Crisis Communications: Are you Prepared to Help Your Organization Identify, Manage and Measure Risks?

By Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations, Goodwill Industries International

At the recent PRSA international conference, I spoke about managing a crisis in a highly networked and volatile world along with my PRSA-NCC colleague, Jennifer Schleman, APR. The session was part of the executive communication symposium, which focused on transitioning traditional communications pros into expert strategic communicators. A summary of the session can be found here.

We have a joke in our office that inevitably, around 5 p.m. on a Friday, we typically get a call or see something online that could impact our organization’s image. Why does this matter? Because social media is a crisis game-changer – depending on your reputation and how you manage the situation – in today’s environment of crisis management.

The Art of Forecasting

Historically, professionals had 24 hours to respond to crises, depending on the news cycle. Now, tweets go live seconds after incidents occur, spreading like wildfire.

Much like you can’t control a fire, but you can manage it, so too can you manage a crisis when it’s perpetuated online.

Issue vs. Crisis

Melissa Agnes is an international crisis and reputation management expert, a keynote speaker and author of “Crisis Ready.

She says an issue and a crisis both have very different meanings but also very different management responses.

An issue is an identified event or trend where you are afforded the time to research the facts and ensure nothing has been overlooked.

A crisis, by definition, is outside normal experience; it causes top executives to drop all other priorities, and it may severely disrupt continuity of the organization’s core business. It is a threat to an organization’s operations or reputation. A crisis involves the need for leadership to be out front with the public, and a crisis can last longer than a day’s bad news.

First, you must first determine the potential types that may affect your organization.

  • Immediate crises are often natural disasters or other major emergencies. There is little opportunity for specific research and planning, but a general plan can be in place to reduce damage and potentially enhance the situation.
  • Emerging crises are those that allow more time for analysis and specific planning. These may include employee dissatisfaction, opposition by various groups, or budget reductions. They can often be anticipated and minimized at early stages.
  • Sustained crises involve situations that won’t go away and may linger for years. Internet rumors are a prime example.

The Golden Hour

Traditional crisis communications references the first hour of any crisis as the “Golden Hour” as that is when organizations have time to establish the facts and most importantly, its response. The growth of digital and social media has dramatically reduced the golden hour to little more than a few seconds. It’s when you determine whether the situation will be a manageable problem or out-of-control disaster.

Organizations should complete broad risk assessments to identify their weaknesses and the possible crises they could face, and document the types of response to be made in such events. It is helpful to go off-site for a period of a few years to envision every possible crisis scenario and develop response statements and sample Q and As to correspond with each.

Additionally, an issues management/crisis communications plan should be in place so the team can follow it in real time as a crisis unfolds. The crisis template plan helps manage all communication before, throughout and after a crisis, and guide the development of a management decision-making framework necessary to manage a crisis.

Assign Each Team Member a Role

As a crisis unfolds, strive for a timely, consistent and candid flow of accurate information to both internal and external publics to allay fears and stifle rumors. The organization should continue to function as normally as possible, leaving it to the crisis management team to contend with the crisis.

Assign specific roles to team members and identify them ahead of time, such as designating:

  • One person to speak to external publics.
  • One person to keep internal stakeholders fully informed.
  • One person to craft a statement and share accurate information with the media.
  • One person to man the social media channels.
  • One person to disseminate information to employees.

Rehearse the team regularly — at least every six months. Train and retrain the spokespeople, emphasizing the need for them to work with others involved so the organization will be seen as speaking with one voice.

Build Your Base of Advocates

People are more likely to believe a third party, so build your brand advocate base over time and ensure that they are equipped with resources such as talking points, statistics and graphics. Advocates can include anyone who interacts with your brand, as well as social media influencers or spokespeople who have significant followings and believe in your brand.

Ensure that your internal communication is just as strong as your external communication. Employees will advocate for the brand if they are equipped with the right information; and make sure they comply with your social media guidelines.

First Response

At the onset of a crisis, conduct a situation report to gather the facts, then immediately issue a holding statement, such as: “We are trying our best to determine what exactly occurred and greatly appreciate your patience. You can find more updates here: [Insert link].”

Compassion is an important ingredient for success in handling a crisis. Follow-up statements should be short, factual and express concern.

It may be necessary to have a dark page where you have testimonials from supporters, a video from a subject matter expert, a response letter and images if necessary. This is a great place to direct people to an answer quickly — whether it’s through social media or broadcast news. It’s also an effective way to explain a complex situation.

