What is crisis comms? A practical guide for beginners [2024]

What is crisis comms? A practical guide for beginners [2024]

Or, what to do with all those lemons.

Table of contents

What is crisis communication?

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.

Crisis comms prep: When life gives you apples

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.

1. Who will need to be contacted about this crisis?

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.

2. What channels of communication will you use?

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

Prezly – software for modern PR teams

  • Write & publish brand stories in an online newsroom

  • Send email campaigns, pitches & newsletters

  • Manage all your contact lists in a single CRM, with easy import & export

  • Measure performance to see who's engaging with your stories

3. What will you say and who will say it?

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
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The 6 Best PR Crisis Management & Communication Examples
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4. How will you respond to questions?

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

5. What technology will you use for your crisis comms?

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.

Use Prezly's free trial to set up your crisis comms room and prepare your contact lists →

TL;DR: Crisis comms is all about planning

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.


Never waste a good crisis: A lesson in effective communication

This section of our article is written by Bram Boriau, founder of Talking Birds Public Relations.

The difference between a great brand and an average brand is the mindset of trying to make the most out of it and approach everything as an opportunity. Including a crisis.

There are a huge number of public relations benefits a crisis can offer to a brand, both during and after it occurs.

The key to success? During the crisis, you should always keep an eye on what will happen after the crisis.

As a PR professional, it’s your job to point out the opportunities that can be found during a crisis to your corporate customers or internal hierarchy. You should give them perspective and make sure they don’t lose hope or enthusiasm.

Let me give you some insights on how a crisis can become an opportunity.

… then you'll be a PR.
… then you'll be a PR.

1. People will get to know your brand

Let’s get something straight: I don’t believe in the saying “all publicity is good publicity.”

A continuous flow of bad news will damage your brand and can have an enormous negative impact on your turnover.

The first crisis that your brand is going through, however, can be an entry point to better things to come.

Of course, much depends on the nature of the crisis in which you find yourself.

  • Is it caused by ill-intentioned actions from employees?
  • Is the cause internal or external?
  • Are you just having bad luck?

But if you seize the opportunity to manage the situation in the right way, you can increase your brand awareness with a whole new group of stakeholders.

2. It's an opportunity to tighten your bonds with your main stakeholders

By being proactive, you can turn your crisis into a tool for reaching out.

You can benefit from the fact that your stakeholders are all ears, and believe me: they are. ​During a crisis– even more than ever before. Of course, they will probably be angry because of what happened, but you might just be able to grab their attention long enough to develop future projects.

And true, they might be emotional, but their attention span is long right now because they are actively looking for information.

In a few B2B cases, your B2B stakeholders will want to give feedback to their customers and stakeholders. They will appreciate the fact that you are “open” and will be reaching out to them: this will prove to their own customers and stakeholders that they’re important enough to be listened to.

A well-known example was a Belgian telecom leader “Telenet,” that embarked on a tour to visit all their customers after a small PR crisis. “Worldline” (a leader in e-payments) turned a crisis into an opportunity to tighten the relations with the Belgian trade federations, after a major e-payments failure.

3. A follower is a follower

A crisis is also an opportunity to increase your Twitter followers. The initial reason that you will gain more followers is due to the crisis itself, and some will fade away after the crisis is over.

But the chances are that some followers will stick around, stay connected, and interact with your content in a more positive way.

Remember the movie classic Casablanca? ​The relationship between Rick Blaine and Captain Renault started with a crisis, but in the end, it became the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Needless to say, well-balanced and active social media relations during a crisis are key to building long-lasting stakeholder engagement.

4. Enjoy it – this is Your 15 minutes of fame

Admit it: you’re an adrenaline junkie. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be a PR professional. Nothing wrong with that.

Adrenaline gives you the energy to do great things. For many PR professionals, crisis communication is a raison d’être. Of course, they’re stressed, but they will also admit that crisis communication is one of the reasons that they love their job.

So, enjoy it while you can: this is (hopefully) one of the rare moments you’ll feel this sort of energy.

On the downside: In my experience, some PR professionals tend to enjoy the crisis feeling a bit too much. They can put aside their tedious day-to-day tasks and bask in the glory of the spotlight.

