Managing the unexpected: how to handle a left-field crisis

A left-field crisis can take even the most prepared PR teams by surprise. The nature of these crises means they can come from anywhere and can be generated by anything from an unanticipated news story, poor weather, to a terrorist attack. 

Although unpredictable, a left-field crisis is still manageable and the stakes are far too high to let such a crisis damage your brand value. A study by Pentland Analytics and Aon found that when companies suffer a reputational crisis on social media, those that emerge successfully “tend to gain 20 percent in value” while those who suffered a decline after a reputational crisis "lost nearly 30% in value”.

In our latest ebook, PR experts share their experiences about how best to prepare your team for the unexpected, so that you are able to emerge from a crisis unscathed. Here, one PR professional tells her story of how she was able to manage the publicity campaign for a film despite the tragic death of an actress after production.

An untimely death - Heather Burgett, award winning publicist and CEO & founder of The Burgett Group

“Sadly one of the cast’s co-stars – E’Dena Hines, Morgan Freeman’s step granddaughter – was tragically murdered just a month after production. We were enlisted with running the film release PR campaign, and clearly this was an extremely sensitive topic.

“Managing the situation sensitively was the main priority for my team and the clients. We created the PR campaign by considering the reality of the situation and the impact on any parties that it affected, including the filmmakers who had built a close relationship with the deceased actress. We advised the distribution company that it was of the utmost importance to handle the launch carefully out of respect for Hines and her family and friends. It was a priority for the filmmakers to be in touch with the family to let them know of any developments happening with the film so that nothing would be a surprise, such as suddenly seeing their deceased daughter in the media tied to the film.

“From here we took three steps to ensure the film was launched with the upmost respect for everyone concerned:

1. Took action and led strong communication: The filmmakers were in touch with the family, including Morgan Freeman’s team. We led the situation and the conversation by having strong and open communication with everyone about the PR plans.

2.Created sensitive yet powerful positioning and messaging: The most important aspect was that all PR and editorial media, along with the film release PR campaign, was all around being a tribute to this wonderful woman who was extremely talented and taken away from us far too soon.

 3. Led the conversation and set boundaries with the media: The filmmakers appeared on many outlets from CNN to iHeart Radio, and we were very clear that talking about the murder was off limits. The filmmakers led the conversations about how wonderful an artist and friend she was. The media were extremely respectful and honored the boundaries that were set.

“For anyone who is faced with the same tragic situation, by sticking to these steps and the agreed messaging, the result will be good or positive (or at least ‘better’) press. By diffusing sensitive or challenging conversations and offering a different story, the tide can quickly turn in your favor. Be sure to share the wins with all the concerned parties, and keep the conversation moving in the desired direction.”


Left-field crisis management strategy
1. Think fast. Make sure you have the right services in place so you are aware of the issue and can act before it escalates

2. Be creative. But look to existing crisis comms strategies first to see if they can be adapted for the situation

3. Stay true to your brand values

4. Respond quickly

5. Pay close attention to online chatter to stay on top of the evolving issue

Be prepared
Heather’s experience highlights the necessity for PR teams to think fast and adapt existing crisis comms strategies creatively. By having a team that were aware of the services already in place, they were rapidly able to take control of the situation and conversations surrounding the tragic circumstances to prevent escalation.

For more strategies for managing a range of PR crises, including those of the left-field variety, download Crisp’s 6 ways to be the best at preparing for the worst ebook for free. 

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