Crisis Communications: Steps to Prepare for and Respond to Crises


Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” It is certainly true—take Bill Cosby, for example. For decades he was “America’s Dad.” Today, he is a trending meme, his reputation in tatters due to numerous sexual assault allegations.

As President of a student-run public relations firm, I have encountered a few crises with clients in the food, law enforcement, and governmental sectors. It can be chaotic, overwhelming, and very stressful. While there is no foolproof strategy to preventing a crisis, there are some steps you can take to best prepare for and respond to crises when they arise.

Preparing for Crises:

crisis team

Anticipate Crises List out all potential situations that occur at your organization. This should be a joint effort within the company—you don’t want to miss a thing. Once you’ve identified all potential situations, have a plan for how to react should any crises arise, and be specific. Think about possible responses, best and worst case scenarios, etc.

Identify Crisis Communications Team This should be a small team made up of senior executives in the organization that are the heads of major organizational departments. The company CEO should lead the team, which should include the company’s top PR person. You might even want to retain a public relations agency that is specialized in crisis communications. It’s good to also have subject-specific experts to handle unique crises.

Designate and Train Spokespersons Spokespersons should be comfortable speaking to large groups of people, to the media, and in front of a camera. They should not be afraid to correct the media when they misreport facts. They should also understand and interact on social media. Depending on the crisis, you are likely to have different spokespersons.

Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems Know how to best reach your audiences when dealing with a crisis. How do they prefer to get their updates? Where do they communicate? Social media is often the best and fastest way, but don’t wait until a crisis to create these channels. Always be listening and monitoring what people are saying about your company—or your employees, products, or services. While the task may seem overwhelming, it’s necessary. And luckily there are tools to help, like Google Alerts. By monitoring, you have the chance to respond quickly and prevent minor situations from becoming full-blown crises. Monitoring will also help you adapt your messages and strategy during an ongoing crisis.

Identify Key Stakeholders Identify, in order of importance, your stakeholders, both internal and external, and assure they receive your messages. Johnson & Johnson decided its customers were most important to the company long before the 1982 crisis due to cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. The company made the swift decision to pull all Tylenol bottles from shelves, despite it costing millions of dollars. The customers were more important than the investors.

Develop Holding Statements Although full messaging isn’t developed until the outbreak of the crisis, you can create statements for immediate use in advance of a crisis, such as, “Our hearts and prayers are with all of those affected, and we hope that they are well.” The team should regularly review and update these statements.

Source: Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

Responding to Crises:

managing crisis

So you have your crisis plan and team in place, you are regularly listening and monitoring, but you begin to notice a negative trend developing. What’s next?

Set Expectations Let the public know when it can expect a response. It takes time to gather all of the facts and make sense of everything. If your organization is small, it can take even longer. Be exact, but be sure to stick to the expectation you set.

Get the Full Story What are the facts? Identify what happened, as well as what people think happened. How has the public reacted? What about the media? Which channels need immediate attention?

Be Honest and Open Don’t lie, and don’t say, “no comment.” If you are transparent and authentic, rumors will eventually go away and the situation might even blow over. Be transparent through all communication channels.

Communicate Early and Often Adapt your key messaging that you developed in your crisis plan to fit the situation. As you learn more, be the first to tell your audiences—all of them. As soon as you know, they should know, too. Otherwise, rumors will fill the silence.

Feedback Make sure your customers and other audiences know they are being heard. Reply to them directly and answer their questions in a timely manner. Although tempting, do not delete negative comments—people will think you have something to hide.

Learn From It Learn what worked and what didn’t. How could the situation have been prevented? What will you do differently next time? Go back to that crisis plan and update accordingly. It will help you majorly in the future! Related Articles: