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Crash Course in Business Crisis Communications

Last week we gave a crash course in crisis communications for members of our local chamber of commerce. We invite you to read through the narrative here and download the Crisis Communications Worksheet and slides.


Profile Partners provides change management consulting support to government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies. This means that we work with organizations that are facing or planning major changes – either by their choice or not. With some organizations we provide insight and diagnostics at the beginning of a strategic or business planning process. We help other organizations retool their people and processes to address a changing industry, including those undergoing digital transformation. Our services include leadership development and training, diagnostics, facilitation, strategy and planning, process improvement, organization design, and of course strategic communications, which is a critically important tool during any change initiative. To read about some of our work, please visit

First let’s talk about what makes a crisis.

By definition, a crisis is a sudden event – either internal or external – that impacts your organization and your stakeholders. It may be an event that impacts your ability to operate – a fire, an industrial accident, financial fraud, product recall, bankruptcy, lawsuit, or an active shooter incident. Or maybe an event that is completely external, such as a pandemic or hurricane, where outside forces compel a sudden change in operations. Each organization has its own set of potential crises. The purpose of a crisis management plan is to identify those potential crises and how we will respond. Crisis communications, which is what we’re focused on today, is a subset of the crisis management plan and focuses on how you are going to talk about the crisis and its impact on customers, employees, and the organization.


  • Data security breach
  • Lawsuit
  • Fraud or theft on the part of an employee
  • Death of a key leader or board member
  • Bankruptcy
  • Accusation of misconduct
  • Tree falls on the office

Several years ago, I was supporting a commercial laboratory located in the Midwest with marketing communications support. Late on the Monday before Thanksgiving, I got a call from a panicked CEO who said that he had just learned that several of his employees, who were responsible for testing and certifying equipment for the military, had been falsifying their test data for over a year. Instead of performing tests on each piece of equipment to make sure they worked properly, the employees were simply making up results – all in the passing range of course.

The things going through this CEO’s mind included:

  • Being on the front page of a national newspaper
  • Loss of trust with his customers
  • Potential bankruptcy of the business
  • Legal trouble with regulators and oversight agencies
  • And of course, the most potentially tragic – the equipment was already deployed with troops around the world. He realized that he didn’t know whether this life-saving protective equipment was going to work when it needed to.

After the CEO had finished explaining the situation to me, my first thought was, “We need to call a professional!” My second thought was, “Wait, I AM the professional.” You know that feeling when you realize to your surprise that you are the adult in the room. The weekend was official canceled, and we got to work.

Fortunately, we had crafted a crisis communications plan the year prior so we had the mechanics already sorted out. Which was good because adrenaline is pumping, and you can’t always think clearly during these events. We followed the Five Golden Rules for Crisis Communications, which we’re going to review here:

Crisis Communications Rule #1: GATHER INFORMATION QUICKLY

  • Who: Two employees at XX Laboratory Inc.
  • What: Falsified data in a series of equipment certification tests
  • How: By recording inaccurate test data
  • Where: At a laboratory in Chicago
  • When: Over the last three months
  • Why: They were overloaded with work
  • Is there any immediate danger? We didn’t know if there was danger.
  • How much do we understand? We are still studying the root causes

Now you have your initial factual message crisis communications message about the incident.

Two employees at XX Laboratory Inc, in Chicago, IL, were suspended Friday for falsifying test data. We believe this has been going on for three months and impacts approximately 120 units. The laboratory’s leadership is investigating to determine the extent, impact, and root causes of the fraudulent activity.

Three recommendations I’d like to offer you from my experience:

  • The first is to Narrow the issue both factually and contextually
    • In this case, this meant talking with team leaders, employees involved, and trying to narrow down the scope of the falsification – what months and what serial numbers were involved
    • Contextually – the company has tested approximately 100,000 units over a period of 20 years.
    • We believe this has been going on for three months and impacts approximately 120 units.
  • Keep things off email but assume information will travel
    • Emails are too easily forward and during the first hours after a crisis, you want to be in charge of what gets out and to whom. You can minimize information getting out there before you are ready by using phone and talking face-to-face. No text, no email, no Slack.
    • This is not meant to hide or deceive. This is about making sure that accurate information is distributed to the right people.
  • Achieve balance of completeness and timing
    • In a crisis like this that involves potentially newsworthy fraud, you only have hours to get in front of it, so you need to achieve a balance of information completeness and timing. You cannot wait until you have a full picture to act. “We are continuing to investigate” is a phrase you’ll hear when emergency responders are dealing with a crisis – this is when they are relatively sure of a few facts but don’t have the full picture.

Crisis Communications Rule #2: IDENTIFY and PRIORITIZE WHO IS IMPACTED

  • What does this mean? This means you need to define your audience. Think broadly as possible about your entire universe of potential stakeholders
  • And then you prioritize stakeholders.
    • You can’t communicate with everyone at once. And you’re not going to say the same thing to each audience. In fact this can create panic. For instance, if I speculate to soldiers that their equipment may not work, I’m doing more harm than good by creating lack of trust in their equipment at a stage in the process when they can’t do anything about it. I wanted them to have something to do – like email their serial number – before we rolled out. I wanted the advice of the commanders before we went public. So military product managers became part of our impacted stakeholders.
    • I use this model of three tiers to organize audiences.
    • Core – These are the people who are part of your crisis response team. They pretty much need to know everything. These are the people you are going to count on to carry your message into the community
      • Key leaders, lawyer, communications director, key supplier or customer that is directly involved
    • First Tier – These are the people most impacted
      • Key customers, employees, major suppliers or vendors
    • Second Tier – These people may have some limited impact or otherwise can be ambassadors
      • Secondary customers, suppliers, competitors, media, elected or
        civic leaders, if appropriate
      • Is there a third tier?
    • You will be targeting your messaging and the timing of your communications to each tier.

