All About Crisis Management
Sections of This Topic Include
10 Steps of Crisis Communications
Guidelines for Successful Crisis Management
Guidelines for Successful Social Crisis Planning
Examples of Organizations’ Successful — and Unsuccessful
— Crisis Management
Advice about responding to a crisis, once it’s already occurred
Guidelines and advice about buying various kinds of insurance
Guarding against theft, fire, disasters, etc.
Safety in the Workplace:
About types of workplace injuries, programs to reduce accidents, etc.)
or Repairing Your Reputation
Related Library Topics
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L. Bernstein (Update 2016 by Jonathan Bernstein. All rights reserved.)
Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.
Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich – burying
your head in the sand and hoping the problem goes away – are gone. You can try,
but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they’ve
watched what happened with Volkswagen, Chipotle, FIFA, and Lance Armstrong.
If you don’t prepare, you will incur more damage. When I look at existing crisis
management-related plans while conducting a vulnerability audit (the first
step in crisis
preparedness), what I often find is a failure to address the many communications
issues related to crisis
or disaster response. Experience demonstrates that organizational leadership
often does not understand that in the absence of adequate internal and external
- Operational response will break down.
- Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and negatively reactive.
- The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.
- The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended, often dramatically.
- The impact to the financial and reputational bottom line will be more severe.
The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they
require advance work in order to minimize damage. So if you’re serious about
crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 10 steps of crisis
communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before
any crisis occurs.
1. Anticipate Crises
If you’re being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications
Team for intensive brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises that could
occur at your organization.
There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise:
- You may realize that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation.
- You can begin to think about possible responses, about best-case/worst-case scenarios, etc. Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.
In some cases, of course, you know a crisis will occur because you’re planning
to create it – e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition.
There is a more formal method of gathering this information I call a “vulnerability
audit,” about which information
is available here.
This assessment process should lead to creating a Crisis Response Plan that
is an exact fit for your organization, one that includes both operational and
communications components. The remaining steps, below, outline some of the major
topics that should be addressed in the communications section of the plan.
2. Identify Your Crisis Communications Team
A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your organization’s
Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the organization’s CEO will lead the team,
with the firm’s top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her
chief advisers. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis
communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent
consultant with that specialty. Other team members are typically the heads of
your major organizational divisions, as any situation that rises to the level
of being a crisis will affect your entire organization. And sometimes, the team
also needs to include those with special knowledge related to the current crisis,
e.g., subject-specific experts.
Let me say a word about legal counsel. Historically, I used to have to do a
lot of arm-wresting with attorneys over strategy and messaging. They were focused
strictly on the court of law and, of course, a crisis manager is focused primarily
on the court of public opinion. More and more lawyers understand that the organization
in crisis can be destroyed in the court of public opinion years before the legal
process plays out. And attorneys have also come to understand that, while “no
comment” translates as “we’re guilty or hiding something” to the public, there
are a lot of ways to say very little without compromising legal matters, while
still appearing responsive to those seeking more information.
Remember this – entire countries and causes have had their ambitions thwarted,
or aided, as a consequence of their trials in the court of public opinion.
3. Identify and Train Spokespersons
Categorically, any organization should ensure, via appropriate policies and
training, that only authorized spokespersons speak for it. This is particularly
important during a crisis. Each crisis communications team should have people
who have been pre-screened, and trained,
to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons for different channels of communications.
All organizational spokespersons during a crisis situation must have:
- The right skills
- The right position
- The right training
The Right Skills
I’ve met senior-level corporate executives who could stand up in front of
a 1,000-person conference audience without a fear and perform beautifully –
but who would get virtual lockjaw when they knew a camera was pointed their
way for a one-on-one interview.
I’ve also known very effective written communicators who should probably never
do spoken interviews because they’re way too likely to “step in it” using that
format. These days, spokesperson responsibilities invariably include online
communication, and social media is a very easy place to make a mistake.
Matching potential spokespersons’ skills with their assignments as a member
of the Crisis Communications Team is critical.
The Right Position
Some spokespersons may naturally excel at all forms of crisis communications
– traditional media, social media, B2B, internal, etc. Others may be more limited.
Only certain types of highly sensitive crises (e.g., ones involving significant
loss of life) virtually mandate the chief executive be the lead spokesperson
unless there is very good cause to the contrary.
The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant organizational leaders
but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision about who should
speak is made after a crisis breaks – but the pool of potential spokespersons
should be identified and trained in advance.
