The 10 Steps of Crisis Communication

Why are the 10 Steps of Crisis Communication important? Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of profiting by wild enterprise are behind us. In large corporations as well as small organizations, it is no longer enough to organize wildly, and pay no or too little attention to risk. You can indeed play the game wild, but the stakeholders, including consumers, will not forgive you anything, after all, they saw things like Fukushima, Wikileaks, BP in the Gulf of Mexico, … on the news, and saw what happened there. And they themselves don’t want it to happen to them.In this contribution, I express my own opinion, not that of any organization. Inspired by a blog by Jonathan Bernstein.  
Author: Manu Steens

Crisis: Any situation that is or could be threatening to people, property, that could seriously interrupt business, damage reputation, or negatively impact the workplace.

Planning yourself is more important than having plans

If you don’t prepare anything yourself, you cause more damage yourself. Therefore, planning yourself is itself more important than having plans. You are practicing a way of thinking that is non-trivial. What is missing from many crisis plans in the wider world are the communication needs related to crisis management. Sometimes the knowledge that without adequate internal and external communication, using the best possible communication channels available is missing,

  • operational response will fail (The time-critical processes will fail or not reach their required level of minimum operation);
  • people do not know what is happening, become confused, anxious and angry and may (will) react negatively and perhaps destructively to environmental influences;
  • the environment will perceive the organization as incompetent, and at worst, criminally negligent;
  • the length of time to create a complete and sufficient solution to the problem becomes longer, and this is often dramatic.

That is why the Crisis Communication Team (CCT) exists. It is responsible for directing crisis communications.

The crisis communications team has four strategic tasks:

  • operationalizing the CCT;
  • sensitize the spokespersons, the CCT, the experts, the organization, the employees;
  • acquire or develop tools;
  • train CCT’s own people, and carry this out to the organization.

This seems overwhelming but the basic steps for effective crisis communication are not difficult. They require work that fortunately the CCT can do ahead of time. The slower the response to a crisis gets underway, the greater the damage done afterwards. Below are ten steps for crisis communication, the first six you can take before it is even a crisis. However, I do not claim that they are exhaustive. In each case, I indicate to which strategic task I believe they belong.


1. Anticipate crises (operationalize and raise awareness).

When you want to prepare your organization for crises, gather your CCT (Crisis Communication Team) for an intensive brainstorming session on all the potential crises that could befall your organization. This already has the following benefits:

  • you can see that the CCT can prevent some situations by changing the way it works;
  • you can think about possible responses, best-case/worst-case scenarios, etc.; you do that better without the stress of the incident than under the pressure of a current crisis;
  • it’s a very good awareness training in which you get to know each other better, and can possibly serve as a brainstorm for a team building session.

In some cases, you can estimate crises in advance because you actually, within the operation of the organization, create them yourself. For example, in layoffs, doing more with fewer people, doing more with less money, making acquisitions or merging organizations, reorganizations, etc.

A formal method of gathering this information is a multidisciplinary risk assessment.

This assessment should give rise to BCPs (business continuity plans) and CCPs (crisis communication plans) appropriate to the organization. It includes both trigger operational components and crisis communications. The remaining steps below provide chalk lines to the key issues to consider in the communications section of BCPs, or CCPs.

2. Identify your CCT (operationalize).

Ideally, the CCT is composed of a small team of senior management, expandable with optional crisis communications staff. Normally, the communications manager is also a good choice as crisis spokesperson. The team serves the CMT (crisis management team) and the Crisis Communications Manager is part of the CMT. If the spokespersons lack knowledge and experience in crisis communications, they can be assisted by a consultant, or build experience through sandbox exercises. It is also a good idea to have legal support in the crisis communications process. A liaison should liaise between the CCT and the CMT. Support with regard to getting the right and relevant information from the CxOs, or the experts from the areas of expertise (subject matter experts or SME’s), or the components of the organization.