Take a look at your worksheet on the bottom of page one. Let’s take one minute and jot down who might be in each of your tiers. Who is your core group in a crisis? Who are most impacted? Who are also impacted?

Crisis Communications Rule #3: THE BUCK ALWAYS STOPS AT THE TOP

  • The leader is always the chief spokesperson, but not always the best spokesperson. The leader must always be visible. You cannot delegate this role. However, you can have someone else do the talking, as long as you have a presence. For example, in the daily briefings about the coronavirus, how odd would it be if Trump were not there. While Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci are clearly the better spokespersons, the leader must be present.
  • Establish roles
    • Who will be your face to the public?
    • Technical spokesperson or subject matter expert
    • Who will interface with media?
  • Lastly it is critical to have a defined communications chain of command. I usually just grab an org chart and start on the top to lay out who talks to who and when.
  • In the interest of time, we’ll not stop to do the worksheet but please note there is a space for you to outline your chain of communication. This is a very important part of your crisis comms plan.

Crisis Communications Rule #4: SPEAK THE (EDITED) TRUTH

It is a cardinal sin to lie or mislead during a crisis. That is the fastest way to break trust with your stakeholders. However, in a crisis, information will be developing faster that it can be effectively managed, and you will make errors. To keep errors from being perceived as deception, you must be prompt and transparent in owning, admitting to, and correcting those errors.

Second I want you to edit your messages so they are tailored to your audience. You will talk with a key customer different than one you rarely work with. There is a huge difference between what you say to employees and what you say to the Washington Post reporter.

  • Not everyone needs to know everything
  • Necessary elements:
    • Acknowledge/Name the situation
    • Fraud: Today we learned that two of our employees falsified data…
    • Compassion and recognize the impact
    • We recognize that our customers may lose trust in us as a result of this…
    • Apologize if necessary
    • This event is deeply troubling, and we apologize for impact this may have on you …
    • Name the next steps
    • We are committed to getting to the bottom of the incident and making it right. We will follow up with an update in several days.

There’s room on your worksheet to practice these messages.

Crisis Communications Rule #5: YOU CAN’T OVERCOMMUNICATE

  • Crises love a vacuum. This is why timing is so important. If you don’t put your information out there, others will. It is also important to communicate with audiences in the right order. On your worksheet, you’ll see at the top of page 3, a section where you can lay out when you’ll notify each tier. When you’ll notify media. How frequently you’ll follow up with more information.
  • On the issue of media… not all business crises require a news release. The question is whether your crisis could have enough impact on the community to land you on the front page. How newsworthy is it? This is a judgment call of whether or not to alert media. Because it could potentially be a national news story, we made the decision to send out a press release on the test data falsification.
  • Repetition is helpful. Please go ahead and bore your stakeholders. It actually helps to reduce the sense of emergency in their minds.
  • Use multiple channels – make sure you are reaching people where they are. Deliver bad news to important partners in person but go ahead and send an email to a second tier customer. Meet with your employees in person, and follow up with regular updates on the Intranet
  • There’s a chart on your worksheet to organize your thinking on what channel to use with whom and when. Adapt this to your own situation.
  • Monitor – Set a google news alert, create a feedback loop with employees, ask questions of customers, make sure you are taking the temperature of your stakeholders on a regular basis. What is your monitoring plan? Write it down at the bottom of the worksheet.
  • Lastly, communicate resolution to problem as loudly as crisis itself was communicated. Use resolution to problem as PR opportunity
  • Then update this plan — Conduct a crisis communications debrief – what went well, what didn’t, what to do differently next time

What we can do right now:

Most of us are either essential or non essential businesses and the immediacy of communicating our plans with stakeholders is behind us. There are things I’d suggest you do during this time while everything is fresh.

  • Create or update your crisis management and communications plan and review it with staff and partners. Make sure people have a copy and know what to expect.
  • Make sure you look like you are still in business — Keep your storefront busy – website changes, social media presence
  • Talk with your key audiences at least once a week
  • Instead of marketing, use this time to develop relationships. One of my clients is in the midst of a major capital campaign. We pulled the plug on that earlier this month. Instead we are approaching organizations that we want to know. Maybe we don’t know how we want to partner with them, but at this point, we have no request of them except to talk and build a relationship. When the capital campaign is back up and running, we then may be in a better position to make a financial ask of them.
  • Help the cause – what can you do to ease the pain? I’m a client of Its PayDay. They sent out this really helpful email today about emergency business loans. It was easy for them to do – they linked to a brochure on a website, but they made it easy for me to access the information – they eased some of the pain for their customers. What can you do for your customers?




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