In a crisis, all eyes tend to turn to the CEO. What will they say? What will they do? How will they steer the company out of this situation? When a crisis hits, many CEOs ask themselves the same questions.

To help other CEOs and their teams navigate these critical situations, I sat down with RH Strategic cofounder and CEO John Raffetto and asked for his advice. Here’s our Q&A:

What is the role of the CEO in a PR crisis?

When faced with a high-risk reputational crisis, some CEOs will lead with their “fight” instinct. They cast strategy and reason aside and want to run straight into combat, attacking any criticism head-on under the flag of righteousness. This can be a PR disaster, leading to a defensive narrative and loss of control over the CEO’s – and, often, the brand’s – reputation. Although the CEO should always be fully engaged behind the scenes, we recommend they be held in reserve and be selective about how and when to communicate publicly. All CEOs should demonstrate accountability and compassion, but they should receive expert advice on exactly how and when to do that.

When should I engage a crisis PR firm?

Ideally, a PR firm with real crisis planning and response experience should already be on the roster, and they will have created a plan before an actual crisis lands on your doorstep. When that moment arrives, expert advice can come from internal communications, legal advisors or crisis response pros within a PR firm. All of these sources of counsel will be able to quickly assess the risk and potential “storm tracks,” as well as draw on experience to shore up defenses and craft response strategy. The best strategy wins praise from the fiercest critics for responsible and capable leadership in the face of the crisis.

What can I do to get ahead of a crisis?

I recommend starting with a plan development and war room exercise. It is amazing what vulnerabilities will be revealed. Common ones include the lack of a roster of vetted resources, such as a cybersecurity mitigation expert or legal counsel with relevant subject matter expertise. You don’t want to be Googling these when the heat is on. Another common oversight is how to set up a listening post for early chatter, such as across social media, or how to stand up a remote communication mode among executives in the event your own network goes offline. All these vulnerabilities will be revealed through proper planning and will make you that much quicker to react in the moment.

What goes into a crisis communications or response plan?

Plans can be simple or complex, but all crisis plans should begin with a statement of values. This places everyone in the company on notice that the organization will handle all crisis situations with honesty, empathy and accountability (or whatever values the company holds dear). These values will serve as a critical compass point when the lawyers, spokespeople and CEO are making difficult and rapid decisions or crafting messages. Other common elements include contact lists, approval chains, media and social media policies, sample crisis scenarios and accompanying messaging, and relevant checklists.

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but John’s advice will help you prepare for crisis situations and respond strategically in the moment. We also have resources for internal communications during a crisis and staying cool during a crisis. If you are in the midst of a developing situation, reach out to us using the contact form on this page.


RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based PR agency with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government and healthcare markets.