Social Media and Crises

It’s imperative to determine when a crisis is brewing, so activate social listening. Search engines (aka Google) have taken over traditional media and provide the quickest and easiest way to find information online. You can also use paid tools, such as Cision or Talkwalker, and a social media management system like Hootsuite to stay on top of the conversation.

Ensure you have established social media community guidelines, which set the tone for engagement and reflect your brand’s personality. If there is a certain hashtag being used to describe your crisis, go where the conversation is and use it. Ditch corporate speak and don’t use acronyms or jargon. Avoid being defensive. Don’t say “no comment” or ignore any general comments or queries, as that can only further the intensity of your crisis.

Use visuals to get your story across. Keep written materials short and concise, and don’t put your holding or response statements in PDFs. People won’t be able to find them through search and you won’t be able to track the number of impressions.

We are living in an era of public mistrust, so we must break through the noise by demonstrating an unwavering commitment to integrity, transparency and authenticity for the brands and organizations we represent.

A livestream can be used for a press conference, ongoing incident updates, emergency response tutorials, instructional discussions, and public Q&A, among others. A message announcing the livestream should be published on all appropriate platforms prior to the broadcast. The engagement format should be detailed, including information about the two-way dialogue.

Community managers should answer questions on the livestream in real-time, regardless if there is a two-way dialogue with the spokesperson in the video, and respond with only publicly available information and links.

Amplify content that announces the livestream as well as the broadcast. Depending on the content, the full video could be edited to soundbites and you can link back to the full video.

Once the Dust Settles

After the crisis is over, reconvene the crisis management team to debrief. Review the crises’ causes, the organization’s responses to it and the outcomes. Update the crisis management/communications plan in light of the most recent experience.

Crisis communications is just a small part of emergency preparedness planning or what some refer to as a Continuity of Operations Plan. Your crisis communications plan is part of a whole, not just a stand-alone guide. is one resource for planning ahead for disasters to business, your people and your community.

About the Author

Lauren Lawson-Zilai is the incoming president for PRSA-NCC. She currently serves as vice president, Hall of Fame chair and liaison to the pro bono and community support, mentoring, new professionals and university relations committees, and is part of the strategic planning committee. She previously served as chair of the pro bono committee; PRSA International Conference Gala chair; Thoth Awards Gala chair; board director; and board secretary; and she served on the association/nonprofit, membership and professional development committees. Lawson-Zilai is the recipient of both the Platinum and Diamond Awards for outstanding contributions to the chapter.

Lawson-Zilai is the senior director of public relations and national spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International, and has been quoted frequently in the media including, ABC Radio, the Associated Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Elle Magazine, FOX, The New York Times, The NonProfit Times, PEOPLE Magazine, and USA TODAY.


Top 3 Ways to Fix Your Online Reputation

By Josh Greene, CEO, The Mather Group

If you’ve been having a bad day when it comes to your online reputation, this is the article for you. You don’t have to tear your hair out, or moan and groan at your desk that the Internet is out to get you. With some focused effort, it’s possible to not only appear online the way you want to, but also to boost your sales and leads. Here’s what you need to know.

First, you need a strategy. This isn’t the time for half-hearted schemes. This is your reputation. To fix it, you need to focus on:

  • Search Engine Results Pages (SERP) and SEO for your CEO and your company
  • Wikipedia pages
  • Retargeting

Taken together, these items by-and-large define what people know about your company.  Knowing that and being aware of how each piece works is the starting point for building your strategy.  Ready to get into the details?  Here we go.


When someone Googles your company, what pops up? Your website? News articles? A Knowledge Panel? Ideally, it would be a mix of all of that – and all showing information that you believe is valuable for consumers. Here’s how to get there.

First, if you haven’t claimed your Knowledge Panel or created a Google My Business page, do so right now. These panels can dominate right-side search results, and you have some measure of control over what they share, which is a huge bonus.

Once you’ve claimed your Knowledge Panel, you can give Google authoritative feedback on what appears in the panel, keeping it accurate. As for Google My Business, you have complete control over what information is shared. It’s the perfect opportunity to not only take up more space on Google, but to make sure customers have the right website and address for your business.

Next, optimize your site links with the proper meta titles and descriptions and structured data. Structured data ensures your images and reviews appear, while meta descriptions/titles ensure entries appear as you want them. Once again, this is about controlling the narrative and making sure people see what you want them to.

Third, think about running advertising. This does two things for your reputation: it lets you take up more shelf space on search results and makes sure the first messaging people see is what you want them to see. By taking up more space, you can push down unwanted results.

Got all that? Okay, now we’re ready for the next two steps in your strategy.


