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How to Succeed in Crisis Communications – 5-step Guideline

How to Succeed in Crisis Communications – 5-step Guideline

Every once in a while, an organization faces a situation that can be referred to as a crisis. This year, it has been a collective experience when nearly everybody in the world has had to shift their focus from normal proceedings to emergency mode. 

The right kind of communication is crucial in a crisis and it is really important to have an action plan ready to go when something disruptive happens.

In our crisis communications webinar that we hosted for marketing and communications professionals in Finland, we asked the participants whether their organization has a crisis communications plan in place. Out of 126 people, the votes were cast in the following way:

48,41 % Yes
28,57 % Not yet, but it is in the works
23,02 % No

In this article, we will go through the steps that you need to take to succeed in your crisis communications. The steps can also act as building blocks for your organization’s customized crisis communications plan. 

It’s good to keep in mind that organizations from different industries will need to take varying approaches in crisis situations. B2B organizations will have their own issues to deal with when crisis hits and B2C will have their own. Sometimes they do overlap but it’s crucial to create a crisis communications plan from your own company’s perspective.

To emphasize: there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But we will go through many different kinds of approaches to make it easier for you to draft your own action plan. To really help you avoid the potholes of this process, we’ve added the biggest challenge of every step – with a solution. Let’s get cracking!

1. Identify crisis situations

Identifying a crisis situation is obviously the starting point for crisis management. A crisis situation looks different in different organizations and industries.

It’s good to keep in mind that not all unpleasant situations are crises. To put it bluntly: not every negative customer feedback is a crisis.

A crisis is a situation that will result in negative financial results. Therefore, an unpleasant incident can be handled correctly and not result in a crisis. Nip it in the bud so to speak and negative financial results can be avoided. The incident can also be handled incorrectly and result in a crisis.

Let’s go through some of the situations that can quite easily escalate into a crisis – and those that are crises to begin with.

  • Harm to reputation via journalistic or social media
    • Can start from the member of your company giving statements that cause a stir
    • Can start from outside of your organization when people provoke/get provoked on social media
    • Especially applies to companies that are in the public eye due to the services they provide
  • Lack of services or services not filling out expectations
    • Typical for hospitality industry 
  • Downtime or malfunction in services
    • Typical for companies that provide technical services
  • Emergency state
    • When the society around us is in crisis
    • Financial crisis
    • Pandemic
    • Natural disaster
    • Major accident

When you have established that the situation at hand is not just an unpleasant incident but an actual crisis, gather the basic information that you need to move on to the next step.

Who does the crisis concern? 
How wide-spread is it? 
What should be done?

These are the questions you should ask yourself and moving into some heavy monitoring can help you with getting the answers.

The challenge: A crisis that is brewing while you are oblivious can really catch you off guard.
The solution: Have a media monitor in place for mentions of your brand on social media.

2. Monitor the situation

When your reputation is possibly at stake, it’s crucial to get all the information that is available and continuously keep a close eye on the situation. 

Google searches and roaming through social media help but really the proactive solution is that you have a media monitoring tool at your disposal. The monitoring tool alerts you when you are mentioned on social media or online discussions, and naturally on journalistic media. 

A crisis does not always affect your organization but may be related to, for example, a product or service that you market. The crisis can also affect a partner you work with or a technology you use. By following the discussion in your industry and other important topics, you can prepare for a possible crisis ahead.

If the information you need to gather can only be accessed by certain people, make sure you have the channels to reach these people and that the lines of communication are open.

Liana informs customers about service downtime on the support site immediately after the staff is up-to-date.

Example: your services are down and the technical staff are the only people who know where the trouble is. They are also the only ones that have an estimate on when the situation might be returning to normal. Recognize who these people are and discuss the situation with them to determine how critical the situation is and what is the next step.

The challenge: The information you get is scattered, hazy and ambiguous.
The solution: Draft a concise and easy to follow action plan. It should have a list of people that can help with the information you need to have a better understanding of the situation.

3. Create situational awareness

Situational awareness steps into the picture when it is clear what has happened and who the situation concerns. However, do keep in mind that it might still be a bit hazy. There can be information missing. This shouldn’t stop you from starting the communication.

When talking about crisis communications, the keyword is honesty. Start by telling what you do know. Don’t keep information under wraps just because there are some missing pieces. It is also critical that the message remains consistent as the situational awareness becomes clearer: the story must not change.

The challenge: You don’t have all the information.
The solution: Communicate honestly what you know so far. Do not speculate or guess. Do not share information you are not allowed to share. Stick to the facts that are available.

4. Allocate responsibilities

It is very important to definitively name the people who will be responsible for different tasks during the crisis. It should be written down and readily available who can be contacted when something unprecedented happens. This list of people should be kept updated so that it always has current contact details.

Communications director or communications manager is the natural choice to take the lead about communications in a crisis situation. If your organization doesn’t have these, someone else from upper management will take the lead while communications, marketing and HR might be there to assist in communications.

The challenge: Communication has to happen fast in a pressurized situation to many different directions.
The solution: Have scenarios written in your crisis communications action and test them out in real life.

5. Communicate continuously

Communication starts with your own personnel. They should be informed as soon as possible to avoid the rumor and misinformation mill from starting. A great tool for this is the so-called holding statement.

A holding statement means owning up to the situation as quickly as possible and stopping the spread of rumors. There should be a clear division of roles when giving the holding statement. In the midst of a crisis, it is not enough in communication to alleviate panic. It must also be communicated how the threat has been prepared for and how the emergency will be dealt with.

So internal first, external second.

It is very important to communicate to the whole organization:

  • What has happened?
  • What are the actions?
  • Who answers questions?

The tools that are utilized for internal communication are entirely dependent on your organization. The important messages should go through a couple of your most important communications channels. Using multiple channels ensures that everybody gets the message.

Tools that can be used:

  • Intranet
  • Messaging platforms (Teams, Mattermost, Skype, etc)
  • Internal newsletter
  • SMS
  • Video conferencing tools

SMS and other mobile messaging systems should be utilized especially when your personnel are on-the-go or not working from an office. This is the case with, for example, construction personnel, delivery personnel. 

After your employees are up-to-date, it’s time to communicate to other stakeholders as well. These are your customers, partners or subcontractors. Prioritize: who needs to know first. Think in advance about what is most important to the recipient of the message, what questions might arise, and when additional questions will be answered.

The channels that can be used for external communications are:

  • Company website
  • Social media
  • Newsletters
  • Press releases
  • TV and print

When communicating about a crisis that has occurred, it is vital to be open and honest, own up to the possible mistakes that were made and sincerely apologize for the harm caused.

Once the acute stage of the crisis is over, it’s very important to communicate this to your stakeholders. Don’t just shrug your shoulders and go “whew, got through that one” and call it a day. Send a message to your staff where you tell that the worst is over and end on a positive note. Also, tell your customers that services are back to normal and remember to genuinely apologize for the trouble the situation has caused.

In our crisis communications webinar that we hosted for marketing and communications professionals in Finland, we asked the participants what they perceive as the most important management skills in a crisis situation? Out of 126 people, the votes were cast in the following way:

33,6 % Taking responsibility
26,4 % Openness
22,4 % Reacting fast
17,6 % Honesty

The challenge: Crises can go on for a long time and with every passing day, week or even month, people get more anxious and possibly scared.
The solution: Keep sharing messages that are open and honest. Keep interacting even if you don't have new information. Build a stream of positive messages along the way.

Do you want to learn even more about crisis communications? Watch our excellent webinar on the subject.

Crisis Communications Webinar

Fanni Mäki
Communications Manager



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