The Case for Crisis Communication as a Tool for Reputation Management


One result of living in an always-on, digital world is unlimited, instant access to information. This can be both beneficial and harmful for brands; on the one hand, it means customers can easily search for and access relevant information dating back to a company’s founding. On the other hand, it can make it difficult for brands to recover from crises or unfavorable situations—even years after they happen. 

Crisis communication is a vital aspect of reputation management, especially in dynamic industries like technology, where the costs of cyber crimes (data loss, business disruption, fraud, and more) are expected to reach $9.22 trillion in 2024 and rise to $13.82 trillion in 2028.

But it doesn’t always take a data breach to ruin a brand’s reputation. Once posted online, any comment, video, or photo can live on forever, making its rounds across social media channels and inciting public discourse. While brands can’t anticipate every potential crisis, they should have a robust crisis communication plan in place to mitigate and effectively address any crisis that comes their way.

Below, we’ll create a case for establishing a robust crisis communication strategy through the lens of recent real-world examples, providing advice on how to build and adapt plans for your brand. 

Analysis of an Interview with OpenAI’s CTO

From academia, science, and art to medicine and journalism, no industry was spared from conversations around AI last year. In fact, OpenAI and its free generative AI system, ChatGPT, dominated many of the conversations around the technology. 

As more and more brands entered the generative AI text space, others explored ways to apply the technology to image and video content. In a sit-down interview with OpenAI CTO Mira Murati, the Wall Street Journal asked Murati to explain Sora, OpenAI’s text-to-video generation model.

Communication Breakdown

During the interview, Murati was shown videos generated by the platform based on the WSJ’s prompts. The interviewer explained how Sora works: it analyzes videos to learn how to identify objects and actions before creating content. This produces a smoother, more realistic, consistent result when compared to other text-to-video models. 

Then, Murati discussed some of Sora’s weaknesses. This isn’t the issue. In fact, admitting mistakes is great for communicating transparency. 

So, when did things start going wrong? About halfway through the interview. Seeking to make sense of some of the inconsistencies and random content found in Sora’s generated videos, the interviewer asked Murati what data was used to train Sora.

Murati clearly responded by saying the company used publicly available data and licensed data. But when the interviewer got more specific and asked if the data came from videos on Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, Murati’s responses raised red flags:

“I’m not sure.”

“I’m not confident.”

“I’m not going to go into the details of the data that was used, but it was publicly available or licensed data.”

Though it was later confirmed that the licensed data included content from Shutterstock, which has a licensing deal with OpenAI, the damage had already been done. 

Murati’s responses, particularly regarding the data used to train Sora, underscore the challenges of crisis communication. This situation also highlights the importance of transparency and preparedness in addressing media inquiries during crisis situations, especially for executives and employees in publicly facing roles.

Key Takeaways from the Interview

Murati came across as an informed expert up until that crucial point in the interview. As the CTO of a major, innovative tech company, her inability to tactfully answer those questions eroded her—and her company’s—credibility.

The contrast between vague or evasive responses and strategies for preserving integrity and confidentiality highlights the importance of careful communication. This is because, as the CTO, it’s difficult to believe Murati wouldn’t know where the data fed into Sora is sourced from. OpenAI’s PR experts should have anticipated that question and prepared Murati so she wouldn’t blatantly dodge it. If legal issues were limiting Murati’s responses, Murati and her PR team could have put together a simple, honest, and polished statement.

Crisis communication requires a balance between honesty and discretion, particularly in industries where confidentiality is crucial (e.g. banking, finance, health, etc.), and good PR teams will help you navigate challenging questions with poise. 

But this is just one example highlighting the importance of media training and crisis communications. It is important to create and safeguard a high level of trustworthiness for every company, whether or not it is experiencing an active crisis.

Related read: Shortening the News Cycle: How to Minimize the Impact of a PR Crisis

Understanding Crisis Communication

Crisis communication involves handling and addressing unforeseen events that could negatively affect an organization’s reputation, operations, or stakeholders. During this period, the alignment of key messages across the organization ensures consistency and clarity in communications.

As a result, crisis communication and media training go hand in hand, and media training is essential for key stakeholders to effectively navigate crises.

Related read: The Difference Between PR, Earned Media, and Crisis Comms

The Importance of Having a Crisis Communication Plan

A well-prepared crisis communication plan is essential for businesses to effectively manage and navigate a PR crisis. It provides a structured framework for responding to issues promptly, accurately, and empathetically. Crisis communications plans minimize damage while preserving trust.

While the overall content of a crisis plan will vary depending on your industry and a variety of other factors, most will follow a similar template outlined below:

The Anatomy of a Crisis Communication Plan

1. Assess the risks. Preparing for any kind of potential risk creates a better chance of addressing crises that might impact your business or industry in the future.

2. Build a crisis management team and designate spokespeople. A crisis management team will identify the person in charge of crisis management, a designated spokesperson to address the media and/or public, PR professionals to craft responses and navigate media inquiries, and the heads of other departments who may need to assist during a crisis. 

