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Five Steps to Better Crisis Communications

By Tarsi Hall

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Gone are the days when our personal and professional lives are separate. Social media banter or off-the-cuff comments can create a media storm in a matter of minutes. When an executive at your company is caught on film assaulting an Uber driver after hours, your company’s president tweets a racist meme, or your employer becomes the subject of an undercover documentary, a crisis communications plan is essential. Without a clear strategy, your company could face damage to your brand, reputation, and partnerships and a drop in sales. Crisis communication requires a timely response and a clear path forward. Before you find yourself in trouble, consider these five steps to get started with a crisis communication plan.


1. Know Yourself

In moments of crisis do you tend to blame, apologize, or ignore? Think back to a terse email or text exchange. Did you respond in one of these three ways? Studies (and the school playground) suggest that people’s responses to conflict usually fall into one of these categories. The ex-CEO of Lululemon showed his preference when he blamed women’s bodies for their pants being defective, claiming that their pants “don’t work for certain women’s bodies.” Two years later, he came out and admitted he was wrong. This CEO’s response to a faulty product led to him resigning and caused the company’s market share, customer base, and revenue to decline. All preferences come with a cost and a reward, especially blame or an inauthentic apology. While it is advisable to get out in front of a crisis and communicate early and often, it is not advisable to select one of these responses over the others every time. Don’t let your preference for one sway your judgment in the middle of a crisis. Know yourself and respond carefully.


2. Take the high road to have the high ground

Volkswagen spent decades building a brand on trust and reliability, only to have it come crashing down in what was deemed by the Holmes Report as the biggest corporate crisis of 2015. Reports show that Volkswagen knew of issues at least a year prior and still opted to react to the crisis rather than take the high road and responding proactively. Because of their reactive response, which included denials, lies, and an eventual attempt at a correction, car sales declined five percent in the month the scandal broke. Let this be an example. Take the high road. Be quick to listen and slow to blame. Own up to your mistakes. All of these little steps lead to high ground. Moments of crisis present unique opportunities to show employees and customers how much you care and that problems are beings solved.

Moments of crisis present unique opportunities to show employees and customers how much you care and that problems are beings solved.

3. Pull the right levers at the right time

Don’t manage your response by yourself. You need objective advisors to assist you in the midst of a crisis. Objective feedback can help you chart a course that is both fair and reasonable. Be aware of the communications levers you can pull by asking:

  • \What is the desired outcome?
  • What message would help achieve this outcome?
  • What communications levers does the targeted audience trust and go to for information?

Determine the path going forward and be mindful of timing. By responding too quickly, you might risk communicating false information and by waiting too long, your audience’s patience may grow thin. It could also extend the lifespan of your crisis and cause more damage than necessary. Your objective advisors can help you chart the communicate cadence that suits your audience.


4. Stay on message and keep to the facts

When your brand is experiencing crisis, you can quickly lose control of the narrative. To ensure your narrative is not lost, keep your message clear, concise, and factual. While some circumstances are outside of your control, lead with a plan and a practiced spokesperson who will take every opportunity to reinforce your messaging and validate information that will move you beyond crisis. If you are not in public relations or marketing, familiarize yourself with your company’s media policies before talking to media and lead with facts during conversations with your co-workers.   


5. Address the crisis and move on

Moving on from crisis requires good listening and getting to the root cause of your audience’s concern. Ask the 5 Whys to determine the root cause and how to address the symptoms. Incorporate these answers into your communications. Once the crisis has been managed and your audience has acknowledged that it is over, move on and focus on the future. Continued communication about the crisis could lengthen its lifespan. While the event may have ended, the root cause will likely not be solved, and the symptoms may persist. Vigilantly address these or the crisis will reoccur.    


These five steps may sound simple, but, as we have seen, they are not always easy to implement in the middle of a crisis. Companies that neglect to prepare a crisis communications plan do so at their own risk. Those who take a proactive approach will be better positioned to manage the next crisis and salvage their brand reputation.

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