We’ve all been there: months spent planning, perfecting messaging, training spokespeople, coordinating with vendors – and just as you’re ready to share the fruits of your labor with the world – something happens. Whether it’s an incident that causes a local swell of fury in the city in which you’re planning an activation, an unexpected moment in pop culture that gets everyone talking, or a negative social media post about your brand that happens to go viral – it’s something significant enough to take over the news cycle and cause you and your team to re-evaluate if right now is the right time to launch. 

While these situations are almost always out of our control, there are steps that we, as PR practitioners, can take to lessen the impact they have on our work – and our clients’ bottom lines.  

Communicate Early…and Often: As soon as you get wind that your launch could be negatively impacted, flag it to your team and your client. Set up a quick regroup to assess the situation and align on actionable next steps, capturing notes in writing to keep all parties on the same page. Work with your client to identify key decision makers and schedule follow-up meetings for ongoing updates or discussion. 

Decide on a Deadline: One of the most important things you and your client will need to determine sooner than later is when a final decision needs to be made about how to proceed. This will, of course, be entirely unique to your specific situation, but unless your launch is scheduled within the next 24-48 hours, you should likely be able to take a step back to watch the news cycle and think through a strategic path forward. 

Streamline the Next Steps: If you are not required to make a call on your campaign immediately, you and your team should get started on the next steps, such as drafting proactive or reactive messaging, ongoing monitoring of the breaking news story, connecting with vendor partners for real time status updates, brainstorming contingency plans and more. Create a shared document that clearly establishes roles, deadlines, processes, etc. to minimize opportunities for confusion or uncertainty.  

Weigh the Pros and Cons of Each Path Forward: Eventually, the time comes when you and your client need to decide – are you proceeding with the launch as planned? Are you delaying? Do certain elements, like an event or activation, need to pivot slightly or be cancelled entirely? Regardless if you’ve had time to watch the news cycle or not, there will be many factors to consider going into this decision and it’s not something to be taken lightly.  

Don’t Be Afraid to Play Devil’s Advocate: These discussions can be challenging, so something to look out for is groupthink. It can be easy to be a “yes (wo)man” and agree to proceed with your launch, especially if that’s what the client is pushing for – after all, this launch will likely impact their bottom line. But our job is to take a 360 approach as we think through the various paths forward – consider the pros and cons of every option and be mindful of how brand perception could be impacted. If you see the team could be headed down the wrong path, speak up. 

Challenge Yourselves to Get Creative: If the team agrees that your launch plans need to pivot or change entirely, now’s the time to put on your creative thinking cap. While potential solutions will depend entirely on the situation at hand, ask yourself – how can we minimize the impact on our launch? Can the team tailor messaging to reflect what’s happened in the news? Is there an opportunity to launch the campaign in waves, so different elements go live at different times? As you’re adjusting, make sure you’re thinking of ways to best serve your client in light of the situation. 

As part of our launch plans for a client, we planned a press conference that couldn’t move forward due to unexpected COVID-19 restrictions that were put into place at the last minute. To solve for this, our team set up a mock press conference in a hotel lobby and captured b-roll footage to share with broadcast and digital media. While our preference would have been to host media in-person at the press conference as originally planned, we came up with a creative solution that still got media the content they needed for coverage, generating the results our clients were hoping to see at launch.  

Plan a Post-Mortem: Once the situation has passed, schedule a post-mortem meeting with your team and your client to identify key learnings. Ask yourselves, what went well? What could be improved next time? How can we apply what we learned here to contingency plan for our next launch?   

There’s nothing more exciting to PR pros than seeing hard work translate into amazing results for our clients, so it can be disappointing when things don’t go according to plan. But ultimately, our job is to protect our clients’ brand reputations and that means that, sometimes, we have to counsel our clients to make the difficult, albeit strategic and correct, decision to pause or pivot when we’re close to the finish line, with the knowledge that it will pay off in the end.