61% of PR Pros Ready for Crisis; Besides COVID, Top Worries: DEI, Cyber, Disinfo

The importance of data collection before, during and after a crisis is well established. Still, crisis, more than some things, presents difficulties when assembling data points.

For example, the 2022 edition of PRNEWS’ annual Crisis Tracker asks respondents myriad questions about crises they’ve handled from October 2020 through October 2021. But one PR pro’s definition of ‘crisis’ may differ from another’s.

Similarly, there’s no standard definition of being ‘crisis prepared.’ So, when a communicator says her team is ‘crisis prepared’, another might judge the same unit as unprepared.

Moreover, in its quest for data, the Tracker asks how quickly crises ended, allowing firms to return to ‘business as usual.’

Again, what one communicator considers ‘back to normal,’ another may see as a business still in crisis. In addition, there’s a raging debate over the proposition that some crises end years after they begin or never really end.

All that aside, some learnings emerged from the survey of nearly 300 communicators conducted in October and November 2021. The most newsworthy was what issues are concerning crisis pros. Besides COVID, they include: DEI, misinformation/disinformation, activism, cyber, natural disasters and employee/executive misconduct (please see Chart 3).

[Editor’s Note: Click here for the full 2022 Crisis Tracker.]

61% are Crisis Prepared

First, the majority of PR pros (61 percent) feel confident about their and their team’s crisis preparation. They’re not as upbeat about the C-suite’s level of preparedness (Chart 1).

The 61 percent figure is roughly the same as other recent surveys find when they ask, ‘Are you/your company prepared for a crisis?’ That’s edged up from five to10 years ago, when crisis readiness often was in the 50 percent range.

On the other hand, it should be higher than 61 percent, particularly in the wake of perhaps the greatest global crisis in modern times.

Another reason 61 percent seems too low is that another Tracker question asks about crisis origins. Here, 64 percent of all respondents report crises during the observed period occurred mostly “suddenly, without warning.”

The Tracker adds a valuable wrinkle to the issue of crisis prep. It asks whether or not communicators feel their C-suite is prepared for a crisis. Fewer than half (43 percent) do.

If you see the glass as half full, you’ll take the 32 percent who are unsure about the C-suite’s readiness and add it to the 25 percent who believe it’s unready. The resulting 57 percent of unprepared C-suites is troubling.

T.J. Winick, SVP and crisis lead, Solomon McCown and Cence, says it’s the communicator’s job “to ensure crisis preparedness remains front and center.” At a minimum, he says, everyone in the C-suite should “understand their responsibilities during a crisis and what the sign-off procedures are for communication.” Conducting media trainings and tabletop exercises with the CEO should happen twice yearly, he adds.

What Does Speed Signify?

The Tracker finds nearly half of respondents (48 percent) issued an initial response the same day a crisis broke. Last year, just 38 percent said so.

It’s difficult to know from the data whether crisis communicators are getting faster or the situations they faced in 2021 called for quicker responses.

Quick responses might be a function of the respondents and their industries, says Paine Publishing chief Katie Paine. For example, industries where crises occur more often, such as manufacturing, energy or automotive, may respond and get back to normal relatively quickly.

Winick speculates the shorter response time might be the result of “how quickly we had to communicate during the pandemic’s onset.” Stakeholders, he says, required a steady stream of information as facts changed from hour to hour in some cases.

Another possibility is that many crises were pandemic-related. As such, teams were able to mount responses faster in 2021 because they were more accustomed to working in a pandemic.

You can muddy the situation, of course, and ask, ‘What constitutes an initial response?’ To some, it’s a generic holding statement; for others, it’s the first statement crafted specifically for a particular crisis.

Business as Usual

Above we noted the vagaries of declaring a crisis done and a return of ‘business as usual.’ The newest Tracker found a speedier return to normal vs the previous edition (Chart 2). One-third (33 percent) of respondents said it typically took fewer than seven days to declare ‘business as usual.’ In the older Tracker, 25 percent of PR pros said the same.


Crisis Causes

As you see in Chart 3, COVID-19 was the dominant cause of crisis. Not surprisingly, nothing else was close in the 2020 or 2021 edition of the Tracker.

Beyond COVID, Chart 3 maps what’s on crisis pros’ minds. “The jumps in diversity (25 percent in 2020 to 39 percent in 2021), cyberattacks (17 percent to 30 percent), sexual harassment (7 percent to 15 percent) and employee misconduct (21 percent to 26 percent)” are significant, Paine says.

Like DEI, 39 percent of respondents picked disinformation/misinformation, with activism close behind (34 percent).

With deep-fake videos becoming more sophisticated and easier to create, “any crisis-response plan needs to include procedures to help get ahead of false information, tamp down lies and define the narrative with accurate, reliable information,” Winick says.

Note also how concern with cyber has nearly doubled and natural disasters remain almost unchanged, at a solid 26 percent in the new Tracker. Also note the strong showing of employee misconduct/mismanagement, up from 19 percent to 26 percent.

A few surprises. Since a common denominator is that nearly every organization handles money in some way, it’s surprising bankruptcy/financial is so low on the list.

A shocker for Paine is that labor didn’t change much. She’s also surprised that natural disasters didn’t increase.