Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
December 18, 2009

Public Relations Blunders Teach “What Not to Do” in a Crisis

There is no better public relations teacher than a public relations blunder, a truth evident in recent headlines: “Stork Craft Manufacturing Experiences Massive Crib Recall,” “Tiger Woods Caught out for Adultery,” and “White House Suffers Breach of Security.” All of these crises were made worse by poor communication. Here are three vital lessons in crisis communications for public relations professionals pulled straight from the rumor mill.

  1. Plan for it.
    Stork Craft Manufacturing lost big points with their customers when they weren’t fully prepared for a recall of over 2 million cribs last month. After the recall was announced, Stork Craft’s Web site crashed and their phone lines were jammed, meaning parents weren’t able to access important information. The lesson: Be prepared. A crisis communications plan helps to identify areas where extra help is needed to get a message out in a crisis, including extra bandwidth for a Web site or temporary staff to help answer the phones.
  2. Speak early, speak often.
    Tiger Woods avoided the media after a single car crash outside his home and told fans he would not address the incident publicly. This gave reporters the opportunity to print speculation about the event and dig up ex-girlfriends like Jaime Grubbs, who went public about Woods’ affairs. The lesson: Use press attention to your advantage during a crisis. Speak early and speak often with reporters to ensure that your audience is getting your version of the story, and to quell any rumors.
  3. Take control of your own news.
    The United States government refused to offer any details or explanation after uninvited guests made it into a White House party, prompting public concern. The U.S. Secret Service coughed up an embarrassing admission of guilt when forced to do so the week after the event at a hearing held by the Homeland Security Commission. The lesson: Take control of your own news. Hold a press conference to appear proactive. If you don’t have all the details yet, be honest, but tell the public what you’re doing to get to the bottom of it.

Good reputations are difficult to build but easy to destroy. To properly protect a solid reputation, it’s important to handle crises with just as much care and attention as you do your day-to-day operations. A properly handled crisis can, in fact, improve your reputation for being trustworthy and in control — no doubt a desirable outcome to have.

By Wayne Hartrick, president and CRO, Reputations Corporation, Vancouver BC. Wayne Hartrick is the president and chief reputations officer of Reputations, a public relations and reputation management firm. He is the head blogger at, a growing news file of public relations blunders that, with expert public relations commentary, teaches readers how to deal well with the public. Get connected with Wayne on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @prblunders

For more information on crisis communications and crisis management learning opportunities, visit the “Reputation & Relationship” category section of our Calendar of Events at or visit the PRSA web site and search “crisis management” or “crisis communications”.

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