The Complete Guide to Crisis Management and Communication

February 11, 2018 - Sophie Thompson

Crisis management is an essential organisational function. Most businesses, at some point, will face a crisis and failure to respond can cause serious harm to the company’s bottom line, stakeholders and public image.

In the age of social media and the internet, news goes viral almost instantly. Organisations need to respond to PR crises quickly and effectively in order to minimise damage. In this article, we’ve outlined a set of best practices, useful resources and case studies for those in public relations and crisis management.

What is crisis management?

"The actions that are taken to deal with an emergency or difficult situation in an organized way" - Cambridge Dictionary

A crisis is defined here as a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly. In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organisation, its stakeholders and reputation. A crisis can create three related threats:

  1. Public safety
  2. Financial loss
  3. Reputation loss

Severe crisis, such as industrial accidents, can result in injuries and even loss of lives. Crises often create a financial loss by reducing purchase intentions, disrupting operations (such as closing a factory while an investigation into the accident takes place) and possible lawsuits or pay outs. All crises threaten to tarnish an organisation’s reputation.

VW emissions scandal and investor reactions

Financial impact of the emissions crisis on the Volkswagen share price. Image from Stacy Jones, Fortune.

Effective crisis management handles the three threats successively. The primary concern in a crisis has to be public safety as a failure to address this intensifies the damage from a crisis. Reputation and financial concerns are considered after public safety has been remedied.

Ultimately, crisis management is designed to protect an organisation and its stakeholders from threats and reduce the impact felt by threats.

Crisis management is a process designed to prevent or lessen the damage a crisis can inflict on an organisation and its stakeholders.

Crisis management can be divided into three phases:

  1. Pre-crisis: prevention, preparation and training
  2. Crisis response: management responds to a crisis
  3. Post-crisis: looks for ways to better prepare for the next crisis and fulfils commitments made during the crisis phase

The role of social media

The biggest change for crisis management is the revolution of social media. During a crisis, it’s a threat to organisations as it allows the public to spread information much faster and to a wider audience. The public can voice their opinions, propagate rumours and experiences in a highly visible manner.

All stories are now global

There's no such thing as a local crisis if you're an international brand. Thanks to the internet and social media, a crisis in one market will become news at some point in others.

  • Be prepared to address the crisis in all markets. Crises cover all borders.
  • A single approach to social media won’t work. Media, customs and cultures vary in different markets. What works in one, may intensify the problem in another.

Pre-crisis phase

Prevention involves seeking to reduce known risks that could lead to a crisis. This is part of an organisation’s risk management program. Preparation involves:

  1. Understanding your key stakeholders
  2. Creating a crisis management plan and updating it at least annually
  3. Selecting and training a crisis management team
  4. Conducting exercises to test the crisis management plan and team at least annually
  5. Drafting crises management messages and templates for crises statements

The importance of preparation and planning

Communication is crucial during a crisis. If you don’t prepare for different crises and how to communicate during them, you’ll likely incur more damage to the business. In the absence of adequate internal and external communications:

  • Operational response will break down
  • Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry and react negatively
  • The organisation will be perceived as inept and possibly criminally negligent
  • The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended
  • The impact to the financial and reputational bottom line will be more severe
Crisis management team planning for a crisis event

The crisis management team need to plan and train for possible crisis situations within the business.

Understanding your key stakeholders

Understanding the audiences that a business needs to reach during an emergency is one of the first steps in the development of a crisis communications plan. There are many potential audiences that will want information during and following an incident, and each has its own needs for information.

The following is a list of potential stakeholders you need to communicate with during a crisis. This list will vary depending on the industry you are in:

  • Customers and clients
  • Survivors impacted by the incident and their families
  • Employees and their families
  • News media
  • Community, especially neighbours living near a damaged facility
  • Company management and directors
  • Investors and shareholders
  • Board members
  • Government organisations, regulators and other authorities
  • Suppliers
  • General public

Once you have your groups listed out, you’ll want to identify the owners of each of these relationships. Map these out with your team and form a central communications office, which is in charge of managing the information flow.