Very little research has been done on this topic, but it’s my personal belief that some sort of… I like to call it, “Stockholm Crisis Communication Syndrome” exists: wherein a crisis might be prolonged because PR professionals secretly enjoy it a little too much.

5. Discover Your Company’s Blind Spots

People

During a crisis, you’ll discover the true strength of your colleagues. Will they break under pressure? Will they be able to keep their cool? There’s no way to hide the truth: this is the moment when things need to get done. You’ll discover both the best and the worst in the people with whom you are working.

Of all the moments of a crisis, it’s the now that counts. Darwin would probably call it the survival of the fittest.

You’ll have to perform and prove that you can do what you’ve been trained to do. If you don’t, it means one of two things:

  1. You’re not fit for the job, or
  2. Your methods are not performing as they should.

Keep this in mind and see it as an opportunity for improvement in a post-crisis evaluation.

Organization

Many organizations don’t have clear crisis communication guidelines. They see this as the umbrella they’ll never need. A crisis really pushes your organization to its limits and can be a starting point to shape your future crisis communication strategy.

6. Your position will become stronger if you manage this well

As a communications manager, all eyes are on you during a crisis. You’ll have an unseen internal platform, potentially even bigger than the one your CEO has.

Take advantage of this. Manage the crisis well, turn it into an opportunity, and it will enforce your internal position and give you opportunities to grow your career.

But beware of possible envy from your colleagues. There’s a lot of internal stress during a crisis. And everyone knows that when it’s all over, reports and evaluations will be made. So, the coin might flip over to the other side: your colleagues might use your highly visible actions to cover up their failures and put the blame on you.

7. This is your chance to get buy-in for future projects

“Dear CEO: ​ This situation is the ultimate proof that we need to develop an online newsroom.”

Or maybe…

“Dear CEO: I’ve always said that we need to work on our social media presence. This crisis shows that not having any is damaging to the company. Let’s work on this after this is all over.”

But whatever you do, don’t be the “I told you so” guy or girl. No-one likes a smartass, and it’s not productive.

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8. This is the biggest stage your brand will ever have

Let’s use an example of an HR related crisis: You’re firing a lot of people, and the media are on it. If firing these people will not have an impact on the quality of the services or products you’re delivering, you’ll have a huge platform to push these messages.

You’ve got a direct line to your potential clients to inform them that your product will be more accessible because you’ve cut labor costs. It’s hard. But it’s true.

You should consider that although you’re not scoring any points with the bigger audience, you have a unique opportunity to send your message to a well-targeted portion of the public. Of course, smart messaging is key in this.

So, in the end…

It goes without saying that the examples mentioned above are not applicable in every crisis situation. But they clearly illustrate the benefits of properly managing a crisis. The benefits can be personal, but if cleverly managed, they will also help the entire organization.

Prezly – software for modern PR teams

  • Write & publish brand stories in an online newsroom

  • Send email campaigns, pitches & newsletters

  • Manage all your contact lists in a single CRM, with easy import & export

  • Measure performance to see who's engaging with your stories

Surviving the Egg Crisis: A crisis comms case study

by Bram Boriau, founder of Talking Birds Public Relations

Ah yes, the great Belgo-Dutch ‘egg crisis’ of 2017. This is just another example of how being prepared for a crisis in terms of communication, and having the right mindset, is crucial to managing your reputation properly.

The Belgian food protection agency was slow in terms of communication, and it communicated in a highly bureaucratic and defensive manner.

We see this very often. When corporations or governmental organizations are hit with a crisis, they waste crucial time due to unstructured processes and a fear of “communicating too early”. Let me tell you a little secret: there is no such thing as “there is nothing to communicate about.”

1. It’s Always Better to have Something to Say

Being a corporation or governmental organization comes with responsibilities toward the public. One of these is that the public is completely entitled get an update or to be alerted when there is a potential risk. If you fail to do this from the moment you were aware of any risks, they will rightfully blame you for not being transparent and responsible.

Ask yourself this key question: will public opinion pardon us when they find out that we knew?

From the moment you even have any doubts about the answer, you should prepare a communication.

The general public does not expect that you will have all the answers right from the start. Your first communication should be about acknowledgment and showing that you are on top of things. Indeed, recommendations on behavior will also be expected. There are always ways of doing this, even with little information.