Wikipedia will take up a good portion of your Knowledge Panel, has 340 million unique views per day, and almost always shows up as a top 3 search result on Google. You should take it for granted that potential customers are going to check out Wikipedia.

Now, whether we’re talking about your CEO’s page or your company’s page, there are a few things you want to keep in mind.

  • Your primary goal should be to increase content regarding positive information and company initiatives
  • Ensure the page is well-organized with different sections
  • Think of all the categories that apply to your CEO and your company, and then tag them on the page. The more categories a page has, the more places it’ll appear throughout Wikipedia, increasing your visibility
  • Expand your footprint and “legitimacy” on Wikipedia by connecting your pages to related pages such as technology pages, associations, events, etc.
  • For company pages, you want a built-out infobox that includes your current logo, company stats, and stock information

If you have controversial information on your page, don’t just delete it. This needs a strategy. I recommend: checking the sources listed to see if they actually corroborate what is on the page. If they don’t, dispute the sources; reorganize how the information appears, perhaps burying it in the middle of a paragraph; and/or providing sources with a clarifying narrative.  Above all, be patient. It can take time to get a page close to your ideal, but the time and effort are worth it.


And for the last piece, let’s talk about retargeting. This a great way to make sure you’re in front of the people who’ve already shown interest by coming to your website, even after they’ve left your site. With the right retargeting strategy, you can show them your message 10-40x more than what they would get from a simple website visit.

Additionally, as they travel to websites they love and see your ad, they’ll start to associate your brand with brands they already trust, making them more likely to remember you and come back.

So, there you have it.  A snapshot look at three key areas that affect your online reputation.  Take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and you can make a difference.

Predictable Surprises: Why reputation management is core to business leadership

By Tracy Schario, APR, chair of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee

Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Sage advice from a business luminary. However, many MBA programs don’t offer a strategic communications or reputation management course. PRSA and 15 universities are actively working to change that scenario.

Many communicators approach reputation management from a crisis communications point of view. Business operations teams often approach reputation from risk mitigation or risk avoidance. The synergy among these departments exists to develop an understanding of how communication strategy aligns with the larger strategy, vision, and values of an organization.

Reputation management is creating a “culture that promotes conflict avoidance versus fire-fighting,” explains Paul Argenti, author, professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth University, and founding faculty of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program. Argenti joined faculty teaching the program during a recent webinar (watch here).

Reputation management and crisis communications is as much about “intelligence operations” and scenario planning as it is about measurement, said Argenti. Companies serious about reputation management understand they need “data-driven insights rather than gut instincts.”

Argenti was joined by professor Tricia Horn, from University of Central Missouri, the newest member of the PRSA MBA/Business School program, who shared their approach to teaching reputation management, and Kathleen Donohue Rennie, PhD, APR, Fellow PRSA, an associate professor at New Jersey City University, who discussed PRSA’s research and evaluation of the program.

To request a copy of the webinar slides, please contact

About the Author

Tracy Schario, APR, is chair of the PRSA MBA/Business School Program committee. She leads media and content strategy at MITRE.

Can Bach Save the World if Yo Yo Ma Brings It to Us?

By Aimee Lauren Stern, Chief Bravery Officer, Brave Now PR

He is certainly giving it his best shot. The Bach Project, which Yo Yo Ma rolled out in August 2018, is a two year project in which the cellist commits to playing all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Cello in 36 cities around the world. Yo Yo Ma discussed The Bach Project at the Atlantic Festival last week.

Alongside each concert is a Day of Action, which can be a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future. Days of Action range from building 36 wooden tables in Pittsfied, Massachusetts, to discuss the concept of a resilient community to planting a community garden.

The Bach Project tour has reached, Chicago, New York City, Flint, Michigan, and Washington DC, among other cities, and is headed to Australia and Indonesia this fall. It will conclude in summer 2020.

When Yo Yo Ma first began playing the cello at the age of four the first song he played was Bach’s prelude to the first Cello Suite. He is still playing it. “Music can feel, inspire, create wonder,” Ma said.

Bach’s six Cello Suites are for unaccompanied cello and are either performed by Yo Yo Ma solo or with other musicians. y Johann Sebastian Bach. They are some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello.

Culture needs a seat at the table, says Ma. His point is that sharing what we love about art, music,  and telling each other our stories brings us together. The overriding message of the tour is that culture brings us together, and telling each other our stories turns other into us. bring all of us together as a species, through whatever art form we choose to inspire us. His is obviously music.