3. Develop communication strategies and channels. In B2B, you must contact various stakeholders during crises. These include partners, clients, and any other agency or government entities related to your industry. Keep an accessible contact list on hand to promptly reach these external stakeholders and officials when a crisis hits. 

Similarly, preparing a media list and messaging in advance will help you quickly modify and share information. Your messaging should stick to the facts, remain transparent about what happened, outline next steps, and provide an opportunity or contact information to field questions. 

Ensure your messages are received by using multiple communication channels. This includes sending press releases or media alerts as necessary, creating a landing page with frequent updates, identifying appropriate social media channels, and creating email content. Internal communications are also important to keep employees informed.

4. Create a crisis comms asset folder. Maintain organization by housing your crisis comms plan, contact lists, messaging, and other relevant information in one folder that is accessible to your crisis team. Drop additional assets into this folder as you collaborate and finalize them. 

5. Practice, practice, practice. Media training will play a major role in preparing your crisis team ahead of time. Ideally, your designated spokesperson will be a familiar face for contacts and should feel comfortable speaking to the media and/or large groups of people.

As we learned from the OpenAI example, your team should know how to tactfully respond to difficult questions. Phrases like “I’ll check that information and get back to you,” and “Let me confirm with my team,” or even “We’re working on those details” may not deliver the responses people are looking for, but they provide your team with a chance to craft a better response in the future without losing credibility.

Public relations professionals will typically create briefing documents ahead of interviews to provide relevant information about the journalist, outlet, and expected topics of conversation. These briefing docs will usually include a list of key points to mention during the interview, along with potential questions and approved responses. Ensure every executive and leader at your company is aligned on messaging by providing them with a similar list of questions and responses they should know during and after a crisis.

While your spokesperson may be ready to speak to the public, the rest of your team must understand the process of working during a crisis. Run a few practice drills with your crisis management team to ensure your team knows what to do and when. This also gives you a chance to iron out any problems.

6. Review and adjust. The lifecycle of a crisis may seem long while you experience it, but it will eventually end. Once the dust settles, meet with your crisis management team to discuss what did and didn’t work, making adjustments for future potential crises. 

Whether your business operates in crisis mode for a few days or several months, be sure to maintain constant communication with your stakeholders, the press, and anyone impacted by the crisis far into the future. This will help rebuild your brand’s trust and credibility. 

Related read: Crisis Communication 101 for B2B Companies—with Step by Step Crisis Reaction Instructions

Other Examples of Businesses Facing Crises

Reviewing instances of good and bad responses during crises can help businesses create their crisis communications plans.

Spicy (Chicken) Nugget of Wisdom

In one major example from earlier this year, fast food chain restaurant Wendy’s announced it would experiment with dynamic pricing. This caused backlash on social media and an avalanche of media coverage. 

Dynamic pricing refers to changing the price of goods or services in response to demand. It isn’t even a new concept. For example, airlines have used dynamic pricing models for years, although most people don’t notice until they need to book a last-minute flight. And more recently, dynamic ticket pricing for concerts and events reached a boiling point, angering fans across music genres and leading lawmakers to get involved by proposing bills to address the issue.

The problem for Wendy’s wasn’t in the dynamic pricing; it was the media running away with the wrong messaging. When Wendy’s said it would implement surge pricing like Uber, customers became furious at the idea that their food could cost more.

Dynamic ≠ surge. Wendy’s backtracked and tried to add some clarity to the situation, emphasizing the model they wanted to explore was dynamic pricing, not surge pricing. Similar to happy hours or BOGO deals, this meant prices might go up during peak hours, but they could also go down when demand was low. Unfortunately for Wendy’s, the public’s perception got ahead of them and created an entirely different narrative.

A (Dark) Web of Data

Managing customer data in the era of all things digital is a daunting task, especially when millions of customers are involved.

In 2021, hackers claimed customer information was stolen from AT&T. Fast forward years later to March 2024, and that personal data was found on the dark web. This information included the social security numbers and account information of 65.4 million former customers and 7.6 million current account holders. 

As part of its response, AT&T informed regulators and its current customers of the data breach, sharing information about the incident and describing what data was compromised. The company also outlined its response, which included resetting passcodes for those 7.6 million affected. Additionally, all 73 million current and former customers will receive one year of free credit-monitoring services.

In the weeks following the data breach, customers have expressed concerns on social media and online forums over AT&T’s response. Some criticized the company for not doing enough to protect the stolen information years before it was leaked, while others were frustrated by notices of potential price increases to their services following news of the hacking.

AT&T did well to quickly share the news and own up to the incident, informing authorities and those affected, but it still wasn’t quick enough to prevent the incident from happening altogether. This means the company has a long way to go in creating and rebuilding consumer trust. Cybersecurity best practices emphasize that cyber crime is a matter of when, not if, it will happen, and crisis comms plays a major role in relaying that message to customers.

Examples of Effective Crisis Communication

Each crisis is at least somewhat unique, so while there is no simple formula for effective crisis management, companies can learn from strategies used in successful crisis comms responses and adapt them for their own use. 

