What’s a PR Disaster and How to Respond to it

Estimated read time: 9 minutes

So and so is facing a PR (public relations) disaster are statements we see in the media from time to time. But what does that actually mean? Why is it a public relations disaster and where do we draw the line to it being something other than a PR disaster?

Definitions of a PR disaster

There are three kinds of common PR disasters.

Case 1: How the public handling of a situation was handled

Some PR disasters are truly about how an organization handled the public release or (sometimes) withholding of information as it relates to an event. Let’s take the example of an incident at a school:

The school goes on lock down because there’s a report of a person with a weapon nearby.

Despite text messaging, email and social media being options for the school district to notify parents, the first time parents hear about the incident is through a TV report.

Parents are outraged that they weren’t informed by the school district first.

The situation that caused the lock down, by the way, was resolved peacefully and nobody at the school was harmed or even affected beyond having to go through lock down procedures.

In this case, the school made sure students were safe and that it stayed that way. But parents were upset about the way communication was handled.

There can be many reasons why one decision was made over another. But in the end, the organization at the center of what they might label a PR disaster is explaining why one thing or another was done and another wasn’t.

Key tips to deal with these kind of cases:

  • Listen to the feedback.
  • Assure people that you listened.
  • Assure that the feedback has been gathered and will be considered for future changes.
  • Report back publicly and explain how feedback was integrated or why it wasn’t.

Case 2: That the public now knows about something unfavorable that happened

Another PR disaster happens when something negative happens involving an organization and this event is then publicized. There’s nothing (or nothing substantial at least) that is incorrect about what has been reported publicly. Nonetheless, the publishing of this event reflects negatively on the organization.

These kind of  “PR disasters” are actually not true communication problems, but are actually operational problems. Things that are true and that are being shared publicly aren’t fixed by keeping them secret, but by fixing the actual problem.

Let’s take the example of an employee at a good-sized public entity being a bully. Employee after employee leave after supervisors ignored a number of complaints.

Eventually, one of these employees files a lawsuit, which is picked up by the local newspaper. The allegations are now public.

The story that’s starting to form in the public’s mind: This is not a good place to work. Bullies can be bullies there. Bosses aren’t doing anything about it.

This story being public can impact recruitment and morale even more than it has already been negatively impacted. But let’s not point fingers at the PR department for it becoming public. There are many ways stories that reflect negatively on an organization can become public:

  • Employees or former employees might come forward
  • Public records are searched by reporters, bloggers, etc. (This is what happened in this hypothetical case.)

Even if a negative story doesn’t end up published on a website or by traditional media, you can bet that the impacted employees were sharing their stories one by one with friends and acquaintances. Even though stories spreading this way aren’t nearly as high profile, they still spread from person to person.

Key tips to deal with these kind cases:

  • Explain what happened as completely as possible.
  • Take questions and try to answer them completely and definitely honestly.
  • When a question can’t be answered or specific information can’t be released, explain why that is the case. Examples could be privacy laws, unknown information, etc.
  • Explain how the situation will be corrected.

It’s also important to be empathetic toward any victims – no matter what the case.

Case 3: Saying something unrelated publicly that might be offensive to an ongoing news situation

In a world where organizations schedule social media updates – which indeed is an effective way to share information on social media channels – it’s important to keep an eye on how social media updates might be read if they post during developing news situations.

Some news events – especially negative news – receive national and sometimes global coverage. Many news outlets talk about them on social media, their websites and other channels. Other social media users might also be talking about the events, adding their own commentary, thoughts and fears to the ongoing content stream.

A previously scheduled social media update can look very strange in the midst of this. Let’s say a shooting has occurred somewhere in the United States and an organization posted a Tweet that mentions the word “shooter” but in an unrelated way. It can very much backfire.

Unfortunately timed Tweets often get coverage on tech websites and get shared many times over by readers.

Key tips to deal with these kind cases:

  • Keep an eye on what is happening and pause social media updates when necessary. Many social scheduling platforms now have pause buttons – something that didn’t exist in 2014,  but does in 2020.
  • If something did publish before it could be paused, delete the update and explain why it was posted in the first place and then deleted. Sometimes this explanation might have to go on an organization’s blog for space reasons. Remember that this should be posted quickly. (Related: Why is it so hard to respond on social media?)
  • Respond to people asking questions about the situation.
  • At some point, it’s OK for your social media activity to return to normal. Depending on the case, this is likely a day or two afterward.

When PR disasters happen, how organizations respond in the  midst of them can instill trust or ruin trust with consumers. It’s often best to be as transparent as possible on as many relevant channels as possible, including:

  • With traditional media.
  • On your social media channels.
  • Your website and/or blog.
  • Offline, too.

When we know what we stand for, and what our organization is trying to accomplish (our authentic story), it will help us respond to any real or what some may perceive as a PR disaster in a most meaningful way.

The three levels of issues communication in an omni-channel environment (with Amanda Saunders-Johnston)

In this episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast healthcare reputation manager Amanda Saunders-Johnston shares with me the three different types of what we might call crisis communication that she uses to guide response. Certainly each level demands a different kind of response and that’s good to keep in mind.

You can listen to the episode above or read the summary of the three levels here.

Business issues (day-to-day)

This is probably the most common one and refers to cases where patients are responding or mentioning Amanda’s hospital publicly like on social media.

Healthcare organizations have some additional privacy laws to deal with when responding to people and that certainly must be considered. In general I liked Amanda’s comments that they make a point to respond in the appropriate way and with speed.

I have been an advocate for always responding for quite a while now. As recently as last year I was still calling out when companies – like Sam Adams in this example – do a nice job responding on social media. It’s not as common as it could be.

Just by responding brands can head off additional problems.

Amanda mentioned that her team uses a mix of templated responses and also personalized messages. Sometimes I see social media users take brands to task when they feel like they got a template response but in reality there are only so many ways you can say certain common things. So having templates for the team to use is a good strategy in my opinion. Just don’t make them sound robotic.


What kind of technology to use here depends on your specific company needs. And also volume of content and interactions. Amanda’s team uses a tool to monitor all the relevant channels. A few years ago I heard that McDonald’s was mentioned once every second globally. It’s impossible to respond to every post-even when you have a good tool. Some kind of triage system needs to be implemented or really good automation that doesn’t sound like automation.

Read these tips to pick software that works for you

External and unrelated cases

This level of issues communication happens something when happens that your company has some kind of connection to the event, but is not directly the main brand involved.

For example, if there’s a flood in town, the local hospital will play a part and may even be impacted. But Emergency Management and law enforcement will likely be the main communicators.

Sometimes, this area applies when something gets covered in the news and then a brand decides to insert itself into the discussion.

Sometimes that’s appropriate and sometimes it can backfire. Amanda shares that it can be okay to participate if it’s genuine, adds value and is not just a sales push.

If a winter storm is damaging don’t try to winter boots through a snarky tweet.


True crisis communication occurs when something is happening that needs immediate attention. Amanda shared that Advent Health has a team that collaborates in real to discuss next steps. The important thing here is as well to be on top of the situation and communicate quickly.

What do all areas of issues communication have in common?

They all require quick action and fast responding. Speed matters. Just like authenticity and sharing valuable information. It’s all easier with a plan, too.

Crisis communication planning

Need help with your crisis communication planning or want me to  speak at your conference or event about the topic? Book a time here to chat with me or fill out the form.

This was first written in 2014 and updated in 2020 and a podcast was added

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