Crisis management. How to tackle it in different business cultures?

While a well-prepared emergency plan and a competent PR crisis response team are the key elements of an effective defence in case of a crisis, each country may have its own tricks and antidotes of a successful crisis management. 

In this article, you’ll find out:

  • What is a PR crisis and how to anticipate it;
  • How to handle a PR crisis;
  • What difference there are in tacking a PR crisis in different business cultures;
  • What’s the role of a post-crisis management;
  • What are the possible repercussions of a PR crisis and what positive aspects can such a crisis have.

In short, crisis management is a process that consists of different actions that should be taken with the help of a dedicated crisis response team led by PR specialists. Some say it’s inevitable to go through a PR crisis at least once in a brand’s lifetime. But whether it’s true or not, it’s always good to be prepared for one. 

A PR crisis is a result of a negative event that’s directly connected with a brand – an unfavourable comment or review, scandal within the company, data breach, or noxious business practice that was reported in the media. The damage caused by such events can be devastating for a company’s image and its reputation among its customers, generating loss of public trust and business partners. However, handled properly, it can be minimised or turned into an opportunity.

The key: be prepared

Not all PR crises come unexpected – at the very beginning of each new cooperation, it’s recommended to conduct a risk assessment audit and work on a possible crisis response and communication, assuming both best- and worst-case scenarios.

As an account executive, you should analyse the possible impact a crisis may have on the operations and image of the brand. It’s worth it to carefully create a crisis manual and work on a plan that could neutralise possible consequences. Distinguishing among what may have a damaging effect on a brand’s reputation is crucial, and being prepared to detect and control a crisis situation is already half a battle.

As part of the pre-work, you should provide the key people from the company with media training and crisis communication training. The crisis strategy should also include:

  • public statements, 
  • emergency paid campaigns, 
  • media and social media outreach, and, 
  • choosing a crisis response team that in case of a critical situation, will know what to do. 

Choosing a spokesperson that in the case of a crisis will represent the client in all the public statements, is vital. Together with a crisis response team, the spokesperson can rapidly create different strategies and narrative models that would be appropriate for the situation and the local market. 

No matter the market, act quickly

Once a crisis hits, the sooner you start acting, the more probable that you will create the dominant narrative. First then, work on a message to restore trust in your client’s brand. 

Very often, the oficial crisis communication starts with a statement that’s issued a couple of hours after the crisis is faced for the first time. Given by a spokesperson, it should be precise and touching upon every detail that has caused the crisis. It is also crucial to be responsive, transparent, and cover every single channel or platform that is essential for the brand, its clients, and business partners

But remember – nowadays, news goes viral straight away. In case the situation is still evolving or the company isn’t sure what strategy to employ, it may be better not to communicate a statement, but simply be responsive to what has already been said. Contradictory or superficial statements that don’t address the issue, very often only worsen the situation.

Having a precise monitoring system that will report each outlet mentioning the client’s brand, will speed up the reaction and thus will enhance the chance to dominate the narrative. It will also be useful for the post-crisis analysis that may help to draw conclusions and prevent a similar crisis in the future.

“Rely on your ‘owned’ channels,” recommends Bob Spoerl from Bear Icebox, Enterie partner in the US. “You avoid risking your message being misconstrued. In the immediate moments of a crisis, with a holding statement on your owned channels, you have time to understand the situation and formulate how to respond appropriately and provide the reporters the facts they need to write fair stories,” Spoerl adds. 

When preparing the strategy and taking the actions to manage a PR crisis, there is one crucial rule one has to have in mind – no matter the country, be human, honest, and take responsibility. It will be appreciated by the public.

Save brand’s image in different cultures

A well-prepared crisis plan should contain culturally-appropriate statements and actions that are relevant to the local market. Those may differ in each region or country.

Kate Hartley, a crisis trainer, author of “Communicate in a Crisis: Understand, Engage and Influence Consumer Behaviour to Maximize Brand Trust”, and the owner of Carrot Communications, Enterie’s British partner, believes that understanding the differences between different countries and cultures is really important in crisis management. 

“There are obvious things like legal differences – in the UK, for example, saying ‘sorry’ isn’t necessarily an admission of liability, but in the US it could be,” Hartley says.

“But there are also changes in how people behave. Covid-19 has shown us that some countries are more likely to respond to requests to do things like adhering to lockdowns or wearing masks. There may be cultural differences or barriers (for example, relating to gender), or cultural values, historical context and experience, or even education systems, that should be taken into consideration when giving crisis management advice. Local media may report very differently, with variation in their agenda. Communication advice in a crisis should reflect those differences, just as they should in any other situation.”

“In the UK, we have a particularly critical and cynical media, which can shape the way the crisis unfolds. We also have a fairly comprehensive Emergency Planning Framework for crisis communications from the UK government which has some excellent planning tools in it. But, we also have low trust in government and our political system, which can influence how we behave in crisis situations. We also have, of course, four nations that make up the UK, each of which has its own emergency powers in a crisis.”

Handling an international PR crisis of a brand that’s present on a number of different markets will definitely need a local touch that will provide the proper angle of how to manage the situation in each of the regions. Some global PR agencies’ networks offer such a service and thus coordinate integrated PR crisis management in various countries. Having specialists on distinct markets that work together, is an enormous advantage.

Do post-crisis management and…

Some crises take their toll long after their peak moment. In such a case, implementing measures aiming at client’s reputation recovery is crucial. The process itself may take a couple of months, but it’s essential. To recover the credibility of the brand, you may need a big dose of positive news that is related to the company and can be released months after the crisis. 

And finally – once the crisis is managed (or rather its peak phase is tackled), a post-crisis analysis may help to evaluate the situation and avoid a similar crisis in the future. Feedback from both the company and the crisis response team, may help to improve the processes and procedures. Learn from the situation then, and…

…look at the bright side

Could, after all, a PR crisis turn out to be a positive event that boosts brand’s image? 

“A crisis is more than a PR crisis – it’s something that happens in the real world. A crisis can have a positive outcome. It can be an opportunity for an organisation to reinforce its values, to reshape its future, and to respond effectively to build trust after the crisis is over. To achieve that, the organisation needs clear direction and leadership, to be open and transparent, and to hold itself accountable for future change,” comments Hartley

Saving a company’s face in an honest and balanced way, in a digitalised world where most of the media entries and information are easily accessible within seconds, will only affirm the brand’s positive image. The customers and business partners will keep in mind the way the company managed the crisis, because as an old proverb says, “manners maketh man”.

Kate Hartley, founder of Carrot Communications
Bob Spoerl, co-founder of Bear Icebox

Joanna Broniewska
Joanna Broniewska

PR specialist, freelance journalist, and cultural anthropologist with considerable intercultural experience in her professional and personal life. She has lived in Spain, Chile, and Greece, and is passionate about Andean culture, 20th-century Latin American history, and Pablo Picasso, to whom she dedicated her master’s thesis.


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