As a brainstorming exercise, it is a good idea to list the roles and responsibilities of the CCT. This will provide an entry point for training that may be useful to them, once they assume responsibility, and must be able to exercise it at the time of crisis. In doing so, the CCT also clearly lays out the processes so that there can be a smooth transfer of a role when needed. The scenarios developed in step one are an important input here. Once the roles are clear, one assigns these roles to natural persons in the organization. This can be guided by the tasks these people already take on, their interests, hobbies, etc. The CCT designates them as specialists in their roles, with each taking responsibility for building expertise.

An extra word on legal support. During a crisis one must be able to rely on each other. One does this best by working together within the CMT with people from a familiar environment. Nevertheless, a contradiction can naturally arise between the recommendations of the organization, and those of public relations and communications. However, the reaction of not communicating can create confusion and cause unrest or anger among customers. And that can cause more damage than desired, a kind of damage that can be worse than financial damage, but you cannot monetize. Lawyers need to be aware of this. The importance of understanding this cannot be underestimated.

3. Identify and practice spokespersons (operationalize and train)

Crisis teams should be categorical in the fact that communication during a crisis and in sandbox exercises should only be done by the spokespersons. This is a point for policy. And there should be appropriate training for it. Every CCT should screen and train its people in advance to be spokespersons, or their backup. For this, one can specialize according to the media used.

Each spokesperson for the organization during a crisis must have:

  • The right skills
  • The right position in the organization
  • The right training.

The right skills

Speaking before a conference with 1,000 participants can sometimes be less stressful than a single camera in front of you in times of crisis. The spokesperson needs, or should practice, this stress relief.

Written spokespeople may be unfit to be in front of the camera because they are sometimes used to starting from a particular template in their communications.

So it is important in this to make the best use of spokespeople’s skills in the crisis. Usually, continuing the skills at the time of “business as usual” is the best choice for this.

The right position in the organization

Sometimes spokespeople can excel in all forms of crisis communication, with all media. Others have more limitations. Only certain types of highly sensitive crises require the CEO or board to take charge of the spokesperson position.

It is a fact that some people are more created to lead, and less suited in effective communication. The decision of who takes the lead of the spokesmanship should be made soon after the crisis breaks out. In most cases, this will be the CCT chair. But the group of spokespersons must be determined and trained in advance.

Not only are spokespersons needed for television, gazettes, or daily newspapers, but also for the new social media this is to be determined in advance. You certainly don’t want to have to decide “who does what” in the midst of a crisis.

Spokesperson training

Two typical quotes from leaders , with the best of intentions, make clear why training is necessary to speak to the media:

“I talked to that reporter and cameraman for over an hour, and most of what I had to say about my organization was not used….”

“I’ve spoken in front of an audience before, I won’t have a problem with that hearing.”

The first situation is easily explained: the journalists have to make do with little broadcast time, so they have to cut the material. In the second situation, executives underestimate the assertiveness or even aggression of a public hearing. They have not understood the difference between a proactive PR policy to the media that emphasizes promotion of the organization and crisis communication, which together with crisis management aims at preserving the organization.

All stakeholders, internal and external, like the media, can misunderstand or misinterpret information about your organization, and it is the job of the crisis communications team and spokespeople to counter that.

Training of spokespersons teaches them to be prepared, to be ready with a relevant response in a way that produces an optimal response among stakeholders.

The main question to be addressed in such training is:

“What are the three main ingredients/main messages of good crisis communication, why, and how can they be fulfilled?”

The 3 main ingredients of good crisis communication are:

  • Objectifying the information (Oooh)
  • Showing Empathy (Eeeh)
  • Demonstration of actions taken (Aaah)

Here I want to take a closer look, since communication is the Achilles’ heel of crisis management, and poor technique can cause it to escalate.

Objectifying the information isolates the incident. (Ooooh !)

Communicate the facts and figures that are there at the moment, are not going to change and you can communicate immediately. This covers the urgent demand for information by ensuring that stakeholders get the right information quickly (monitoring).  This also ensures that others are not going to pull or dislodge decisions.

Clear and transparent. The info can also be released by the CCT in doses. Avoid a jumble of communication in doing so.