Acknowledging Mistakes 

Following the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), the Federal Reserve issued a detailed report for the public. The report outlined the reasons behind SVB’s failure and the Federal Reserve admitted its own shortcomings, stating, “Federal Reserve supervisors failed to take forceful enough action.”

In addition to providing a detailed account of the steps it would take to strengthen its supervision and regulation, the Federal Reserve sent a message of assurance: “Our banking system is sound and resilient, with strong capital and liquidity.”

This approach didn’t gloss over or try to minimize problems. Instead, it acknowledged them by clearly identifying issues and solutions in a publicly available report.

Related read: The SVB Collapse: How to Communicate with Stakeholders in Times of Crisis

Finding Opportunities 

Even if your company isn’t directly involved in a crisis, can your products or services deliver a solution to the problem? Emerging as a solution is not only an effective way of raising brand awareness, it helps to build your brand reputation against future potential crises.

In one example, New Cosmos USA, the global leader in residential natural gas detectors, was preparing to launch a new line called DeNova Detect. Before its launch, New Cosmos noticed the risks impacting their industry, including 4,200 annual home fires due to natural gas explosions and the controversial political climate around natural gas appliances.

Together with the Zen Media PR team, New Cosmos chose to acknowledge the risks through a campaign emphasizing natural gas safety during the DeNova Detect’s launch at the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The outreach plan was spearheaded by a comprehensive press release, targeted outreach to trade publications, newsjacking, and thought leadership opportunities.

Combined with consistent messaging and sustained momentum on social media, the results were incredible. The New Cosmos products emerged onto the CES scene with unmatched force, share of voice exploded to 689% and resulted in deals with multiple major big-box retailers, and the Las Vegas City Mayor’s Office honored the brand’s efforts by declaring January 6 as Natural Gas Safety Awareness Day.

Why Crisis Comms Is So Important

As explored above, crisis comms critically support brands and their customers in times of crisis. While you can do everything within your power to prevent a crisis, a variety of external factors might derail your plans. 

If you’re still deciding whether to create a comprehensive crisis management plan, consider the long-term impacts on your brand and reputation if you don’t.

Reputation management: Crises emphasize the intimate link between good communication and reputation management. A well-handled crisis can enhance trust and credibility, while mishandling it can lead to lasting damage to a company’s reputation and brand equity.

Short- and long-term effects of mishandling crises: Talkwalker, a platform that specializes in consumer social listening, highlights the short- and long-term consequences of social media crises. At first, brands may suffer from a decline in sales or consumer trust, impacting stocks and stakeholders. In the long run, a singular instance may lead to sustained damage to a brand’s reputation, resulting in a loss of market share.

These results are possible in any crisis and may also include loss of customer loyalty or investor confidence. 

Adapting to Crisis Comms in the Digital Age

A strong crisis comms plan will work across traditional and digital channels, ensuring your messaging is presented to all audiences.

While traditional media plays a key role in amplifying your messaging during a crisis, digital media gives you more flexibility and control—but it also has drawbacks.

Challenges and Opportunities for Digital Crisis Comms

Digital media presents unique challenges and opportunities during crises that include the speed of information dissemination, viral misinformation, and the ability to directly engage with stakeholders through social media platforms.

Strategies for digital communication: Use social listening skills to monitor online conversations in the aftermath of a crisis. This means tracking mentions of your brand name and other relevant keywords, conversations, and topics to reveal what the public is saying. Not only will this help you gauge sentiment, but it can inform your response and communications strategy. 

Responding to inquiries and criticisms online can also be effective in moving the needle in your favor. Avoid additional issues by acknowledging concerns and responding with consistent messaging. Express empathy and offer immediate solutions, including connecting customers to support teams or providing links to helpful resources.

Leveraging digital platforms to disseminate accurate information will help you to effectively manage public perception. Quick responses are ideal, but never at the expense of accurate, approved, and empathetic messaging.

The importance of transparency and authenticity: Maintaining transparency and authenticity in digital communication is critical to preserving consumer trust and loyalty. Consumer research conducted by PwC found that key factors in building respondents’ trust include protecting consumer data (79%), quickly responding to and resolving consumer concerns (74%), and delivering a consistent and reliable customer experience (73%). 

Reflect these values by always prioritizing honesty and sincerity—especially during crises.

Related read: Navigating Crisis Management in the Digital Age: Lessons from The Carta CEO Disaster

Control the Narrative

No matter the situation, crisis communications demands a strategic approach prioritizing transparency, integrity, and preparedness. The lessons learned from analyzing the interview between Murati and the WSJ and the other examples provided offer valuable insights applicable to crisis communication strategies in various sectors.

By strategically addressing communication challenges and creating a crisis comms plan to match the situation, organizations can better protect their reputation and mitigate the impact of crises on their stakeholders and reputation. Leveraging digital media can help, but only if organizations deploy tactful strategies and maintain brand transparency.
Looking to build a robust crisis communication plan? Reach out.


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