Not only are spokespersons needed for media communications, but for all types
and forms of communications, internal and external. This includes on-camera,
at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc. You really don’t want to be
making decisions about so many different types of spokespersons while “under
4. Spokesperson Training
Two typical quotes from well-intentioned executives summarize the reason why
your spokespersons should receive professional training in how to speak to the
“I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn’t use the
most important news about my organization.”
“I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I won’t have any trouble at that public
Regarding the first example, there have hundreds of people skewered by CBS’
“60 Minutes” or ABC’s “20/20” who thought they knew how to talk to the press.
In the second case, most executives who have attended a hostile public hearing
have gone home wishing they had been wearing a pair of Depends. They didn’t
learn, in advance, the critical differences between proactive PR, which focuses
on promoting your organization, and crisis communications, which focuses on
preserving your organization.
All stakeholders, internal and external, are just as capable of misunderstanding
or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media. It’s your
responsibility to minimize the chance of that happening.
training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that
optimizes the response of all stakeholders.
5. Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems
Remember when the only way to reach someone quickly was by a single phone or
fax number, assuming they were there to receive either?
Today, we need to have – immediately at hand – the means to reach our internal
and external stakeholders using multiple modalities. Many of us have several
phone numbers, more than one email address, and can receive SMS (text) messages
or faxes. Instant Messenger programs, either public or proprietary, are also
very popular for business and personal use. We can even send audio and video
messages via email. And then, of course, there is social media. This may be
the best/fastest way to reach some of our stakeholders, but setting up social
media accounts for this purpose and developing a number of followers/friends/contacts
on the various social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+) is
not something you can do after a crisis breaks, because
nowhere does news of a crisis spread faster and more out of your control than
on social media.
Depending on how “techie” we choose to be, all of this type of communication
– and more – may be received on or sent by a single device!
It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems that
will allow you to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities.
The Virginia Tech campus shooting catastrophe, where email was the sole means
of alerting students initially, proves that using any single modality can make
a crisis worse. Some of us may be on email constantly, others not so. Some of
us receive our cellphone calls or messages quickly, some not. If you use more
than one modality to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much greater that
the message will go through.
For a long time, those of us in crisis management relied on the old-fashioned
“phone tree” and teams of callers to track people down. Fortunately, today there
is technology – offered by multiple vendors for rent or purchase – that can
be set up to automatically start contacting all stakeholders in your pre-established
database and keep trying to reach them until they confirm (e.g., by pressing
a certain number on a phone keypad) that the message has been received. Technology
you can trigger with a single call or email.
Intelligence gathering is an essential component of both crisis prevention
and crisis response.
Knowing what’s being said about you on social
media, in traditional media, by your employees, customers, and other stakeholders
often allows you to catch a negative “trend” that, if unchecked, turns into
Likewise, monitoring feedback from all stakeholders during a crisis situation
allows you to accurately adapt your strategy and tactics.
Both require monitoring systems be established in advance. For traditional
and social media, Google Alerts are the no-cost favorite, but there are also
free social media tracking apps such as Hootsuite. There a variety of paid monitoring
services that provide not only monitoring, but also the ability to report results
in a number of formats. Monitoring other stakeholders means training personnel
who have front-line contact with stakeholders (e.g., Customer Service) to report
what they’re hearing or seeing to decision-makers on your Crisis Communications
6. Identify and Know Your Stakeholders
Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organization?
I consider employees to be your most important audience, because every employee
is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you
want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking
about you to others not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that
they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.
7. Develop Holding Statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis,
“holding statements,” messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks,
can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which
the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you
conducted in Step 1 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel
chain with properties hit by a natural disaster, before the organization’s headquarters
has any hard factual information, might be:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest
priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
“Our thoughts are with those who were in harm’s way, and we hope that they
are well.” “We will be supplying additional information when it is
available and posting it on our website.”
The organization’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding
statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for
other scenarios should be developed.
8. Assess the Crisis Situation
Reacting without adequate information is a classic “shoot first and ask questions
afterwards” situation in which you could be the primary victim. However, if
you’ve done all of the above first, it’s a “simple” matter of having the Crisis
Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your
team members, ensuring the right type of information is being provided so you
can proceed with determining the appropriate response.
Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications
step you can’t take in advance. If you haven’t prepared in advance, your reaction
will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly hired consultants
to run through steps 1 to 7. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications
strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.