The central communications office takes inquiries from customers, suppliers, the news media and others. The contact centre should be properly equipped and staffed by people ready to answer requests for information.

Crisis management plan

A crisis management plan (CMP) is a reference tool, not a blueprint. A CMP provides lists of key contact information, reminders of what typically should be done in a crisis, and forms to be used to document the crisis response. A CMP is not a step-by-step guide for managing a crisis.

A CMP saves time during a crisis by:

  • Pre-assigning some tasks
  • Pre-collecting some information
  • Serving as a reference source

Crisis management team

The common members of the crisis team are:

  • Public relations
  • Legal
  • Security
  • Operations
  • Finance
  • Human resources

However, the composition will vary based on the nature of the crisis. For instance, information technology would be required if the crisis involved a hack of the database.

Training is needed so that team members can practice making decisions in a crisis situation. Each crisis is unique demanding that crisis teams make decisions. Practice improves a crisis team’s decision making and related task performance.

When training for a crisis, consider the following:

  • Managing the public relations aspect of a potential crisis situation
  • Planning, developing and implementing PR strategies
  • Organising events including press conferences, family briefing sessions and press tours
  • Researching, writing and distributing press releases to targeted media
  • Preparing and delivering speeches to further public relations objectives
  • Establishing and maintaining co-operative relationships with representatives of community, consumer, employee, and public interest groups
  • Preparing or editing organisational publications for internal and external audiences, including the employee intranet and stockholder reports

Spokesperson training

Ideally, potential spokespersons are trained and practice media relations skills prior to any crisis. The focus during a crisis then should be on the key information to be delivered rather than how to handle the media. Preparation makes sure all spokespersons have the proper media relations training and skills.

Here are some tips for talking to the media:

  1. Avoid the phrase “no comment” because people think it means the organisation is guilty and trying to hide something.
  2. Present information clearly by avoiding jargon or technical terms. Lack of clarity makes people think the organisation is purposefully being confusing in order to hide something.
  3. Appear pleasant on camera by avoiding nervous habits that people interpret as deception. A spokesperson needs to have strong eye contact, few hesitation words, and avoid distracting nervous gestures.
  4. Brief all potential spokespersons on the latest crisis information and the key message points the organisation is trying to convey to stakeholders.
Crisis communications interview with the media

Elected spokespersons must have the following:

  • The right skills for communicating internally and externally, including with the media, including face-to-face interviews, radio interviews and talking at townhall events.
  • The right position and high up enough in the organisation to carry weight when they talk and to show that the organisation is taking the crisis seriously.
  • The right training which might include personal media training or coaching.

Pre-draft messages

Finally, crisis managers can pre-draft messages that will be used during a crisis. More accurately, crisis managers create templates for crisis messages. Templates include statements by top management, news releases, and intranet sites. The templates leave blank spots where key information is inserted once it is known.

Time is saved during a crisis as specific information is simply inserted into the messages before distributing to the communication channels.

Templates will differ depending on the type of organisation and possible incidents, including:

  • Accidents that injure employees or others
  • Property damage to company facilities
  • Liability associated injury to or damage sustained by others
  • Production or service interruptions
  • Chemical spills or releases with potential off-site consequences, including environmental
  • Product quality issues

Communication channels

An organisation may create a separate website for the crisis or designate a section of its current website for the crisis. Different websites should be designed prior to the crisis, requiring the crisis team to anticipate the type of crisis and information needed for the website.

The website is another means for an organisation to present its side of the story (along with social media and other channels) and not using it creates a risk of losing how the crisis story is told.

Malaysia airlines dark site for crisis

The Malaysia Airlines dark site with information about the incident and contact information.

What is a dark site?

When bad news or an emergency suddenly strikes an organization, its website is ordinarily the first place the outside world turns to for information. Given the extreme time pressure inherent in crisis management today, there is just no time to construct a new crisis site from scratch. Instead, a prebuilt dark site can be quickly “turned on” as needed during a crisis management situation.

Read more about dark sites for a crisis here: Dark Websites for Crisis Response

Intranet sites can also be used during a crisis, which are typically accessible only to employees. Intranet sites provide direct access to specific stakeholders so long as those stakeholders have access to the Intranet.

