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When, Where & Why: How to Master Crisis Communications

Published on March 23, 2016, at 9:30 p.m.
by Mackenzie Ross.

A plane crashes, stocks plummet, a political candidate is involved in a scandal. What do all of these things have in common? They are, without a doubt, tragic events, but more than that, they constitute a nightmare for public relations professionals. In these circumstances, a crisis communication plan is key to recovering, but even an effective crisis communications plan requires both a timely release of messages and transparency.

Crisis communications is defined by Shift Communications as “trying to mitigate damage to your company’s reputation by third party sources.” Crises have different levels of severity, and the communications’ team response (or lack thereof) often has just as big of an impact on the newsworthiness of the situation as the actual nature of the crisis.

“Not every issue that comes up is a crisis,” said Daniel O’Donnell, a director at Brunswick Group. “It’s important to know whether to respond, when to continue to monitor and how to potentially address an issue before it becomes a crisis.”

O’Donnell defined an issue as something that does not merit as much media attention or pose any immediate threat to anyone, while a crisis can involve something physical like a fire or explosion, or something technological like a data breach.

Because every crisis is different, how do PR professionals know what to say and when to say it? Often sensitive and private information is at stake, so PR professionals cannot immediately offer a full disclosure. But as a whole, crisis communications and the timing of messages differ based on the specific communication field.

Good and bad examples of crisis communications
With today’s fast-paced news cycle, both minor and major incidents quickly become news headlines. Some companies have mastered crisis communications, such as when Southwest Airlines immediately took to social media to update the public after one of its airliners landed nose first in 2013, or when the Texas Rangers publicized raising the height of its stadium’s railings after a fan took a fatal fall at a game in 2011.


On the flip side, other companies have struggled in this area. In 2012, Johnson & Johnson recalled massive amounts of Tylenol and other products. In the aftermath, the company never took responsibility for the faulty products — instead pointing fingers at various parties involved. Malaysian Airlines met intense criticism for its lack of compassion following the disappearance of flight MH370 in 2014 because the company notified passengers’ families via text message.

Screenshot from, originally from Twitter

A crisis can strike at any time, so it is important to have a response plan ready. Tom Hoog, a winner of many awards in communications and a public relations professional with extensive political experience, said every crisis communications plan should involve the following steps:

1. Ascertain all the facts as quickly as possible.
2. Give a full disclosure of all the information once the facts have been established.
3. Demonstrate how the company will fix whatever caused the crisis so it will not happen again.
4. Show empathy toward the people who have been wronged.

Differences in crisis communications for different industries
Hoog said these steps apply to all forms of crisis communications, especially corporate communications and political communications. While these two industries face different problems, the approach to fixing the problems is relatively the same.

According to O’Donnell, political or entertainment industry crises are generally driven by the words or actions of a single person. Corporate crises can arise from a variety of issues such as a problem at a facility or production site or a faulty product, and it can take longer to discover the root of the problem.

In corporate crisis communications, O’Donnell said there are multiple audiences at stake. The communications messages must address the external audiences, which include media, investors and political stakeholders, and internal audiences, such as current employees and retirees, both of whom may be financially invested in the company.

Both O’Donnell and Hoog said transparency and authenticity are key elements of successful crisis communications.

Hoog stated that in politics this transparency is easily lost since people try to “spin” messages. “They try to talk their way out of the crisis instead of dealing with it,” he explained.

To help combat this problem, he advised campaign consultants to ask their candidate about anything and everything that might be an issue before campaign season, so they can have a plan to address the issue immediately if it comes up.

While both political and corporate communications involve notifying necessary publics of all the facts related to the crisis, Hoog said political communications teams often frame messages and issues based on what the audiences want to hear, especially during election season. He encouraged political communications specialists to be grounded in a set of values and not run a campaign on the basis of polling.

“Accept the fact that maybe you’re not on the same page as the public at all times,” Hoog said. “And if so, it may cost you the election. But it’s much better to lose the election than to lose who it is you would like to be.”

Timing of crisis messages
One of the biggest questions related to crisis communications is the timing of messages. How does a PR professional know when to release a crisis response?

Before the 24-hour news cycle, it was commonly understood that Friday afternoon was the best time to release bad news because the news gets buried among the rush to get to the weekend. Nowadays, companies need to be ready to respond at all times.

Hoog said an “ideal time” to release bad news cannot be formalized, and each situation has to be looked at individually.

“Honesty is the best policy,” Hoog said. “And if there’s a problem that occurs on a Tuesday, do I really want to wait until Friday and hope that the news will go away? No, I want to address it right away. I’m a believer that there’s no substitute for the truth.”

O’Donnell said even for minor issues, someone will most likely notice it, so the company needs to be ready to respond immediately. In some cases there may be more time, but a company often has just a few hours to respond. Once the story breaks, other news outlets will build their stories off the original report.

“If you’re not in those initial stories, you lose — to a certain extent — your opportunity to state the facts, correct inaccuracies and make sure that the full story is being told,” O’Donnell said.

Such quick response times require already-prepared crisis plans. PR professionals must know who in the company needs to provide input on the issue, and if that person is not available, who is second in line to speak on the subject?

The last thing a PR professional wants is his or her phone buzzing in the middle of the night with news of a recent crisis, but with the right mindset and a prepared plan, a crisis does not have to lead to the demise of the company. Instead, it can be an opportunity to show preparedness and leadership.

“If it is a full-blown crisis, so to speak, then it’s not just managing that crisis,” O’Donnell said. “It’s thinking about how you can lead through that crisis with communications.”

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