A guide to crisis communications

About this article

Text Size: A A

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far for examples of crisis communications these days.

In today’s world of 24/7 media, social and otherwise, you’re in the global court of public opinion during a crisis. It is a nasty place that can at best alienate some of your customer base or stakeholders - or at worst, cut your reputation (and profits) off at the knees.

United Airlines is the most recent debacle to explode publicly, where a man was violently hauled from the seat he paid for. You can read an article on that here.

Equally unfortunate though, is that the majority of organizations - large or small, private corporations, not-for-profits or public sector - are still not prepared for how to handle a crisis when it hits.

So, here are some tips to keep in mind – before, during and after.

The golden hours of crisis

Crisis communications is completely different than public relations, even the reactive kind.

The crisis clock never sleeps and starts counting down the moment you learn of a major issue. In fact, the hours immediately after an event are the most critical.

If you are aware ahead of time – think of a layoff, recall or policy change - that’s the “best of the worst” scenario because you have time to plan and prepare; the golden hours happen once the news starts to circulate.

In unplanned events or emergencies, there’s no such luxury, especially with the speed of social media. So when something happens, every minute counts to ensure you can assess the situation, control the spread of misinformation and come out with an appropriate response to your stakeholders.

That first hour is the most critical – and you’ll know where you stand in 12 to 24 hours. So make the most of it.

Activate your team before a crisis ever happens

Here’s a question: if you were in an emergency situation, who would you call? What would you do?

In a crisis, you don’t want to waste valuable time figuring out who to engage and how.

The time to determine your crisis team is when things are good. Your senior leadership will be hands on, but so will your communications team. Make sure you are including someone with institutional memory, a trained spokesperson and that you have legal counsel available (but more on that later).

If there isn’t enough experience in crisis communications in-house, have an expert or firm in mind to engage who can jump in quickly.

Consider outside counsel

In a crisis, don’t be surprised to find out everyone becomes a communications expert and has an opinion on your strategy.

You also shouldn’t be surprised to encounter resistance, particularly if you are planning a bold and visible response.

When organizations or companies are dealing with highly public issues, it is actually often preferred to hire externally for PR counsel in order to gain outside perspective and expertise.

When you’re trying to put out fires in all directions, it can also often be helpful to have a neutral voice on hand to convince or coach your leadership team about the strategy.

Preferable is that they have a proven track record in crisis management and a good understanding of your sector of activity.

Control your message and expectations

It’s rare to come out unscathed from a crisis scenario and you need to start out knowing that.

The key is control.

Let’s say you work for an association and one of your members gets in hot water. An effective communications strategy helps you to plan a 24 or 48-hour news cycle where you have negative media, but your succinct messages are included in all of the stories and you are able to curb the issue from spiraling on social media.

It may not be pleasant but it comes and goes, you have mitigated the risk - and the association moves on to regular business.

Controlling expectations is also extremely important, especially when dealing with stakeholders or boards who are fearful of any type of negative news.

Use this counsel: there will likely be bad press one way or another. The question comes down to how big, and if controlled.

“Knowing your audience” has never been more important

One of the mighty rules in communications is that audience is king.

In your daily communications activities, you likely consider a number of different audiences. Stakeholders, members, board of directors, clients or customers, shareholders, governments and media name just a few.

In a crisis, those groups all play different roles and you need to think very carefully about the impact to them – and in turn, the impact to your organization or company.

If shareholders or clients are alienated, your profits take a hit. If the board loses confidence in the strategy, your leadership could be left hanging. If media or government aren’t handled well, your reputation will be damaged which could affect your entire existence.

Never before will your message and approach to each group be more important. So be sure to adapt and adjust your strategy and key messages so that they resonate for each audience, and achieve what is required – quickly.

It’s all about trust, confidence – and leadership

In a crisis, you need to think about your spokesperson in a different way.

Sometimes, it will make sense to use the designated media representative, minimize the response and keep the leadership out of the equation.

But with a high-profile and sensitive issue, where reputation is on the line, a senior voice and face could be required.


During a crisis, your mantra needs to be about instilling trust and confidence. Things may be in upheaval but someone needs to visibly take responsibility to show that the matter is being taken seriously and the leadership isn’t hiding.

But plunking your CEO out in front of a sea of hungry reporters or offering him or her up with a mea culpa isn’t always an easy argument to make.

The Maple Leaf example

One of the most difficult – yet successful – crisis communications examples in Canada in recent years has to be the listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods.

In 2008, one of Maple Leaf’s plants became contaminated and the worst of the worst happened: 23 people died and over 50 were ill. Public safety and millions of dollars were at stake.

Despite the advice from his lawyers, CEO Michael McCain did what had rarely been done – he took the lead, took personal responsibility and publicly apologized.

His legal team lost a lot of hair that day. But looking back, many communications experts say that this was one of the best examples of how to handle a crisis.

Limit the lawyers

A few words are needed when it comes to lawyers. It is, 100 per cent, important to have access to legal counsel during a crisis.

But it is equally important to not to be paralyzed by them.

In a crisis, there is a limited amount of time to address an issue and get in front of it; lawyers, despite the best of intentions, will often eat every bit of that time with cautious wordsmithing and liability concerns until your message is diluted and the moment has passed to be effective.

All to say, think carefully before agreeing to “no comment”.

Forward, back and turn if needed

If you think this sounds like dancing instructions, you’re partially right. The art of effective communications in a crisis is often like a dance – where the steps sometimes change, as do the partners.

The key is the middle step – looking “back” on what you’ve done. Constant monitoring and feedback will either keep you on your current path or provide the evidence required to “turn” or adjust your message.

And once all is said and done, and everyone can breathe again, your final “turn” must always be to objectively de-brief on how the situation was handled, what lessons were learned along the way – and how you can improve should you have to live through it all over again.

Alyson Queen is Director of Communications at Flagship Solutions, a public affairs and government relations firm, headquartered in Ottawa, that specializes in crisis communications. Offering a broad range of communications, association management and revenue generating services, Flagship has been successfully assisting organizations and boards for over a decade in ensuring good governance models. Every client is different, and Flagship’s experts have the experience and knowledge of guiding many organizations through unique processes to establish and maintain the governance that is required for success. For additional information or inquiries, contact us today.

Go To Top