Crisis Communication: From Calamity to Opportunity

By Frank Avery







Oh no. It’s happened. You’re the CEO of your company, and someone messed up. It’s about to go to press. It’s bad.

  • You work at Volkswagen, and it turns out your cars are programmed to deceive U.S. federal emissions tests.
  • Your PR strategist tweets a less-than-responsible joke about AIDS before stepping on a flight to South Africa.
  • You’re a chief executive at the Red Cross, and NPR has discovered donations for Haiti relief aren’t exactly going to Haiti relief.

We all make mistakes, but we don’t always know how to make them right. Worst of all, these mistakes never come to light when you’re ready. You get blindsided. Your team is upset, customers are livid, and the press is on you demanding an explanation. You just can’t get through this fast enough.

So, what do you do? How do you weather the storm? And how do you potentially turn it into a positive?

Make sure you have a crisis communications plan.

What is that, and why have one?

Have you ever boarded a plane and looked into the cockpit as you’re shuffling in? What are the pilots usually doing? Going through checklists.

Pilots have checklists for nearly every occurrence imaginable during a flight: takeoff, landing, poor weather, and even a complete power failure. Why? Because when things get scary, you need to act fast and get to the point. Checklists help troubleshoot problems, identify the core issue, and provide common procedures to solve the problem at hand. Most importantly, they free your mind to focus and reduce judgment errors.

For a business or organization, crisis communications plans are a checklist to resolve critical challenges as quickly as possible.

Where do you begin?

When facing a problem, it’s tempting to pick up the phone and give an immediate answer to a reporter. After all, good leaders are often decisive and quick to act. But don’t let your bias for action cause you to jump the gun. The first thing your plan should address is who is on the crisis team.

As a chief executive, the first person on your team should be your communications or public relations lead. They will be your closest advisor and confidant through this process. But why them?

Communications professionals are trained to listen and engage the public using a variety of language, technical, and multimedia methods. Successful PR professionals know that research is key to getting a pulse on the issue. They can compile a strategy and accurately assess the potential outcomes. Most importantly, they can execute and execute fast. They’re trained to know how to give a reporter just the right amount of information to cover their story and mitigate risk to a company. They know when it’s best to respond to a public outcry or when it’s best to lay low.

Next, you want your executive team in the loop. During any crisis, you need your leadership on the same page. Conflict breeds public attention. When the leadership is in discord, it shows. But more importantly, the leadership team is critical to helping with the next step.

Don’t announce a problem. Announce a solution.

Sometimes people say they want to “spin” the story. If someone says the word “spin,” spin them right out of the room.

Don’t underestimate a reporter or their readers. Be honest with yourself about the problem, and solve the actual issue. Your goal is to create reconciliation. That’s why you’ve included your executives on your crisis team.

It can be difficult to gauge your reaction to the problem. Look at the culture of your company and talk to your public relations team about the perception of your brand. They can help you understand what the audience expects you to do to reconcile the situation. What’s important is that you have a plan of action with your chief decision-makers to solve the real source of the crisis.

Once you have a plan of action, put it together in a way that can be shared with your team, your top stakeholders, and, lastly, the public. Your communications lead should put together written talking points and distribute them across the team. Good talking points address what happened, why it happened, how it happened, who was affected, the resolution, and a timeline. Doing this shows you aren’t just aware of a problem, you’re proactively solving it.

Then pick a spokesperson, usually the chief executive or paid corporate spokesperson, and a plan to distribute the message.

Make it a positive.

At the end of the day, crisis communications issues are about trust. We hold a social contract with our businesses and organizations. We expect them to do the right thing legally, ethically, and socially. A brand in crisis is a brand that has violated our trust as a society.

While a well-investigated and cleanly executed solution won’t fully solve a public relations challenge, it sets the foundation to earn the public’s trust back. Whether it’s customers, donors, or community members, reconciliation starts with being accountable for the mistakes you’ve made. Sometimes this endears people even more to your brand. Just ask Chipotle. Despite last fall’s E. coli outbreak, the popularity is still like a “speeding train,” according to PR experts quoted in a November Forbes article.
There are certainly events that can’t be overcome, and hopefully you never end up in one. But we’re all going to run into turbulence at some point in our careers. Why not have a plan to make it smoother for everyone? These steps to build a crisis communications checklist can help prepare you for the ride.


Frank J. Avery is a public relations professional specializing in collaboration between business, government, and the community. He is currently the Communications Director for CareerSource North Central Florida and serves on the board of the Gainesville Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association. Share your opinions on PR with Frank on Twitter at @frankjavery.


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