The communication value of an Intranet site is increased when used in conjunction with mass notification systems designed to reach employees and other key stakeholders. With a mass notification system, contact information (phones numbers, e-mail, etc.) are programmed in prior to a crisis.

Popular crisis communication channels include:

  • Social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter)
  • Company website (either as a separate domain or part of the main company site)
  • Intranet (useful for keeping the employees up to date with information)
  • Mass notification systems (mass emails, texts etc.)
  • Conference calls (shareholders might dial-in to a call to be updated)
  • Press releases and media interaction (gives the organisation an opportunity to tell their side of the story)

Social media vs. more traditional means of communication

People tend to think about social media when it comes to crisis communications. However, although social media is an important channel for crisis communication, only sharing to social media is not enough. The goal is to communicate and connect with your stakeholders in a way that is personal, human and authentic.

Social media is a strong crisis communications tool when:

  • You need to reach a large group of people quickly
  • You want to position your organisation as the narrator of the crisis
  • You have key stakeholders who actively engage with your organisation on dedicated social media platforms (e.g. on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)

How to identify the appropriate communications channels

Sit down with leadership and the heads of each department and answer the following questions:

  • Which of your key stakeholders do you need to communicate with directly?
  • What is the best way to communicate with them directly (phone, email, etc.)?
  • Do you have legal obligations to notify any stakeholders in a particular way? If so, in what types of crisis scenarios? For example, do you have certain key stakeholders that require you to provide them with written notice in a certain type of crisis scenario?
  • Which channels do you engage your stakeholders on regularly (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Slack, an intranet, etc.)?
  • What apps, platforms and technology do your stakeholders use in their daily lives that may present a unique means of communicating with them directly?

Crisis response

The crisis response is what management does and says after the crisis occurs. Public relations plays a critical role in the crisis response by helping to develop the messages that are sent to various people and organisations.

Initial response to the crisis

The initial crisis response should focus on three points:

  • Be quick
  • Be accurate
  • Be consistent

Provide an early response

Aim to provide a response in the first hour after the crisis occurs. That puts a great deal of pressure on crisis managers to have a message ready in a short period of time. The rationale behind being quick is the need for the organisation to tell its side of the story.

The news media will attempt to fill the information vacuum and be a key source of initial crisis information. If the organisation having the crisis does not speak to the news media, other people will be happy to talk to the media. These people may have inaccurate information or may try to use the crisis as an opportunity to attack the organisation. As a result, crisis managers must have a quick response.

An early response may not have much new information but the organisation positions itself as a source and begins to present its side of the story. A quick response is active and shows an organisation is in control.

Germanwings tweet as crisis was emerging

Germanwings responded quickly to reports of a plane crash even though it could not provide much new information.

Accurate information is important

Accuracy is important anytime an organisation communicates with the public. People want accurate information about what happened and how that event might affect them. Because of the time pressure in a crisis, there is a risk of inaccurate information. If mistakes are made, they must be corrected.

The news media want to ask questions of experts so they may need to talk to a person in operations or one from security. The crisis team needs to share information so that different people can still convey a consistent message. The spokespersons should be briefed on the same information and the key points the organisation is trying to convey in the messages. The public relations department should be instrumental in preparing the spokespersons.

Be consistent across different communication platforms

Websites, intranet sites, and mass notification systems add to the news media coverage and help to provide a quick response. It’s important to remain consistent across the different communication platforms, as confusion will only make the situation worse.

Crisis management interview with the media

Expressing sympathy and counselling

Crisis managers should also express sympathy for any victims of the crisis. Victims might have lost money, become ill, had to evacuate, or suffered property damage. Expressions of concern help to lessen reputational damage and to reduce financial losses.

When the crisis results in serious injuries or deaths, crisis management must include stress and trauma counselling for employees and other victims. One illustration is the trauma teams dispatched by airlines following a plane crash. The trauma teams address the needs of employees as well as victims’ families.

Reputation repair strategies

Reputation repair strategies vary in terms of how much they accommodate victims of the crisis. Accommodate means that the response focuses more on helping the victims than on addressing organisational concerns.