9. Finalize and Adapt Key Messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications
Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any
given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information
its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about
this crisis? Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages
that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages
for individual groups of stakeholders. You’ll need to adapt your messaging to
different forms of media as well. For example, crisis messaging on Twitter often
relies on sharing links to an outside page where a longer message is displayed,
a must because of the platform’s 140 character limit.
10. Post-Crisis Analysis
After the cowpies are no longer interacting with the air-circulating device,
the question must be asked, “What did we learn from this?”
A formal analysis of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be
done better next time and how to improve various elements of crisis preparedness
is another must-do activity for any Crisis Communications Team. I have developed
a formal process for accomplishing this, but even a solid in-house brainstorming
session can do the job.
“It Can’t Happen To Us”
When a healthy organization’s CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing
a crisis communications plan, either a heavy investment of in-house time
or retention of an outside professional for a substantial fee, it is tempting
for them to fantasize “it can’t happen to us” or “if it happens to us, we can
handle it relatively easily.”
Hopefully, that type of ostrich emulation is rapidly becoming a thing of the
past. Yet I know when all is said and done, thousands of organizations hit by
natural and man-made disasters will have suffered far more damage than would
have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place. This
has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served
over the past 30+ years. Even the best crisis management professional is
playing catch up – with more damage occurring all the time – when the organization
has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.
The Last Word – For Now
I would like to believe organizations worldwide are finally “getting it” about
crisis preparedness, whether we’re talking about crisis communications, disaster
response or business continuity. Certainly, client demand for advance preparation
has increased dramatically in the past decade, at least for my consultancy.
But I fear there is, in fact, little change in what I have said in the past
– that 95 percent of American organizations remain either completely unprepared
or significantly under-prepared for crises. And my colleagues overseas report
little better, and sometimes worse, statistics.
Choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders will appreciate
Guidelines for Successful Crisis Management
The following links are to a wide variety of guidelines for successful crisis
management. Many of the articles include real-life examples of success.
Really Constitutes a Business Crisis?
You a Crisis Manager?
with catastrophe: what keeps us going in the face of adversity?
Managing in Crisis
Your Crisis Communication Response Plan is Due for Maintenance
(And/Or a Rewrite)
Questions to Avoid Crises
Doctor Recommends Crisis Prevention – But It’s Your Choice
Security as Crisis Prevention (video)
Advantage of Crises to Grow and Learn
Crisis Management and Customer Service
for Crisis Interventions
Questions to Avoid Crisis
Reality of Communication
Training to Prevent Disasters — Not Just the
Job of TSA
Turning a Liability into an Asset
Proactive Crisis Management
You Simulate a PR Crisis and Then Handle the Real Thing?
Your Crisis Communication Response Plan is Due for Maintenance (And/Or a Rewrite)
Prevent and React
Crisis Management Tools
Crisis on Stage
The Human Touch
Coping with Tragedy
Ready and Able
Learning from Crisis
Prepare With Dark Sites
Real Crisis Management
Simplify and Repeat
Have a Plan
Are You Vulnerable?
Bring On The Hate
Crafting the Ideal Apology
Rumor and Innuendo
When Share Price Puts a Value on Brand Reputation
Business as Usual
Ways to Ruin Your Company’s Communications Efforts
Tip Your Hand
Red Cross UK Disaster Challenge
Know What You’re Talking About, Right?
Bird Flu Breakout
Caribbean Cops Get Crisis Communications Training
The Digital Media Law Project
Pledge to Prepare
High-Speed Crisis Management
Shackles Raise Consumer’s Hackles
Video Crisis Management
Family’s Reputation Management no Touchdown
Romney Film Reveals Crisis Management Risk
Calm Yourself Through Crisis
Hotel Hacker Exposes E-Vulnerabilities
Make Your Apology Mean Something
Short Term/Long Term
Crisis Show Ep. 2 – Crises, Crises, Everywhere!
Crisis Show Ep. 3 –
Jackings and #Fail Tweets
Crisis Show Ep. 4 –
Crisis Show Ep. 6 –
Tony Robbins, Olympics & Penn State
Crisis Show Ep. 9 –
Networking and Social Media
Guidelines for Successful Social Crisis Planning
As it stands today, crisis management is very much entwined with social media.
Whether you like it or not, when trouble hits you’ve got to quickly meet
your stakeholders in the places they frequent in order to maintain control of
your story, and that means being ready. In an article for business2community.com,
David Vap provided some solid tips for getting your organization in position
to handle social crises:
- Understand your organization. Review external communication processes,
social capabilities, and corporate culture. This is where we recommend scenario
planning. Key questions could include: how would we respond if a vocal customer
complaint suddenly went viral? How would we respond to a brandjacking attack?
