Crisis Communication – More Important Now than Ever

crisis communicationWhen I started in public relations, way back in the early 90s, crisis communication was a small niche practice in PR firms. Most corporate and nonprofit organizations had crisis plans (in binders), but usually farmed out big events to specialists. Then, the golden rule was that you had between 12 and 24 hours to initially respond when a crisis breaks. Today, the window is one hour and everyone in PR needs at least basic crisis communication skills.

In our current 24/7 global social media environment the stakes are high, and the public fallout can be detrimental for organizations of all sizes and in all industries. The right planning can help an organization weather a crisis and even turn a negative into an opportunity. But planning alone won’t guarantee success, the right response to crisis is also critical.

Here are a few keys to planning for and responding to a crisis for your team.

Message Maps

Message maps are a set of pre-written statements that form a roadmap to manage communication in a crisis. These maps contain detailed, prioritized, and organized responses to anticipated questions or concerns surrounding any issue. Of course, the key concept here is to create them in advance.

Message maps are useful in several important ways. First, they allow organizations to be nimble and quickly responsive to a variety of stakeholders – not just the media. And, second, the creation of message maps requires that necessary documents and supporting information be collected and archived for quick access, saving both time and resources.

Preventing Secondary Crises

When responding to one crisis organizations need to be careful not to create a new one. The classic case of this lies in the BP Oil spill. When on a press tour of the affected area of the spill, BP CEO Hayward was caught on film telling reporters that no one wanted the crisis to be over more than he, saying, “I want my life back.” This of course, after 11 had died in the initial explosion that started the spill.

Choosing the right spokesperson is a critical decision. And training that individual is even more critical, but it is often overlooked until an actual event occurs. Annual media training for potential spokespersons is a necessary communication “maintenance” function.

Internal Communication

During a crisis, pressure to respond to media, regulators, shareholders or other external stakeholders can build and consume response time and energy. However, it is a fundamental mistake to allow that to overcome communication with your employees. Sometimes, leaders need to address employees directly, but more often, employees will naturally look to their direct supervisors for information. It is critical to give your managers the information they need to assist front line employees understand what is happening.

Additionally, if planned in advance, organizations can set up internal, online discussion forums that allow employees to ask questions and share concerns. This tool helps crisis communicators take the temperature of employees about how they perceive leadership is handling the event, as well as serve as an early warning system about outstanding concerns that may affect other stakeholders.

A last piece of advice – learn from yourself and others. Take time to debrief after a crisis, even one that went well. And, pay attention to how competitors and other organizations handle crises that have the potential to impact your own organization. Review how they handled the crisis and determine if you are prepared to handle a similar situation. George Washington once said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Well played, George.


crisis communication
Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR is an assistant professor in communication and media studies at Ohio Northern University. She has over 25 years experience in private business, politics, government, non-profit and higher education. She has published numerous articles and presented research at more than 23 regional, national and international conferences. Her research interests include crisis communication and political communication.