In the hot seat | Dealing with a PR crisis - Museums Association

In the hot seat | Dealing with a PR crisis

In a world of fast-paced news, it is increasingly easy to attract the wrong sort of media attention. But with a crisis management plan in place to support staff and offset bad publicity you can ride out any storm, says Caroline Parry
Public relations
Illustration by Jason Ford

From decolonisation work and the restitution of objects through to sponsorship and even thefts from collections, museums are increasingly finding themselves thrust into the media spotlight. And in an era of culture wars, anti-woke outrage and social media storms, the sector is finding that negative publicity can happen very quickly and unexpectedly.

Sarah Joynt-Bowe is a strategic communications and narrative change consultant who helped the Museums Association develop guidance on how institutions can communicate their decolonisation work. She says that crisis planning should be part of any basic communications strategy.

“Institutions have a responsibility to move with integrity, which involves questions about their history, collections practices and core operations,” Joynt-Bowe says. “They need to ask who they are responsible to beyond their board, and what their mission is.”

She adds that it is particularly important for work in areas such as anti-racism and decolonisation.

“Crisis planning should be a part of an organisation’s ongoing work on its values and how it operates because when you have integration between that and a communications plan you are in a safer place. It should be operations first and communications second.”

Planning for a crisis

Today’s news agenda moves at speed, so understanding how your organisation might respond is critical. While it is impossible to predict the exact nature of every negative story, it is possible to have a process in place that all the necessary stakeholders are aware of in advance.

Jenny Stewart, founder of Jenny Stewart PR, has worked across the sector for more than a decade. She says it is essential to involve all parts of the organisation, including representation from every team with public-facing roles.

 “Senior staff should be involved, but I think it’s equally important to get the perspective of the people who will actually be getting questions from visitors at the door and having to respond to messages online – they can often better anticipate public responses,” Stewart says. “They also better understand what is practically possible on any given day.”

There is strength in numbers and differing expertise, agrees Catharine Braithwaite, founder of Lethal Communications, a consultancy working with museums, arts and cultural organisations. She says: “Pulling in multiple stakeholders or teams brings varied experience and different ways of dealing with things.”

Breaking down different types of crises, rather than trying to imagine every possible incident, will help create a general plan that will work in many different scenarios.


“Think about what areas you’ll need to consider,” Stewart says. “For example, is it a crisis on-site or a reputational crisis? From there, think through what would need to be done proactively and who should be responsible for making sure those things get done. You need to think about types of work rather than individual tasks.”

Temporary exhibitions, including solo shows with challenging content, may require a standalone communications plan or FAQ template, including thinking about potentially harmful media coverage. 

“It is best to be prepared because it allows you to gather assets, decide who will be the spokespeople, and who will manage behind the scenes,” Braithwaite says. “It is best to front-load the process, even though it is a lot of work.”

Truda Spruyt, managing director, culture, at Four Agency Worldwide, says once you have brainstormed everything that can go wrong, creating a risk register is also useful. All potential crises are graded red, amber or green, which the team can use to decide the severity of a crisis and how urgently it needs to be escalated.

It’s all in the detail

According to Stewart, the plan must provide clear details on practical points, particularly time-sensitive ones. It should start with who will be responsible for making decisions and taking actions, such as speaking to the press.


“This should be widened to a key group of people so that you don’t have one or two front-line staff members who are panicking and under immense pressure,” she says.

The plan should identify the key decision-makers and spokespeople and give their contact details, including mobile numbers. Stewart suggests setting up a WhatsApp group that can be activated if a crisis arises.

Four Agency’s Spruyt adds that it is also useful to have a point of contact for all stakeholders, including long-term supporters and friend groups.

“These groups are reputation generators, so it is vital to include them in reputation management,” she says. “Have a proactive strategy of regularly speaking with them about the institution’s values and keep the lines of communication open. It builds trust.”

Thinking about the role of organisations beyond the institution and even the sector is also essential.

“It is useful to understand the organisation’s responsibilities at different levels versus what will be taken on by other bodies, such as the police, or, thinking about Covid, which person or organisation decided whether you should close or stay open,” Stewart says.

As well as points of contact internally, it should be decided who will be the spokespeople for a range of issues, particularly if specific issues such as decolonisation, social justice or the climate emergency need to be addressed. Stewart advises that all calls should be channelled through the communications person or team in the first instance.

“Don’t get drawn into a discussion, because you may not have all the facts,” Stewart adds. “In a crisis, it’s especially important that all communications are centralised to avoid any confusion.”

Remaining open and transparent, particularly about how decisions are made, such as which funders an institution will work with, is the basis of all good communications plans.

“The museums that weather crises the best are the ones that hold true to their values even when under pressure,” Spruyt says.

Practice and update

Once a plan has been created, it is vital to run through it with everyone who will be involved. Stewart says live role-play is the most helpful approach.

It should mirror how you work as an organisation today – if everyone is in the office, a roundtable exercise will be most valuable. However, if hybrid working is now the norm for your organisation, do it with everyone where they usually are. Send emails or call people with details as the crisis ‘unfolds’.”

She adds: “You want role-play to be as realistic as possible. You’re aiming to stress-test bits that could go wrong. A simple plan that works is better than a fancy one that doesn’t.”

Updating the plan on a regular basis is also vital, and this should be done at least once a year. “Institutions are living organisations,” says Joynt-Bowe.

“Culture is always moving. What was appropriate 20 years ago isn’t now. It’s progress, and it means that teams need to be working on the values, integrity, and mission all of the time, which isn’t popular. If an institution can live and move at the pace of culture, it insulates it from being left in the past, from potentially negative stories and means it is moving in the right direction.” 

Don’t fuel the fire

Hannah Fox, the executive director at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, has first-hand experience of how stories can quickly blow up and shift beyond an organisation’s control, having faced two such stories in the past year.

The first related to changes to a long-standing agreement with a community organisation that used the grounds, and another concerned a decision to change the name of its Christmas Market to Winter Market.

“It is interesting when you make what is quite a small change, how that can get blown out of proportion or misrepresented through the media. It can make you look like you are not listening to your communities, and there is considerable pressure to go public in response,” Fox explains.

“On both occasions, while very happy to talk to anyone face-to-face, we decided not to get drawn into a public debate through the media as it could fuel the fire and keep the issue alive for longer.”

Fox says deciding how to respond was also about getting some perspective on what constitutes a crisis. When she arrived as the new director in the summer of 2022, the museum had been through a challenging period that had even threatened its future.

Fox’s priorities were to create stability and develop a more forward-facing, connected and community-based organisation by going back to basics and getting those things right.

“Two of these course corrections were picked up by the media and subsequently misrepresented publicly, on one occasion locally, and the second on a national level.

The museum took a measured approach with both stories. Staff, stakeholders and trustees were all kept fully informed and on-message. It made one clear statement and repeatedly referred everyone to it until the news cycle moved on.” 

“We drew on past experiences, but we also have a good chair and excellent knowledge among our trustees. Where we needed it, we were able to ask for help. Then we gauged the response as we went, talking to people and asking what they were hearing.

“It can take attention from our core priorities and the positive work we’re doing. This can be frustrating, but it feels important to be bold in upholding our organisational values and principles when faced with these PR challenges.”

Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist

  • Ensure everyone involved in the crisis plan knows where it sits and how to access it.
  • Make sure it is updated regularly to keep pace with any changes at your organisation and any cultural shifts.
  • Create a culture where your staff can speak up if they spot any potential issues that could blow up into crises.
  • Question whether new exhibitions, collection work, internal policies or practices could be interpreted in a different way. Ask yourselves: “Could we be the bad guys here?”
  • Keep updating your staff on what is happening if negative coverage gains traction.
  • Check in on staff. A crisis of any size will feel even bigger internally, so everyone will feel the pressure.
  • Remember, there is always more time than you think. Don’t feel pressured into responding quickly. Ask journalists for their deadlines and get back to them when you are ready with the facts.
  • Make clear, concise, factual statements, and keep referring people back to them, and ensure these are circulated internally and externally simultaneously.
  • Only update when you genuinely have something new to say.
  • Just hope everything will be OK and leave the comms planning until you are in a crisis.
  • Be too inward-looking when putting together a crisis communications plan. Include staff from all departments of an organisation because everyone will bring a different view on potential weak spots.
  • Allow your teams, trustees and stakeholders to read about a crisis or potential problem at your institution or your organisation in the press. Always brief your people before or as soon as the media stories are unfolding.
  • Be triggered into responding. Social media can heap on the pressure when you are “under attack”. Only you are obsessing over how many mentions your organisation is getting.

Contributors: Truda Spruyt, Hannah Fox, Sarah Joynt-Bowe, Jenny Stewart and Catharine Braithwaite

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.