Making Communications Decisions During a Crisis


When a public-facing crisis hits your organization, it’s imperative that you respond quickly and transparently by providing relevant information the media and public will want to know about what happened.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Having a comprehensive crisis communications plan in place can make all the difference. Your plan will guide you and your team through a systematic analysis of the situation and careful consideration of your strategies and tactics for communicating with both internal and external stakeholders.

The foundation of any solid crisis communications plan starts with the four As. Assess the situation and have a thorough understanding of what happened. Apologize to those affected. Act as quickly as possible to address the situation. Adjourn the crisis response when the issue has been resolved.

Even with a good crisis communications plan, the information you have about an unfolding situation may be incomplete or changing quickly. In other cases you may know everything you need to know, but numerous questions and decision points remain: Should you issue a statement? Schedule a press conference? Or wait until the media calls you? If you determine that a public statement is required, what should it say?

Differing perspectives

Different people in your organization may have different perspectives on these questions. Every organization has key internal stakeholders who should be consulted before saying anything, internally or externally, about a developing crisis. In a corporate setting, this starts at the top with the CEO but can also include, depending on the nature of the situation, the CFO or COO, the HR director, the heads of relevant business units or departments, and, of course, your legal counsel and communications staff.

It’s always a good idea to hear from the subject matter experts on your team. That’s why they work for you. It also can be important to talk to your attorney, who can advise on any potential legal implications of the crisis and review your draft comments on it. If the crisis could give rise to liability concerns or other risks, you need to be extra cautious about the tone and content of your public statements since they could be used against you in legal proceedings.

This can be tricky to navigate. Public relations practitioners typically aren’t lawyers and vice versa. The two professions speak different languages. It’s the attorney’s job to give accurate, comprehensive advice to her or his client and to protect against any risks associated with the crisis. It’s the PR pro’s job to adjust and deliver crisis messaging that protects the brand reputation of the client and clearly communicates critical information about the crisis to key audiences.

Balancing risks and rewards

So what happens when the lawyers and the PR pros disagree? With deep respect for our barrister friends, we advise clients that lawyers are there to give advice and company executives are there to make decisions. As the organization’s leader, sometimes you’ll take your lawyer’s advice but other times you may not. Attorneys tend to be conservative and cautious. That’s the nature of their job. It’s your job to balance the risks and rewards of taking a particular course of action, based on what you hear from all the relevant members of your team. Sometimes this could mean saying “no” to your lawyer, or another respected member of your team, as uncomfortable as that may be.

We’ve all seen this in public statements: “We can’t comment due to pending litigation.” Yet other times, under nearly identical circumstances, the public statement abandons the idea of declining to comment because that company recognizes that it’s even more important to get out its side of the story to protect the organization’s reputation. Statements that disclose key details of an incident may defy your attorney’s advice but strengthen your organization’s public image.

Time is of the essence

Internal conflicts also can prevent you from dealing with a crisis in a timely way. It’s important to make it clear within your organization – in advance of an actual crisis – that all relevant stakeholders will be consulted but the final decision will be made by the CEO, who is typically the one person in the organization who understands how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and ultimately is accountable for the success or failure of any actions taken in response to a crisis.

When all hell breaks loose, having a crisis communications plan in place can be a lifesaver. Don’t get caught scrambling for answers or bogged down by internal disputes. Develop a plan – before you need one – with clearly defined processes and decision makers. Then stick to it.

Martin Waymire has helped dozens of our clients successfully navigate complex crisis situations. We’re crisis communications certified and real-world tested.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help you create and execute a smart and strategic crisis communications plan or response today.