Do not engage in additions of guesses, assumptions or decisions. Don’t allow answers to be put in your mouth.

Showing empathy – the human touch (Eeeeh !)

Managing a crisis is managing perception. Often people ignore or do not understand the perception of the receiver (stakeholder). Keep in mind his perception because the press exploits this. (They throw oil on the fire.)

By showing empathy at what happened and communicating this through various media, you also help defuse the issue.  (Expressing compassion, “I sympathize”)

This is not the same as admitting guilt!

Demonstrating action (Aaaah ! , or maybe AHA !)

Include the concrete actions, this also shows that you are prioritizing. These actions are also a bridge to the next communication. Do not give actions or promises that are not substantiated. (Good example: “we are going to investigate”, “we are going to take measures”, “we are going to consult”, “the investigation has started”)

A common mistake is: reacting too late, denying or dismissing responsibility.

How to prevent this? By taking a proactive attitude (act, don’t react!) and communicating timely, consistently & regularly what actions the CMT is taking, through one spokesperson (speaking with one mouth), to all stakeholders. In addition, also communicate one step ahead by anticipating questions and reactions. Any negative messages can then be pre-packaged positively by the CCT.

A training package of the spokespersons should propagate, motivate and practice the above philosophy. But really, all of the CCT should be aware of this and practiced in it.

4. Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems (tools).

Notification Systems

What if you can only reach someone with a single phone number or fax number? Do you then assume that the other person is at the other end ready to receive the message?

Today we need the tools and the right information to reach our stakeholders immediately. This must be possible through multiple channels. Most of us have multiple phone numbers, more than a single e-mail address, and can receive SMS or fax. (Although Fax is becoming increasingly obsolete in Western Europe, it is still an important option). Increasingly popular are the “instant messenger” programs, both for private and business use. We can even record audio and video with a cell phone these days and send it by e-mail. And in addition, we have a lot of social media that I suspect will be the best method over time to reach a subset of stakeholders. For examples, see people’s reaction to the Pukkelpop tragedy, or the shooting in Norway by Anders Behring on July 22, 2011.

But setting up an account on a social medium and then immediately finding all stakeholders on it is not something you can do when the crisis is about to erupt. The reason is simple: you cannot reach them directly, but there is a super-fast proliferation of news dissemination and opinion formation happening beyond your control.

Single system?

Depending on how technical we want to go, one can use all of these methods from a single system. But it is clear, then, that it is absolutely essential to have a notification system, fully functional and tested for any crisis, that allows you to quickly and easily reach your stakeholders in multiple ways.

Old-fashioned communication tree

Actually, the good old-fashioned communication tree with phone lists where people call each other to reach the stakeholders is rather a backup procedure within the notification procedure. But it still has to be there, for some it is the only thing they know. So it is important for the CMT to align, or at least share tools with the organizational units, which promotes contacts, can be money-saving, encourages a uniform way of working and facilitates the flow of information sharing.

Monitoring Systems

Information gathering is an essential component of both crisis prevention and crisis management.

Knowing what has been said about your organization or organizational unit on social media, in traditional media, among colleagues, among customers, among suppliers often allows you to avoid a possible negative trend with a positive trend, which could otherwise turn into a (parallel) crisis.

Analogously during a crisis, monitoring stakeholder feedback is necessary to enable you to flexibly adjust your strategy and tactics.

Both monitoring systems should be set up by the organization in advance. For traditional and social media, one can use things like Google Alerts. Paid variants sometimes give the ability to pull reports that could be useful to management teams. Stakeholder monitoring should actually involve reporting on what you hear and see.

5. Identify and know your stakeholders (operationalize and sensitize)

Who are the internal and external stakeholders that really matter in crisis? I consider every employee to be a super-important stakeholder because every employee is a PR representative, is a crisis spokesperson and consequently is even a crisis manager, whether you like to hear that as a manager or not. But there are also stakeholders outside of employees who will talk about the organization, and so it is our responsibility to be able to reach them smoothly with the right messages we want them to convey.