Let me share with you the template for a so-called ‘holding statement’ that can be used in the first phase of a crisis.

Holding statement template for crisis comms

Acknowledgement:

[ Organization name ] has become aware of the fact that [ what has happened ].

 

Reassurance:

We have mobilized our teams in order to gather more information about this / to resolve this issue / incident / crisis. You can be assured that we are doing everything we can to resolve this.

 

Recommendation:

Based on the information we have right now, we recommend our [ relevant stakeholders ] do [desired action ]. Based on the information we have as of right now, nothing indicates that the public should be worried.

 

The – very cliché – ground rule in crisis communication is: be prepared. Make sure that you have your template statements ready. Work on procedures.

Download this template as a PDF

 

2. Make Sure Your Tools are Up-To-Date and Tested

The key in crisis communication is speed. You have to take advantage of the first ‘golden’ hour. You must communicate before anyone else does it for you, and spreads messages you don’t control.

Believe me, you don’t want to waste time composing press lists based on old Excel files, or getting frustrated due to the fact that you don’t understand why Outlook isn’t doing what it is supposed to do.

With crisis communication, it makes your life abundantly easier to have the right tools in place. Consider if a problem arises, do you then draft a press release and send one-by-one or BCC to your contacts? What if that BCC, due to the elevated situation, becomes a CC and now you have another problem on your hands.

Get a system in place with some drafted templates for situations you could see arising.

3. Invest in Friendship in Tempora Non Suspecto

The best time to make friends is when everything is working as it should.

Answer this question honestly: who would you rather support? The person you haven’t heard from in ages, or the friend you see from fairly often?

It always surprises me how much empathy organizations or corporations expect from media and the public, when they didn’t make any effort at all to maintain relations in tempora non suspecto.

Will this always make a difference?

No. You may be surprised to see how few real friends you have, but even acquaintances will be more understanding during a crisis if you’ve maintained a good relationship with them beforehand.

4. Get the External View

Communication professionals working internally for a company or organization risk getting drowned in a situation.

They can lose the clear view of the events and themselves in details, and can get into a very defensive attitude.

One can easily prevent this by consulting externals. It’s a matter of focus. I can recommend contracting professionals that have a reputation for clear speech. You don’t want someone who will only confirm what you presume, you want a consultant that will also tell you what you don’t want to hear.

5. The "We've Made a Communication Error" Excuse; The Bargaining Strategy

Too often, when companies mess things up in terms of operations, they’re admitting “communication errors”. This is an often-heard strategy to distract the public from the fact that errors were made in terms of operations.

It’s a bargaining game: let’s see if we get away with blaming it on the communication strategy and not on the operations. If journalists and the public accept this, it might calm down the storm. If they don’t, it might work against you.

In the Fipronil egg-crisis in Belgium, the “communication error” excuses were made a couple of times. I consider communicating properly on food safety a crucial task of a public organization.

And now, for the exciting conclusion

The main errors the Belgian food safety agency made in terms of communication were that they weren’t prepared, had no tested tools and statements, and were focused too much on themselves and not towards the general public.

They tried to get away with the ‘communication error’ strategy, and failed to see that the public did not accept this excuse.


FAQs

What does crisis communication mean?

Crisis communication is about sharing information during emergencies with the aim of mitigating damage and restore trust in your brand. Good crisis communication prioritises values like honesty, transparency, and accountability.

What are the 5 C's of crisis communication?

The 5 C's of crisis communication are: Coherence, Control, Candor, Concern, and Commitment.

What is a crisis communication plan and why is it important?

A crisis communication plan is a structured strategy for how an organization communicates during an emergency. It's important because it ensures quick and coordinated communication, maintains trust, and reduces the risk of damage to reputation.

What would a crisis communicator do?

A crisis communicator needs to assess the situation, develop a strategy, craft and disseminate clear messages, monitor feedback, coordinate with stakeholders, and maintain trust.


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.

Prezly – software for modern PR teams

  • Write & publish brand stories in an online newsroom

  • Send email campaigns, pitches & newsletters

  • Manage all your contact lists in a single CRM, with easy import & export

  • Measure performance to see who's engaging with your stories

Published Friday, November 10, 2023; updated 7 March 2024

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