PR Horror Stories: What happened and how we survived

While most of us consider Halloween to be the scariest day of the year, public relations crises are, unfortunately, not limited to just one day. Crisis can happen when you least expect it and, no matter how much you prepare, many PR people can be caught off guard. The goal is to plan – as much as possible – for the unexpected.

My First Crisis

The call came in late at night, well after office hours. My supervisor didn’t know much outside of the fact that someone died in a manufacturing facility. We raced to the office, feeling like we’d function better as a team in the same room. As information came in surrounding the tragedy, we learned more about the person who died – a single mom who had been employed by our client for many years. A safety aspect of the machine she worked on did not function properly. She was pulled into the machine and died quickly. A coworker found her.

Our first order of business was to help the president of the company with his public statement. To his credit, he really wasn’t interested in talking with his PR firm – he was upset and concerned for his employee’s family, her children. We had pre-written responses built into our crisis plan for the company, but given the emotion wrapped into this particular situation, we opted to update the language to reflect the president’s feelings.

Once the statement was approved, we shared it with a local newspaper reporter with whom we had a relationship. The reporter broke the story and, as it was picked up, we monitored who covered and made sure the information was accurate. As new information was available through the investigation, we reached out to those who were covering the story to ensure they had the most up-to-date and true details.

My Reoccurring Crisis

Having worked in food and beverage public relations for my entire career, the crisis I see most often relates to a bad ingredient. From spoiling to bugs to a lot of other unsavory things, food manufacturing and preparation has its share of scary things. For the purpose of this post, we’ll refer to them as “bad ingredients”.

The first step in a bad ingredients situation is to identify what caused the problem and determine how we can quickly pull the ingredient from the facility. If the bad ingredient is in multiple stores throughout the country, how can corporate be sure ALL has been pulled? The simplest, but costly answer is the best: Physically visit every location to be sure the pull has happened.

For a voluntary pull, who do you tell? Well, it’s complicated. As you’re pulling stock, have language ready for the employees working closely with the bad ingredient. Instruct them on how to handle public statements and where to pass along media inquiries. We typically ask media to speak with either our main contact with the client or a high-ranking person at our firm.

If there’s a chance the bad ingredient made its way into the hands of consumers, it’s important to communicate concisely and swiftly to ensure they’re protected. Don’t wait until people come forward claiming to be sick, or worse, that loved ones have died as a result of your delay.


With any crisis, remain calm and think through every direction the situation could take. Your role as a PR professional is to weigh the options, guide your client on protecting their brand and their customers. In a perfect world, our client’s crisis would stay quiet, behind closed doors … but we aren’t always that lucky. Be honest, be transparent and be empathetic.