- Create a new social mindset in your organization. The social shift calls
for a mindset characterized by transparency, accountability, employee empowerment,
and planned spontaneity. Technology is certainly a crucial component of dealing
with crisis communication, but preparing processes and practices must come
- Know your consumers. Listen to conversations unfolding on the social web
about your brand, and respond/employ proactive social support. Also identify
your customer advocates on the social web – they will be invaluable
in the event of a crisis.
- Form a social crisis team. A successful social strategy must cross the boundaries
of department and hierarchy because consumers expect a seamless experience.
Build a cross-functional team, including a social media manager, a product
owner, and at least one executive sponsor. Draw up a social team charter to
clarify roles and responsibilities and create an internal collaboration space
for this team.
- Roll out a social crisis communications plan. Develop a playbook with guidelines
for the social crisis team. Define an escalation process for potential PR
issues. Build feedback into every step so you can adapt. Your plan needs to
think through three areas – process and culture (what / who needs to
change), technologies and tools (what to use to get there), and key metrics
(what to track).
I especially like this list because of step two, “create a new social
mindset in your organization.” Far too many businesses create social media
accounts and install fancy managing programs but neglect proper training and
education, not only stifling possible gains but also creating the risk of improper
use, which raises the chance of crisis even further.
of Social Media for Disaster Response
You Prepared For a Social Media Crisis?
of Social Media for Disaster Response
Media in Emergencies
to Start a Social Media Crisis
Twitter Mistakes to Avoid
Blogging for Crisis Management
Getting Started with Social Media
Crisis Communication via Twitter
Fight Back with Social Media
Putting Out Fires with Twitter
Tech to the Rescue
Rounding Up Rumors
Emergency Twitter Tips
FEMA and Social Media vs. Irene
Define Your Goals for Social Media
Twitter Underprepared for Censorship Backlash
Social Media and You
Social Media Crisis Management Strategies
Social Media Preparedness
of Taxpayer Money to Tweet?
Flinging Mud with SEO
Listening for a Crisis
Social Media and Your Next Crisis
ASUS Fails at Social Media
Handling Negative Comments
Social Media for Reputation Repair
Outrage Trap: How You Get Turned into a Dupe by Political and Activist Groups
Missed Opportunity is Another’s Brilliant PR
When Deleting Social Media Comments is OK
the Pooh on Social Media
Examples of Organizations’ Successful — and Unsuccessful — Crisis Management
One of the best ways to learn is from the mistakes of others. The following
links are to many examples of crisis management done poorly.
Neglects Twitter in Crisis
Business at the Better Business Bureau
New Zealand Shows How to Fight Back
Has a New Crisis
Declared Dead too Soon
Guys Lose with Google
Bad Crisis Communications Hurts Electronics Manufacturer
Most Hated Companies
Twitter or the Web?
Sheen — Misunderstandings about Addiction and Crisis
Leadership in Japan
You Lie Down With Dogs
(tm) Sub-Par Crisis Management
Lessons from P&G
Playstation Network Breach
Southwest Gets It Right
Almost Good Crisis Management
Delta Drops Fees, Learns Lesson
Nikon Averts Facebook Crisis
State Crisis Management — ESPN Interview with Jonathan Bernstein
BofA Gets Brandjacked
Kansas Gov. Bungles Social Media Crisis Management
Can Apologies Be Funny?
Let Reputation Damage Become Disaster
NY Times Pays for Errant Email
Ryan Braun: Victim or Villain?
Talk About Transparency!
Citibank – A Grimm Fairy Tale
Crisis Management During Hard Times
Crisis Management from the Marine Corps
Elicits Pain About Obama’s Public Speaking
How To Say No Comment Without Saying No Comment
More Military Crisis Management
Army General Neil Tolley Opens Mouth, Inserts Combat Boot, Endangers Secret Ops
– A Grimm Fairy Tale (update)
Correcting a Customer Complaint Crisis
How You Can Cause a Crisis by Giving Someone the Finger
Is Siri Stalking You?
$3 Billion Deceit
Crisis Management Runs Flat
SumoSalad Hepatitis A Disaster
s Good Deed Goes Punished
Crisis Management for Android in OS Wars
GoDaddy Does Online Reputation Management
Worried About Mass Shootings? Think Prevention
Error Dings Aussie Red Cross’s Reputation
FEMA Combats Sandy Rumors Online
it’s OK to laugh, and when it’s not
Quick Crisis Management from O2
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