Who are the stakeholders for the CCT as an organizational unit?

These are all the organizational units. After all, to have good cooperation at times of crisis one needs good cooperation at times of business as usual, and so one must not remain strangers to each other.

And who else?

The media, and through them, the end customers.

6. Develop standard messages (so-called holding statements) (operationalize).

Although one cannot develop complete responses until the outbreak of a crisis, because they are crisis-dependent, the CCT can develop standard messages for just after the outbreak of the crisis for an expanded (or limited) number of scenarios for which one estimates the overhead to be vulnerable. One should do this based on the scenarios one draws up in step 1 of this article. Some examples might include:

“There is a BCP, which gives the highest priority to the health and safety of our employees and their guests in the building.”

“We are with the victims in our thoughts and hope that all will be well”

“Additional information will follow as it becomes available and make it public on our website.”

See also step 4 in this article.

This standard messaging should be reviewed by the CCT on a regular basis and updated, if necessary, to reflect changes in vulnerabilities and associated scenarios.

During the crisis

7. Estimate the crisis situation (operational).

Responding without first gathering information is a classic “shoot first and ask questions later” situation in which you often make yourself the first and only casualty. However, once you have worked out the first seven steps, things become easier for the CCT to obtain the necessary, sufficient, relevant and correct information. With that, the CCT and the CMT can then respond to the crisis and force a recovery.

This is the first step, which you cannot take in advance, because there are infinitely different crises possible, all with a different answer to this information question. Some training of this practice in a sandbox exercise significantly increases the chances of success, because then everyone knows what to do. The most important and initial information question is “What is the current impact of the crisis, and what do you estimate the impact could be?” The CCT shares this question with the CMT.

8. Crisis-specific communications (operational)

Standard messaging is useful at the beginning of the crisis and can prepare you in advance. But the CCT should also create crisis-specific messages to keep stakeholders informed and to suppress a proliferation of erroneous messaging. Put out a consistent and unified story, in coordination with the CMT.

Provide a unique point of contact for each relevant type of medium. Ensure that these coordinate with each other, and know from each other what they are communicating.

In this step, employees should have no more questions about the role they are to play. Thus, to meet this, one must have had sufficient sandbox exercises.

The CCT should monitor the course of the crisis, both in the crisis and in the media, and keep a log of crisis communications. It uses this to plan and do the necessary communication actions. (In addition to regular channels, for example, social media, …)


9. Finalize and create ‘key messages’ (operational and instrument use)

The CCT normally already knows what information stakeholders want. So post-crisis communication is important and should make things clear. Adhere to the KIS principle. After the crisis, do not create too many basic messages (e.g. maximum 3) that go to all stakeholders. Where necessary, create some specific messages that are audience-specific. Create a message that clearly outlines the situation in a limited amount of text. Heavy analysis is for historians and lawyers.

10. Post-crisis analysis (raise awareness and educate).

The key question in the debriefing, when the crisis has subsided, is, “What did we learn from it, what can we do better?”

A formal analysis of what was done right, what went wrong and what could be improved is important to sharpen “crisis readiness,” crisis preparation. So this also applies to the CCT, not just the CMT. This can be done through a thorough brainstorming session between the relevant parties involved. This can include people from outside the CCT and CMT, as they often have a different view of the situation, and can have an eye for other details and big picture issues.

Conclusion: “It can happen to us too”

It is often tempting for executives to think “That won’t happen to us,” or “If it happens we can easily handle it.” This happens to them all the more easily when they get an initial overwhelming impression of what setting up a CMT and a CCT can cost in effort, time and money.

Hopefully this ostrich policy will soon be a thing of the past. When a crisis occurs, having a method of response is often a limiting factor to the impact on the organization. Organizations that prepare typically suffer less and for less time.  After all, otherwise you are always behind the times, and never get the initiative in place, which is necessary to master the crisis. The key idea here is, as Eisenhouwer said, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything!”

Therefore, it is better to be part of the minority preparing. The stakeholders will surely appreciate it !

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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