How do you solve a problem like... a PR nightmare?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

Static bike brand Peloton has been fighting a few fires lately, as it dealt with both the logistics of a huge product recall and its ensuing PR fallout.

The moment provides an opportunity to think about how brands can survive publicity nightmares, with the media landscape shifting and social media providing an easy avenue for furious consumers to show their discontent. What strategies should big and small brands keep in their back pockets in case of an emergency? We asked a selection of industry experts for their two cents.

How do you solve a problem like... a PR nightmare?

Matt Buchanan, head of PR and influence at Ogilvy UK

JFK navigated his fair share of crises during his time in office. His typically illuminating take on grappling with them was, “the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”

A brand could do worse than heed his advice and see their situation as an opportunity to actually build their reserves of emotional goodwill with the public. There’s only so much you can draw from the well of reputational capital, so ensuring yours is plentifully stocked before a crisis hits is the real trick. After all, 64% of the general public give some benefit of the doubt to companies they say has an ‘excellent’ reputation, versus 7% for those with a ‘poor’ reputation (RepTrak 2020). How is this done?

Demonstrating three behaviors on an ongoing basis should be at the forefront of their minds. Firstly, vulnerability: acknowledging mistakes, embracing openness and a willingness to be held accountable. Secondly, mutuality: show you have common beliefs and shared values with your audiences. This is where a brand’s purpose is key. Thirdly: familiarity. Seek more personal connections and use trusted voices to help.

There are always going to be bumps in the road for any brand and, despite its outrageous recent success, Peloton is no different. Ensuring they build reputation resilience is the best way they can guard against the effects of (inevitable) future crises.

Polly Atherton, managing director, Stir PR

In a world with an ‘always on’ approach to social media, a PR nightmare could hit at any time so it’s imperative you’re prepared. There’s absolutely no harm in having a trusted publicist on speed dial, but beyond that it’s essential to ensure a robust crisis plan is in place ahead of any campaign or product launch. Pull together your execution strategy, escalation process, reactive statements, FAQ and preemptive social messaging. Do your due diligence so you have confidence in your approach. When it hits, ensure your team are fully up to speed with the plan. Always remember to take a deep breath and stay calm.

Hannah Lynch, associate director, Alfred

To minimize the chance of an ‘issue’ becoming a ‘crisis’, brands need to be prepared. A strong PR team will lead the business through the issues cycle by following key fundamentals.

Firstly, keep calm. Gather the facts and assess the initial reaction – a knee-jerk response will be damaging in the long run. On the flip side, staying silent for too long will allow a one-sided story to build. A holding statement can be valuable.

Take an audience-eye view. What would you hope to hear from a brand? Acknowledgement, defense or reassurance? Marry this up with what is appropriate and truthful. Take accountability and be human. A spin response that barely touches on the issue won’t fly. Follow through. Once the initial news cycle passes, the brand may need to make genuine changes to win back trust.

Neil Ripley, head of corporate communications, Comscore

Brands that develop brand loyalty and a high ‘trust quotient’ will definitely fare better when a crisis hits. Leading agency MWW found almost half of consumers have stayed with a company despite a problem because they believed in the company’s mission or values.

So brands that bake transparency and honesty into their DNA will find their stakeholders are far more likely to weigh a given problem against the bigger picture.

Also have a strategic response plan in place and a ‘Go Team’ empowered to execute it. If you’re trying to figure that out after the crisis hits, you’ve already failed.

Hannah Patel, UK director, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

How about don’t get yourself in the shit in the first place? There are very few examples of social media-based PR crises that were actually unavoidable. As PRs, it’s our job to properly sense check and encourage the client to think twice before their ‘hilarious’, ‘meaningful’, ‘purposeful’ idea that also happens to be totally tone deaf goes public.

Having said that, brands also need to listen to the advice they’re paying for. If something happens that’s out of your control, the key is to react fast, be transparent and apologize. But if it’s something you've actively publicized – such as Burger King UK’s ‘women belong in the kitchen’ ad – then you’ve only got yourselves to blame.

Olivia Gerrie, associate director, Seen Group

It’s a combination of being prepared – every good PR strategy should outline measured considerations so there is an understanding of potential risks and/or challenges prior to execution (just as important as outlining the success metrics) – and having the agility to act swiftly and get yourself into protect mode when a ‘crisis’ hits. This is then about quickly understanding the scale of said crisis, monitoring the reaction and taking the time to put your words together, while determining the need for a proactive or reactive approach.

Kelly Pepworth, managing director at Speed Communications

A mistake that organizations often make is to compartmentalize a crisis as a horizon PR issue – it may or may not happen, so let’s worry about it at the time.

The same as a customer journey is mapped from awareness to purchase, a crisis is a journey with scenarios and touchpoints that impact all stakeholders.

The media is a vocal stakeholder and shutting the door and turning up the music will not drown out their questions. Equally, lacking empathy or saying the wrong thing (or too much) only turns up the heat. Timely, transparent and flexible communications is your best ally – be visible, be honest and shift to the situation as needed.

Prachi Singh, lead communications, APAC, Verizon Media and Yahoo

I read this saying: “The crisis you have to worry about most is the one you don’t see coming.” Developing a response in an unseen crisis is every PR professional’s worst nightmare. From my experience, preparedness must come much earlier by creating a robust ‘crisis protocol’ when it’s business as usual. This protocol has to be replete with a core team, possible action plans and an approval process that anticipates worst-case scenarios. As a company with consumer internet products, a sudden outage showed the importance of instituting such a protocol that could help us act rapidly in a crisis unfolding across time zones.

An important learning has been to ‘own up’. While you control the message, don’t distort it – stay transparent, be empathetic. Prepare for and expect social media backlash, but ensure your protocol includes recovery plans.

Hollie Rapello, co-founder, Raven Public Relations

Repeat this mantra: be a human. Ask what a decent human would say to another human after harming them. They’d say “I’m sorry.”

Then put the chief executive out into the world to do that, first communicating with the harmed party, then the public. Full transparency in tandem with a plan to reform the way you do business will demonstrate true acknowledgment of what’s happened and commitment to fixing it going forward.

That old adage remains true; in difficult situations, what matters most is how you handle the aftermath. Most people are hardwired with an incredible ability to forgive if only asked.

Joel Johnson, chief marketing officer,

Crisis comms is wildfire abatement. Can you put it out with an airdropped deluge of transparency? Do you cross your fingers and hope it burns out on its own? Will the fire actually burn down something that maybe your company should have set fire to a long time ago?

The strategy with the highest success rate has always been to go silent and wait it out. That’s why the first move is to be still and get the lay of the land – even if people are yelling. But the choice a company makes next says a lot about their corporate character. Can the crisis be managed with internal teams? Of course. But a somewhat more dispassionate, trusted counselor is exactly why you pay for a good agency.

Barbara Laidlaw, Partner, global reputation risk and public affairs, Allison+Partners

While every crisis is different, I subscribe to the belief that the best prevention is preemption. Most crises spiral out of control when an issue like a product recall, data breach or high-profile lawsuit coincides with ill-equipped communications to manage a reputationally impactful incident. Contrary to popular opinion, most PR nightmares do not just spring up overnight. They are a product of a number of factors that limit a brand’s ability to mitigate the fallout. By focusing on what we can control in a crisis, you will succeed in reducing its impact.

Each week, we pick a new topic for discussion. If you feel like sharing your tuppence worth, email me at to be included in future editions of this series.