Ten Steps to Communicate a Crisis

  • First 24 hours decide
  • Recognize the crisis
  • Get on the scene
  • Use social media
  • Name a spokesperson
  • Show feelings
  • Inform internally
  • Focus on the business
  • The leader is important
  • Prepare and train

1. The first 24 hours are decisive

When a crisis hits, you have to be extremely alert and conscious of what you say and how you act in the very first hours. If you wait a long time and just hope it will blow over, you’re pretty sure that things will go worse. Of course it depends on which crisis you have. You don’t want to strike back at every crisis. Some can be short and get over quickly. If you are backtracking every time somebody is critizing you, it might make you look weak and indecisive. But do you have a big crisis going on, the rule should be to be active in the first hours.

Generally the things you do in the first 24 hours of a crisis will stick to you. If you have managed the crisis well, people will believe that you are successful. If you fail in the first hours, it will take time to change the impression you have created. Own your own message, otherwise someone else will, and get it out quick to avoid misinformation and speculation.

Communicate early and often. Take the lead and control the agenda. Don’t wait until you have the answer for everything; communicate what you know at the moment.

Be accessible to the media, let them know where they can reach you, establish a media center and hold press conferences frequently.

During a crisis the demand for information is enormous. The media and the public will be craving for more information and the earlier you manage to get the information out, the better. Sometimes just a quick public statement is enough. Even if you don’t have that much to say, it’s a way of calming the public and maybe also the stock market if you are a listed company by just showing that you’re in control.  A statement should be published within an hour or two.

But at the same time it is very important only to tell facts and give out no speculation.  Any speculation about the crisis will rebound on you and create more work.


The media will be hunting for the cause of the crisis and who is to blame. If you want to have the correct version out in the public, you have to orchestrate the message. You have to own your message and definitely take control over the message before someone else does.

Visualization and storytelling

There is a change going on in the media. Paper versions of newspapers are widely expected to die slowly and web papers will play a much more important role. The cell phone is becoming increasingly more important, so is the case with the iPads and smart phones. People have access to the news all the time and this demands more from an organization in a crisis. Now and even more in the future will it be more important to tell your story in a short and clear way and often sound bites can take over for the traditional article. Twitter and Facebook play a bigger role in the media, and the storytelling will play a bigger role too. In a crisis it will be important to know how to tell your message in pictures.  Imagine Twitter which allows only 140 letters. A CEO and the rest of the organization have to have this in mind when they train for a crisis.


2. Recognize the crisis and its implications:

A crisis can happen suddenly with little or no warning. Things are happening fast, it is easy to lose overview and messages can come from many angles. Or the crisis can appear very slowly and then develop to a huge problem. Both scenarios can be very confusing stages in a crisis. When the crisis strikes, it is important to get an overview. First of all try to characterize the event to determine what sort of crisis you are dealing with. Once you have found out which crisis you’re dealing with, determine its scope and magnitude. When you have organized for the crisis management, the biggest challenge is to contain the crisis.


3. Get on the scene

It is the leader’s responsibility to get an overview over the crisis, focus on priorities and respond to what to do. But when a crisis strikes, it is also important that the company and its leaders show they are present and are having control. Depending on which crisis you are facing, you should always consider when to use the top management. Do you have a crisis which is developing under time, it cab be wise to wait with letting the CEO in the media. If the crisis is grave and sudden and there is a need for human compassion, it could be wise to use the CEO as a comforting and controlling figure in media. In that case the management should be visible as soon as possible. The physical presence of a CEO is important to show that the company is caring about the crisis. He/she has to show decisiveness and compassion, and to be responsible, accessible and honest.


4. The importance of social media

In 2012 it is expected that one billion people worldwide will have a Facebook account. It has become more crucial than ever to integrate the social media in the crisis communication plan. When doing so, make sure the top management is involved, engaged and approves the use of social media. When building a team in the organization, find the people in the company who show an interest for working with social media. It is a great advantage to have people on board who have a genuine interest.

You also have to be aware that the use of social media will demand resources and should make it part of your annual budget. Invest in it and teach the employees. Be aware that your employees can be a great help in a crisis. People nowadays are used to be active in social network, have better understanding of technology and might be willing to help out in a crisis. Build a system and a culture where the employees can take an active part.

Be present in all channels and find your tone of voice in social media, develop it and be consistent.

Have a clear goal with your communication.

