Planning for a PR crisis – is it Spin?

Image: renjith krishnan /

Call it “crisis communications” or “issues management,” it’s always the same.

Something went wrong; someone is being blamed; opinions are being formed; and the conversation can quickly spin out of control in the public sphere.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and the break-neck speed of social media, everyone can witness a public relations crisis. To most laypersons, it’s just another news story that filters through their daily lives.

For the PR professional, it’s what keeps us up at night.

Planning for crisis situations, whether external or internal, is a natural extension of communications responsibilities under public relations. It’s no secret within the business that PR folks, and their companies or clients, plan for various crisis situations and sometimes put plans into writing for internal use.

However, an “awww-snap” situation occurred this week that brought to light this common PR practice of crisis communication planning. 

The whole world (or those who cared to notice) had access to a leaked internal document from the Kidney Cares Partners, laying out their response plan to a news report from ProPublica about dialysis care. KCP’s entire issues response plan – complete with key messages and Q&A – was posted online, exposing the underbelly of PR flackery.

Having worked on both sides of the fence (journalism and PR), I’m all about entitlement to both sides of the story.

ProPublica was doing its job as a responsible news entity by investigating the state of dialysis care, which affects patients and caregivers alike. Of course, a critical story is not going to make everyone happy, especially those providing the care being investigated. KCP, from their perspective, was doing its job to plan a response once the story broke in order to defend its industry.

But is that the essence of  “spin?” Was KCP trying to manipulate the story by planning for a crisis situation?

Surprisingly, the comments on ProPublica’s page with the leaked memo leaned on KCP’s side. Most said KCP was entitled to plan a response to the story, so long as the facts were not falsified.

I don’t see planning for a PR crisis as spin, but rather as the process by which an organization evaluates a situation from all angles, both positive and negative. It’s a relevant exercise that challenges companies and clients to understand the ramifications of their products or services.  

Most companies have in place a crisis or issues management plan, even large news organizations. Heck, I’ll bet MSNBC had to review their issues management plan when they suspended Keith Olbermann.

I’m not completely drinking the Kool-Aid here.

I’m sure there do exist somewhere in the seedy underbelly other crisis plans that are, in fact, spin and wrought with falsehoods. But with regard to KCP and the general practice in PR of planning for a potentially negative situation, I don’t see anything wrong or unethical.

Any other PR folks have experiences or thoughts to add about crisis planning? For any journos out there, how did you feel when you read the issues response plan?

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November 12, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , . corporate communications, media, media relations, news media, public relations, social media.

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