What is crisis comms? A practical guide for beginners 
Or, what to do with all those lemons.
Crisis communication PR (or "crisis comms", for the time-poor) refers to the strategic dissemination of information during times of crisis. It generally includes the use of technology and channels such as press releases, social media, crisis newsrooms, public statements, and interacting directly with stakeholders.
The aim of all crisis comms is to share accurate, timely, and relevant information with the public while mitigating the fallout on the reputation of the brand, organization, or individual concerned.
The definition of great crisis comms is fast response, accountability, addressing public (or stakeholder) concerns, and of course, transparency.
As you might imagine, that necessitates a certain amount of strategic planning and forethought.
While we seldom know exactly what fresh new hell stands lurking around the corner, we can make some educated guesses on its flavor and do some legwork to prepare accordingly.
A PR manager for an international airline might expect that their most likely crisis scenarios will be around weather-related delays, international relations, or – on the very far end of the disaster spectrum – a flight crash or malfunction. They might then sensibly prepare contact lists and draft comms based loosely on those scenarios.
The rabbit hole for crisis management communications is a bottomless one, so it’s up to you how far down you want to go. At the very least, here are the five key points you should consider.
Remember that customers aren’t the only people who need to be notified in a crisis situation. The list varies with sector and crisis, but it’s likely you’ll need to think about:
- Staff and team members, potentially across multiple locations/languages
- Partners (business, not life) and anyone you work with, e.g. influencers
- The families of those affected
- The general public
- Media and the press
- Investors and board members
Think about every group of people that will be affected and create contact segments in your CRM system for each.
In this day and age, social media is the go-to for most people when they want to know the latest updates fast, so it’s vital you have at least one social media channel ready to spearhead your crisis communication and response.
Other channels you should consider are email, newsroom and site announcements, and press releases.
Depending on your positioning, you might also want to set up a crisis comms newsroom. This is an online newsroom that stays private until you need to release it to the public, and includes things like key contact details and a log of updates on the developing situation.
Once you know which channels you’ll use:
- Set up distribution lists in all your chosen crisis communication methods
- Create guidelines for how each channel is to be used in a crisis, including pre-approved generic messaging and any processes around getting sign-of on statements
- Prepare statements, social media posts, darkrooms etc and have them signed off in advance
- Decide who will be responsible for what channel and brief them on your protocols
The public has a knee-jerk reaction to any message that clearly comes from a PR team rather than from the people who are actually accountable for whatever’s happening.
Take, for example, the amount of backlash that Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis came under for releasing a clearly PR-orchestrated video in response to the public outrage following their comments around Danny Masterson’s sexual abuse accusations. TL;DR the public weren’t buying their sincerity.
People have a fairly reliable gauge for BS, and thanks to the internet, accusations and criticism spread like wildfire.
The way to avoid this? Don’t try to hoodwink your audience, and don’t let whoever you’re representing try to do it either.
By all means, prepare your spokesperson to speak with the public, but do not feed them a fabricated script intended to mollify and shirk responsibility. If they’ve prepared their own statement, insist on going over it with them and get to the bottom of where they stand and how that aligns with what the brand stands for.
Remember, the point is to establish trust, provide clear guidance, and demonstrate accountability to the people concerned. The best way to do that is through honesty and action.
Your actionable bullets for this point:
- Identify who is directly responsible to your audience and make them your spokesperson (this may be the CEO, a head of security or other relevant expert, or the person most in the public eye)
- Prepare generic statements and have them signed off in advance
- When crisis actually hits, work with your spokesperson to align your messaging, and find out if there’s any dissonance, e.g. if their personal views clash with that of the brand
Crisis comms isn’t a one-way street. Part of being accountable and managing people’s panic during a crisis is to make yourself available to respond to questions from the public. How will you do that?
Again, social media is the clearest choice for timely response, but it isn’t without its risks – as they say, once something is on the internet, it’s out of your hands; there is no universal delete button. A simple poorly thought-out tweet can get you and your lemons in a lot of hot water, so the key thing here is to have a process and guidelines clearly hashed out beforehand.
Make sure you plan:
- Who is responsible for which comms channel
- What are the guidelines for what your representatives can and cannot say on behalf of your brand or client
- Who crafts the message
- Who has the authority to sign off on messaging and how this will be tracked
Ideally you will have a centralized PR tool where you can store all of your prep work, including contact lists and messaging.
Using a CRM tool that supports dynamic segmentation will simplify the process of maintaining up-to-date contact lists for your crisis comms, since these will automatically sync any updates – such as email addresses – to whatever contact segments you set up.
Similarly, preparing a crisis comms newsroom ahead of any potential problems will massively speed up your crisis comms rollout.
Ready in minutes, not hours
A successful crisis strategy isn’t just about putting out fires, it’s about preventing them from flaring up in the future. The key is preparation.
Once you’ve gone through all of the above points, assemble all of your prepwork in one doc or handbook and make sure that everyone that needs to know, knows where to find it. (It’s up to you what you use for this, though personally I find Notion excellent for this sort of thing – no affiliation, I just genuinely like it, and there’s a free version.) Make sure your handbook gives contact details for all relevant parties, yourself included. Revisit it at regular intervals so that it stays up to date.
When you're ready to go in-depth, use our free PR crisis communication and management plan to get organized.
At its heart, crisis communication is about telling a story that not only acknowledges the problem, but also shows how you’re going to fix it and, most importantly, how you’re going to prevent it from happening again.
It’s worth mentioning that as PR people, the majority of crises aren’t our fault (with a few notable exceptions), but it does fall to us to handle the fallout.
But with hard times, comes the opportunity for brands and people to show their true colors, and emerge stronger for their hardship.
Because crisis comms isn’t just how you weather the storm, it’s how you dance in the rain.
Published Friday, November 10, 2023