Crisis Communications: The Basics

  • August 3, 2016
  • INK Team

Lately, I have been thinking about crisis communication, and the role it has within the cohesive communications strategies we create for our clients at INK. Here are some of my findings and concepts, to help as you approach crisis comms for your organization:

What is crisis?

Here’s a definition of crisis that I love (the extended version of which can be found here, if you’re interested): A significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly.  In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, and an industry.  A crisis can create three related threats:  (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3) reputation loss.

Casting such a wide net encourages a vigilant mindset. Crisis can mean fire or major malfunction, but it can also mean a bad ad campaign or unexpected legal troubles. This comprehensive definition really drives home the point that good crisis response depends on having a strong crisis plan, and a robust day-to-day PR program, in place.

Preparation means asking the right questions

So we know that crisis response takes lots of preparation. But, with such a wide range of situations to anticipate, the possibility of missing something is quite high. So what do you do?

The key to good risk assessment starts at asking the right questions. It means asking probing questions internally, not just externally. Be exhaustive and curious. The questions you don’t ask will be the ones that come back to haunt you.

No one can anticipate every contingency, but if you take a close, honest look at your company or organization, you can determine your biggest risks. Assess the crises and prioritize them in order of which are the biggest and most likely threats, then allocate resources and a timeline to prepare for each within your plan and with prepared messaging, going one by one if necessary.

Don’t blow things out of proportion

So far, I’ve recommended very stringent, comprehensive crisis preparation practices. However, this “over-preparing” mentality is not the one you should employ while actually executing a crisis plan.

Let me explain: there is a well-known case study in which a major airline lost an entire plane’s luggage. Those angry passengers complained online, and got the attention of the national media. How would you have handled the situation?

Many PR pros might have the impulse to throw the kitchen sink at the problem: issuing a press release, having the CEO share a public apology, starting a social media campaign, the whole shebang. In reality, such a loud response would just add gasoline to the fire. Not to mention, a good PR program, including a skilled social media team and a streamlined customer service protocol, would actually take care of most of the problem before it started.

So to recap, crisis execution should be precise and judicious. Don’t create a bigger mess where there isn’t one, and use the mode of communication most suited to the situation.


This is my shortest bit of advice, but it’s also crucial. Once a crisis situation comes to an end, you should organize a debriefing, as soon after the event as possible. Sit down and talk to your team about what went well and what didn’t, and then use those lessons to make your crisis response better in the future. Every crisis provides an opportunity to improve, so always make a point to debrief.

Interested in learning more crisis comm basics? I definitely suggest this book as a great place to start. Let us know what other books we should check out over on Twitter.


Other good stuff in here