Be active, – surveys show that 90 % read, 9% comment and read, while 1 % create content. Be among the one percent and be it before the crisis strikes.Be honest and make clear guidelines for employees about what they can post in social media . Analyze and follow up. Set up a surveillance of social media.

5)  Name a spokesperson

Early in the crisis or even better before the crisis strikes, you have to designate one person to be the primary spokesperson. She or he shall represent your company and make official statements and answer media questions throughout the crisis. It is also important to identify a back-up person in the event that the crisis lasts a long time or the prime spokesperson is not available.

One designated spokesperson can never manage to be updated about every level of the crisis and will depend on getting information from the organization. Designate advisers who can help with expert advice and counseling. These can be experts from the technical department,human resources, the economic department etc. It can also be wise to designate people to liaise between the spokesperson and the experts to make the information flow better.

By having just one designated spokesperson you ensure that the message comes out more clearly. In a crisis it is important that all the messages from the company appear similar and if you decide to use several spokespeople, make sure they use the same message.

And these people have to be trained. If you shall appear in front of a camera or a microphone, make sure that this doesn’t happen for the first time in a crisis. Train and prepare the perople who will be the external voice for the company.

In a crisis the skills this person should have are to be able to read the situation quickly and formulate it in a short message. He/she should have the ability to stay calm under stress, and to be  prepared to give the same answer over and over again. Media will be very demanding in a situation like this and they all want their own replies to the same question , so be prepared to issue a statement every hour if necessary. Try to treat the media equally to avoid criticism. In some crises you just have to concentrate on the big news channels to get the message out, but ideally you should give information at the same time to news agencies, TV, radio, web papers and local media.

You also have to be aware that other people can be communicating about the same crisis like the police, fire staff and health personnel and make sure to have a coordinated message.

Create a media center where you have colleagues answering the telephone calls. Send also a person to the scene to give first hand information and establish liaisons to give the information to the person who shall communicate externally.

A good tip is to try to tell the media what you know and try not to hold back information. Media will find the information in all cases, it’s their job, they will go to other sources if they don’t get what they ask you.



6. Be emphatic

In a middle of a crisis, even if your organization is to blame or not, you have to acknowledge the situation and express your feelings early and often. The biggest mistake a company can do is to start calculating the loss of money during a crisis. The rule should be to always to think people first! Express genuine empathy with the people who have been part of the crisis and show you care.



7. Internal communication

It is easy to think that the information to the market and public is the most important in a crisis. But the people who are going to keep the business running have to feel informed too. This is so easy to forget in the midst of the crisis. You should use the same message as you do externally, but maybe with a different twist. Try to inform internally some minutes before you do it externally. Set up a plan for informing internally. Use the website, introduce forum meetings and make use of your employees to help you in the information flow.


8. Stay focused on the business

When there is a crisis, it’s important to think that there will be a life after the terrible accident/ crisis. In the airline business this is well established and the plan for crisis management take this in sight when the crisis strikes.

A focus on work can be very helpful for employees who are heartbroken by the crisis. They feel they can help and they want to feel needed. This might  make them feel proud and  make bonds betweeen them.


9. The importance of leadership in a crisis


During a crisis you can often see which material the leader is made of. The integrity, character and substance become important factors. Bill George, the professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the books “True North” and “7 Lessons for leading in crisis” says “successful leaders lead with the heart, not just the head. They possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage.”  In his book “7 lessons for leading in crisis” he points out that the leader needs to have these factors in mind at a crisis:


Face reality, starting with yourself

Get the world off your shoulders

Dig deep for the root case

Get ready for the long haul

Never waste a good crisis

You’re in the spotlight, follow the true north

Go on offense, focus on winning now


10. Prepare and train


A crisis will never be managed well without training beforehand. And the people who shall be in front of the camera have to be trained, it can be rather damaging for an untrained spokesperson to speak to the media. It is quite easy to say the wrong thing and, without training, the risk is much bigger. A company should initiate media training at least once a year. Train on key messages and learn to be comfortable in front of a camera or a microphone.


About Siv Meisingseth

I have been working with communications since 1983, both as a journalist in the Norwegian national broadcasting and as head of information for companies as SAS, Scandinavian Airlines, and Norges Bank, Norway's central bank. Through my career I have been working with several crisis and my target for this webiste is to share some of my experiences and give some advices about what to say and do when the crisis strikes.
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