The following list arranges the reputation repair strategies from the least to the most accommodative reputation repair strategies.

  1. Attack the accuser: crisis manager confronts the person or group claiming something is wrong with the organisation.
  2. Denial: crisis manager asserts that there is no crisis.
  3. Scapegoat: crisis manager blames some person or group outside of the organisation for the crisis.
  4. Excuse: crisis manager minimizes organisational responsibility by denying intent to do harm and/or claiming inability to control the events that triggered the crisis.
    • Provocation: crisis was a result of response to someone else’s actions.
    • Defeasibility: lack of information about events leading to the crisis situation.
    • Accidental: lack of control over events leading to the crisis situation.
    • Good intentions: organisation meant to do well
  5. Justification: crisis manager minimizes the perceived damage caused by the crisis.
  6. Reminder: crisis managers tell stakeholders about the past good works of the organisation.
  7. Ingratiation: crisis manager praises stakeholders for their actions.
  8. Compensation: crisis manager offers money or other gifts to victims.
  9. Apology: crisis manager indicates the organisation takes full responsibility for the crisis and asks stakeholders for forgiveness.

It should be noted that reputation repair can be used in the crisis response phase, post-crisis phase, or both. Not all crises need reputation repair efforts. Frequently the instructing information and expressions of concern are enough to protect the reputation.

People either blame the organisation in crisis or the situation. If people blame the organisation, anger is created and people react negatively toward the organisation. Three negative reactions to attributing crisis responsibility to an organisation have been documented:

  1. Increased damage to an organisation’s reputation
  2. Reduced purchase intentions
  3. Increased likelihood of engaging in negative word-of-mouth

Crisis managers need to assess the reputational threat of a crisis and determine the basic crisis type. Here is a list of basic crisis types and their reputational threat:

Victim Crises: Minimal Crisis Responsibility

  • Natural disasters: acts of nature such as tornadoes or earthquakes.
  • Rumours: false and damaging information being circulated about you organisation.
  • Workplace violence: attack by former or current employee on current employees on-site.
  • Product Tampering: external agent causes damage to the organisation.

Accident Crises: Low Crisis Responsibility

  • Challenges: stakeholder claim that the organisation is operating in an inappropriate manner.
  • Technical error accidents: equipment or technology failure that cause an industrial accident.
  • Technical error product harm: equipment or technology failure that cause a product to be defective or potentially harmful.

Preventable Crises: Strong Crisis Responsibility

  • Human-error accidents: industrial accident caused by human error.
  • Human-error product harm: product is defective or potentially harmful because of human error.
  • Organisational misdeed: management actions that put stakeholders at risk and/or violate the law.
The tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a minimum crisis responsibility scenario.

The tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster was a minimum crisis responsibility scenario.

Post-crisis phase

In the post-crisis phase, the organisation is returning to business as usual. The crisis is no longer the focal point of management’s attention but still requires some attention.

Important follow-up communication is required:

  1. Crisis managers often promise to provide additional information during the crisis phase. The crisis managers must deliver on those informational promises or risk losing the trust of publics wanting the information.
  2. The organisation needs to release updates on the recovery process, corrective actions, and/or investigations of the crisis. The amount of follow-up communication required depends on the amount of information promised during the crisis and the length of time it takes to complete the recovery process. Intranets are an excellent way to keep employees updated, if the employees have ways to access the site.

Acting on the lessons learnt

Crisis managers agree that a crisis should be a learning experience. The crisis management effort needs to be evaluated to see what is working and what needs improvement. The same holds true for exercises. The organisation should seek ways to improve prevention, preparation, and/or the response.

Case studies and examples

PepsiCo's can tampering rumours (1993)

A famous case study when it comes to crisis PR, Pepsi was involved in a strange backlash where a syringe was allegedly found in a drink in Washington. The following week there were over 50 reports of Diet Pepsi tampering, which all turned out to be a hoax.

Negative press is not ideal, no matter what the truth is. Pepsi managed to work with the FDA, which was satisfied that the story was fabricated, staunchly denying any accusations.