Aimee SternAbout the Author

Aimee Stern is the president of Brave Now PR and Content based in Washington DC. She specializes in helping senior executives find their industry voices, develop a platform and share it broadly.

Time for an employee communications fall tune-up

By Susan C. Rink, President and Owner, Rink Strategic Communications, LLC

It’s fall ─the season for tailgate parties, apple festivals, plaid flannel shirts and pumpkin spice everything. For most private sector companies and non-profits, it’s also time to start working on the 2020 operating budget. If you are an employee communications professional reading this blog, chances are you will be asked to do more in 2020 than you did in 2019, and most likely with less money.

It’s a fact of life. I’ve often joked that while my friends in marketing can get a million dollars to do a customer event, we employee communicators have to hold a bake sale to get the money for a simple email template. Sad, but true.

But instead of lamenting our lack of funds, employee communicators should look at fall budgeting season as an opportunity to tune up our communication campaigns and vehicles. It is just like taking your car into the mechanic, and watching them hook it up to one of those computers to assess the battery, spark plugs and all the other mysterious things living “under the hood.” This is the perfect opportunity to take an unbiased look at what you and your team have worked on over the past three quarters and whether or not you have met your performance goals.

How do your programs measure up?

For starters, are you measuring your communications vehicles? Are your measurements limited to open rates, or do you include polls and feedback loops to see if people are actually reading the articles and receiving information that they find useful?

What about your all hands or town hall meetings? Do you track attendance? Do you do any type of post-event survey and track those results to monitor trends and identify areas for improvement?

What about messaging? Are your employees able to describe the company’s strategic platforms, do they know how the company is performing against key business metrics, and can they explain the company’s culture?

If you answered yes to all the questions above, kudos to you! The bulk of your work is done and now you can get down to the nitty gritty details of determining which programs to sunset (or cut off cold turkey at the end of the calendar year), which to maintain, and where there are gaps to fill.

But what if you answered no to most of the questions? In that case, you have a bit of work to do. The good news is that it won’t take you a lot of time and won’t cost a lot of money to do so. (Although I probably shouldn’t tell you that, since companies hire me to do communication audits for them. But hey, we’re all friends here, right?)

The “Do it Yourself” Mini Audit

To conduct your mini-audit, you’ll need to get a feel for what is working and what isn’t. There are a couple of ways to do that.

One is to take advantage of existing data, such as a recent employee opinion/engagement/culture survey. These surveys are a wealth of information about employee attitudes on such topics as leadership candor/approachability, connection to the company’s mission, and health of the culture – all topics which are influenced and reinforced though effective communications.

Another idea is to institute a “flash poll” of a random group of employees, about 15% of the workforce. Keep the number of questions limited to five or so, and focus on messaging and information flow. You can issue the poll after an all hands meeting or a couple of days after an employee email newsletter is distributed (if you have one of those, if not, there’s another tool for consideration). There are lots of great online polling tools you can use, like Survey Monkey and Poll Everywhere, which offer free 30-day trials.

The third option is to host some informal focus groups to gather anecdotal feedback. To drive participation, schedule them during lunch and market them as “brown bag” sessions. One word of caution, you’ll need to be very clear that the topic is communications; otherwise it may devolve into 60 minutes of complaints about anything but communications.

Armed with the data you have gathered, you can now gather your team to discuss the findings and make informed decisions about what you can do differently and/or better in 2020…including measuring all your communications programs on a monthly basis.

Happy fall!

About the Author

Susan C. Rink is president and owner of Rink Strategic Communications, LLC, which helps their clients talk to and listen to their employees during times of change. Her clients range from global technology, retail, manufacturing and hospitality companies to professional associations and non-profit “think tanks.”

Prior to forming Rink Strategic Communications in 2007, Susan spent more than two decades in employee communication leadership positions with Nextel Communications and Marriott International. A long-time resident of the Washington, DC, area and former chair of PRSA-NCC’s Independent PR Alliance, Susan recently relocated to South Carolina where she is learning to drive faster, speak slower and cook really good grits.

How to Get a Patient to Talk: Lessons in Health Care PR

By Aaron Cohen, President, Aaron Cohen PR LLC

“Norma Smith was diagnosed with stage-three cancer in December.” – Fresno Bee

Photo credit: John Walker and The Fresno Bee

An anecdotal lede like that is rhetorical device meant to grab a reader by the lapels and demand they keep reading. According to Carmen George of the Fresno Bee, Norma is important because she can “connect people’s compelling personal stories to larger issues.”

To me, as a media relations consultant, people like Norma are the difference between press release pickups and agenda-setting coverage. Earning coverage like this requires sensitivity, patience, and skill.

