post-crisis assessment after each PR crisis. This allows everyone involved to determine what worked and what didn’t.

Update and improve your PR Crisis Management documentation based on real life activity. The key to future success depends on figuring out what and how you can do better the next time.

Ensure key staff know their responsibilities during a PR crisis. This includes knowing who to contact. So make updating your PR crisis list part of your HR process when people leave or join your firm. While this sounds obvious, like fire drills, staff may not consider this important until there’s an issue.

Coronavirus Crisis: What 4 PR Experts Recommend You Do

To get a more well-rounded perspective on COVID-19, read what top PR, marketing and communications professionals:

  • Do in their own agencies, and
  • Recommend for their clients.

Gini DIetrichGini Dietrich of Spin Sucks (@ginidietrich) Says:

For good internal communications during the Coronavirus (or any PR crisis):

Actually communicate! People read the news and they hear what other organizations are saying and doing.

When employees aren’t told what’s going on, they conjure things up that are far worse than reality. And then they start talking to one another about it.

If you don’t yet have a plan, that’s OK. Or, if, right now, the plan is to follow CDC guidelines, great! Tell everyone that.

With the coronavirus, things are changing really fast. Just communicate changes as often as possible

“During a PR crisis, transparency, honesty, and empathy are key.” according to @GiniDietrich of @SpinSucks.Click To Tweet


In Gini’s opinion:
The biggest challenge with regard to the virus is organizations not planning for any potential changes! Plan for the worst, hope for the best.


Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations (@PRisUs)

Start by viewing everything through the lens of “How will the coronavirus affect my plans?” Then determine what changes you need to make.

Communicate with your audiences often. Let them know you’re monitoring the situation and will take action if or as needed. Open, frequent communication builds trust during uncertain times.

The biggest challenge we face in terms of coronavirus is the uncertainty surrounding who, where, when and how long it will continue. In turn this makes planning difficult.

“Be understanding and patient as we work through this coronavirus crisis together.” advices @PRisUsClick To Tweet


George StenitzerGeorge Stenizer, Crystal Clear Communications (@GeorgeStenitzer)

Make sure your staff is ready to work from home on a moment’s notice where appropriate. So provide at least one communications tool that all of your employees can use.

Communicate and provide relevant updates as news emerges. Continuously monitor social media to challenge or correct misinformation.

Take fast action when an employee, customer or visitor gets exposed to coronavirus. Your objective is to reduce broader exposure so time and calm communications matter!

  • Get the facts, confirm them, and boil the message down to short sound bites of 7 seconds or 23 words or less.
  • Communicate with your different audiences in the proper sequence. Start with the affected employee and supervisor, then their work team, then other employees and non-employees who work in or visited the building, and finally external audiences who are affected such as customers, investors and news media.
“Better safe than sorry.” says @GeorgeStenitzer. “Take every step you can to protect employees, customers and the community.”Click To Tweet


Nancy Tamosaitis Thompson of Vorticom (@Vorticom)

Nancy Tamosaitis Thompson


For example:
If you run an event that has a strong likelihood of being postponed due to the coronavirus, keep all stakeholders informed.

While most people understand the complicated decision making that leads to canceled events. But it’s more important to communicate that you are making these decisions in attendees’ best interests.

For public relations professionals advising clients on internal communications, steer everyone to the most reliable and up-to-date organizations. The best source is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Since everyone wants to know the symptoms of the virus, how it spreads and how to protect themselves.

For companies with employees who can NOT work from home during COVID-19 such as physical security, hospital workers, taxi and limo drivers, restaurant workers and others.

  • Provide working employees with rigorous and continual training on CDC-recommended ways to avoid the virus and keep their workspace as clean as possible.


PR Crisis Management Planning Conclusion

Whether it’s coronavirus or another PR crisis, as communications professionals, we can’t hesitate to act! 

But first, stop and think through what you’re about to say, post and/or distribute publicly regardless of platform, device or format!

While you must communicate in a timely and transparent way:
Take the time to stop and think about what you’re about to say or publish.

Regardless of the pressure to go public!

Especially when using electronic devices where thoughts go straight from your brain to your fingers or voice without your brain!

Otherwise, without intending to, you make matters WORSE.

Further, as with any marketing or communications strategy:
Have a backup plan in case it doesn’t go as expected!

And once the crisis is over, go through and evaluate you and your team handled each aspect. Then document and update your PR Crisis Management Planning process.

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 17, 2010, with the title “5 Steps to Planning for Effective PR Crisis Management.” It has been significantly expanded and updated to meet marketer’s current needs, especially as they apply to COVID-19. The article now includes charts and a downloadable checklist.

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies.
You can find Heidi on FacebookTwitter and Google+.


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