In response, Pepsi produced four videos throughout the crisis to gain people’s trust of the canning process and CEO Craig Weatherup appeared on news channels armed with evidence of bogus reports.

Sales did fall by two per cent, but Pepsi’s aggressive defence was vital and proved a much better tactic for the company rather than staying silent on their innocence.

German wings disaster (2015)

The story of a German Wings plane crashing into the French Alps was everywhere in 2015, particularly due to the human tragedy that it prevailed. The event was not caused by corporate negligence, but a deliberate crash by pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had been suffering from depression.

A media spotlight was cast onto the airline and people demanded answers. CEO of Lufthansa, Carsten Sphor, was an immediate and compelling spokesperson, vowing to ensure pilots are fully checked in all aspects of health and delivered his sentiments to all families involved.

Sphor was quoted as saying ‘Safety in aviation is no given’, but no business should ever have to pick themselves up from such a tragic event, although done amicably by German Wings.

Toyota's recall fiasco (2010)

Toyota recalled a total of 8.8 million vehicles for safety defects, including a problem where the car's accelerator would jam, which caused multiple deaths.

Toyota initially couldn't figure out the exact problem, but it sent out PR teams to try and stop the media backlash anyway. The upper management was invisible in the early stages of the crisis, skewing public perception further against the company.

Toyota's response was slow, with devastating results. But it served as a wake-up call for the company, which somehow turned it around in the months following the debacle. The company offered extended warranties and pumped up marketing, leveraging its long-term track record and reassuring consumers about safety.

Johnson & Johnson's cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules (1982)

Seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide, a deadly poison.

The company put customer safety first. It quickly pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol ($100 million worth) off the shelves and stopped all production and advertising of the product. It also got involved with the Chicago Police, FBI, and FDA in the search for the killer, and offered up a $100,000 reward.

Post-crisis, the company reintroduced Tylenol with new tamper-resistant packaging and $2.50-off coupons. Tylenol's response to the tragic 1982 Chicago murders is regarded as one of the most successful sequences of crisis management in history.

Crisis management checklist

Forbes provide a list of useful rules for crisis management, with a select few described below.

1. Take responsibility

Don’t try to cover up the PR crisis, it will only worsen the damage. Instead, manage the situation by taking responsibility, reacting immediately, and responding to feedback. Write a press release and post on social media to control the situation and get the message visible.

2. Be proactive, transparent and accountable

In today’s real-time world of social media, and with critics everywhere, reputation management matters more than ever and it can be lost in an instant. The company needs to acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize.

3. Be ready for social media backlash

The worst thing companies can do is ignore the possibility of social media backlash. Just because a company is not marketing on social does not mean their customers won't vent their anger on those platforms when something goes wrong.

4. Remember to be human

Saying “you’ll look into it” doesn’t make anyone feel better. Saying you’re deeply saddened by what went down and will work on making things better is important. Then, immediately share how policies will be put in place so it doesn’t happen again.

5. First apologize, then take action

Extending a heartfelt apology is key to moving forward. Not doing so adds fuel to the fire and delays changing the narrative. Following a public apology, the company must offer a call to action to show that they are changing their ways moving forward.

6. Monitor, plan and communicate

Have your social team on high alert, with monitoring at the forefront. If they start noticing spikes of negativity or increased activity, utilise the crisis plan to proactively respond on social with prepared materials.

7. Seek first to understand the situation

Communicate all relevant details to key stakeholders. When asked to comment never reply with “no comment.” Even if you’re still assessing a situation, simply say that. If you don’t have a voice in the matter, people immediately assume guilt or make their own suppositions.

8. Be prepared

No one wants to be at the centre of a scandal, but scrambling around because you're not prepared to handle it takes things from bad to worse. Anticipate potentials crisis scenarios and establish internal protocols for handling them.


We’ve identified best practices, case studies and useful resources for crisis management teams. While crises begin as a threat, effective crisis management can minimise the damage and in some case allow an organisation to emerge stronger than before the crisis.

No organisation is immune from a crisis so all must do their best to prepare for one. This article provides a number of ideas that can be incorporated into an effective crisis management plan.