Can You Simulate a PR Crisis and Then Handle the Real Thing?

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    Almost a month through the first year of the new year and at least two major crisis’s have dominated the news of late, the Tucson shootings and the upheaval in Egypt. Sorry, weather fanatics, big snow, and numbing cold don’t cut it, it’s January. Of all the coverage on the tragedies and triumphs in the Congresswoman Giffords event, perhaps the most revealing — aside from NPR’s rush to pronounce her dead before all the facts were in, a real-life PR crisis in itself — is how little Safeway Grocery has played in the story.

    Although it was the site of this terrible news story, you never heard from the owner or manager — at least in the coverage I’ve seen (although the Safeway organization did issue a news release on January 13 setting up a fund for the victims’ families). Perhaps it was wise on their part. Sometimes in a crisis of this scope, not saying anything is the best course unless called on to do so. Or perhaps there was/is no crisis plan in place at this national food retailer.

    Jumping to the other side of the globe, events in Cairo this past week, on the heels of the revolt in Tunisia, have been driven in part by social media tools to the point where the teetering government has tried to block Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. The crisis is being driven by and often reported on through these channels —although the real-life PR crisis is the result of 30 years of one-man rule, reported widespread corruption, and huge divides between haves and have-nots and police state tactics.

    What roles should people take in crisis situations is one reason to have an effective crisis plan in place. In November, the global PR warhorse Weber Shandwick announced it had created a “crisis simulator” called Firebell that creates “… an authentic, real-time experience of being under attack on social media channels. This proprietary application allows clients to participate in a real-time dialogue in a secure, off-the-Internet environment.”

    Ring the Firebell

    How well will such preparation work once a real crisis takes place for one of its clients remains to be seen. But the strategic thinking behind it is right:

    According to Chris Perry, president of Digital Communications at Weber Shandwick, “Communications leaders need to understand that it’s not a matter of if an online crisis is going to happen, but when – and be prepared. How a company responds to a crisis in today’s social environment is vastly different than even in the recent past; a formal statement to the press no longer suffices. It’s about a living dialogue with a company’s constituents.”

    The web is alive every second and information travels almost instantaneously to all parts of the planet, whether it’s inaccurate information or dead-on facts, or the varying shades and nuances in between. How are you going to deal with that?

    Here’s the Fireball news release for more insights.


    For more resources, see the Library topic Public and Media Relations.


    Martin Keller runs Media Savant Communications Co., a Public Relations and Marketing Communications consulting company based in the Twin Cities. Keller has helped move client stories to media that includes The New York Times, Larry King, The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, plus many other magazines, newspapers, trade journals and other media outlets. Contact him at, or 612-729-8585