Getting Norma’s story published is how a journalist explains the life-changing decisions of policymakers and businesses.

It’s the same drill when a Des Moines Register looks at how an Iowa corn farmer’s market is affected by trade policy decisions or how a head shop owner in Massachusetts is impacted by a new e-cigarette crackdown.

“The real challenge in writing a policy story is getting people to read it. If I can focus a story on a real human being who’s been impacted by the policy in question, it automatically becomes more engaging and meaningful — and dramatically more impactful, too,” says Lev Facher, reporter for Stat News, which covers the life sciences industry.

To reporters like Facher, real people resources are the Holy Grail of journalism for three reasons:

  • Real people humanize dry government or academic data, and are great at, “engaging readers on an emotional, intimate level to help them care more about what they are reading,” said George.
  • They provide an important layer of credibility to a story that might have just an antagonist and a protagonist.
  • They demonstrate a cause and effect relationship.

A dramatic example is Sheri Fink’s moving New York Times Magazine, post-Hurricane Harvey cover story about Casey Dills-Dailey. Casey was sent home from the hospital without medicine crucial to her health. When Harvey struck, her health deteriorated. She later died.

Casey’s widower Wayne, and his two sons, allowed Fink “to accompany them through the difficult days after Casey’s death in the hopes that telling her story might help others,” according to a Times Insider account of how the magazine story was reported.

Altruism like Wayne’s, is often what leads medical patients sign health privacy forms and allow journalists into their homes at the most vulnerable and sensitive times of their lives.

Fink told me she discovered Wayne and Casey without the help of a publicist, but stories like that and Norma’s are there, if you know how and where to look. To Terry DeMio, a Pulitzer Prize winning Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, it’s essential to good storytelling. “People are indispensable in a good narrative,” she said.

Here are a few steps to creating a narrative towards getting that groundbreaking placement:

  • Understand how a policy, a report, a piece of state or federal legislation will impact individuals in a negative way, and focus on the negative – happy news doesn’t usually sell papers!
  • Identify an individual, or individuals effected by a bill or a natural disaster, etc.
  • If a medical patient is involved, get the provider to have privacy waiver forms signed to stay legal.
  • Interview the person and make them comfortable with the alien process of an encounter with a journalist.
  • Don’t overly message-train a real person. They’re supposed to sound real, remember?
  • Act as the person’s agent and appointment secretary, like they were your client and protect the patient’s time and health.
  • Do follow-up work with a reporter and treat them like they were your client or boss.

There was no way the Fresno Bee or any daily newspaper in the United States was going to report on the arcane practices of the health care system’s middlemen, known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) without a Norma Smith. It’s too dry and, to many readers, just plain boring.

For the Community Oncology Alliance, we tapped into a Fresno oncology practice and found Norma, a plain-speaking, stage three blood cancer patient who felt shafted by a PBM.

Carmen George liked the story, interviewed Norma about how a PBM delayed the cancer medicine her oncologist had prescribed, and published a blockbuster that was a sensation on the internet, stirred a reaction from the Fresno congressman and an explanation from the PBM in question.

Norma wasn’t quoted for her knowledge of Prior Authorizations or Direct and Indirect Remuneration Fees. Washington Post health care reporter Lenny Bernstein says, “stories profit from quotes from the people who are going through these situations, whether they are mental illness, a hurricane, war, or an election.”

Here’s why Carmen George’s story in the Fresno Bee profited from Norma’s central role. Norma said, “I’m a human being. I’m not a used car. I have feelings. I’m a person. I want to live. I want to spend time with my grandchildren. I want to quilt. I want to do things. I want to live.”

About the Author

Aaron Cohen has owned and operated Aaron Cohen PR since 2014, and has been a health care PR specialist for a decade. In addition to media relations, messaging and media training services for clients, Aaron offers a training course to teach organizations how to start new, or improve existing, earned media programs. Aaron has been in communications for more than three decades, having worked in a succession of PR firms and as a Washington- based radio journalist. For more, visit

Experts Needed – That’s You!

This blog is a forum for members of the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and other public relations professionals. Your expertise is a welcome addition to this community.

Please consider writing a post. This is a great way to give to the profession and the professional society that has helped us all as PR professionals.

We welcome blog submissions from members and other contributors who are interested in providing content that can be useful for public relations practitioners. Below are blog submission guidelines.

Helpful Blogging Tips and Best Practices

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This is a great way to get more exposure for your ideas and expertise. All blog posts are included on the PRSA-NCC home page and also shared on PRSA-NCC chapter social media channels.