Skip to main content

Understand The Risk Horizon

A crisis can come in many forms. Some are bolts from the blue, others are slow-burning or rising tide events that gradually become overwhelming. COVID-19 is a prime example, slowly penetrating every part of the globe causing widespread morbidity and financial meltdown.

Some crises are self-inflicted. One only has to think of the viral video of a doctor being forcibly removed from a United Airlines plane. CEO Oscar Munoz went on to compound the problem by saying security had to ‘re-accommodate’ passengers and labelled the victim ‘disruptive and belligerent’. The company created its own crisis that should never have existed.

Then there is the ever-present risk of cyber-attacks which can come in many forms: malware, denial-of-service, phishing, and SQL injection, all of which provide organisations with unique technical and communication challenges.

Perhaps social media trolls amplify a piece of misinformation about your company and suddenly you've gone viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

The range of potential crises is wide but so are people’s responses to an emergency. Some remain cool in a crisis and are natural leaders, others freeze like rabbits caught in the headlights, others run around demanding more and more information but still can’t operate effectively or make a decision.

Check Your Crisis Communications Plan

During a crisis, fast and effective communication is expected. Strong leadership is critical, with internal and external stakeholders seeking reassurance and clear direction.

The best crisis communications strategy requires planning. The practice continues to evolve and you can't afford to work things out as you go. So, review your crisis communications plan for 2021. Make sure it’s still fit for purpose in a post-pandemic world.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your crisis response checklist still relevant?
  • Are there new communication channels you need to be aware of?
  • Do your boilerplate crisis response messages and statements still stack up?
  • When was the last time you tested your plan with a crisis simulation?

Timothy Geithner coined the phrase ‘Plan beats no plan’. He would know, he was President of the Federal Reserve of New York when the banking crisis struck in 2007. He subsequently became President Obama’s Treasury Secretary.

The inevitable question follows: Is a bad plan better than having no plan at all? In short, yes. Any plan is better than a blank canvas. A poor plan can be adapted, updated and improved during a crisis. The plan always beats no plan. Crisis communication isn’t about perfection; it’s about pragmatism.

Focus on Fast Crisis Communications

‘Be right, be fast, be credible’ is a mantra often invoked when talking about crisis comms, but it is much easier to say than do.

First, you’ll need to assemble your various response teams; and determine who is available and if any third-party experts need adding. Naturally, this will include your crisis management team and the comms team.

During the early stages of crisis response there are likely to be two competing but interlinked requirements.

  1. A full understanding of the facts and impacts of the crisis
  2. A need for speedy communications to internal and external stakeholders

Putting this challenge into context, let's use the example of a cyber attack and potential data breach. Determining the extent - or even the presence - of a hack can be very time-consuming and take a team of experts weeks to investigate.

You might discover a cyber attack breached your defences in seconds. Understanding the extent of the network breach, the systems compromised, or whether confidential information was exposed can take months. There is also the possibility that the system will need to be wiped, and in the process, evidence could be destroyed. A hack is not a one-off event and is often something sudden but thereafter incremental.

Despite that, your stakeholders will be demanding answers to questions when ready answers and information may not be immediately available.

Outlining your Crisis Communications Response

In planning an effective crisis response, organisations must be prepared with answers to the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • Who is responsible?
  • Is it our fault?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Who is affected?
  • What can we do to fix the problem?
  • Who do we need to communicate with?
  • What should we say?
  • What channels do we use to say it?

The crisis communications team will also have to wrestle with the question as to when to go public about an incident.

Go too slow and you can be accused of a cover-up. Go too fast and your spokesperson could appear incompetent if they can’t answer particular questions. There is also the risk you could unintentionally push the story up the news agenda.

Set Strategic Goals for Your Crisis Response Team

Setting a strategic goal will provide you with direction. Goals are in effect broad-based value statements to help guide your decision making.


An example of an over-arching strategic goal following a terror attack might be:
‘To ensure the safety of our staff and customers’

A crisis communication goal might be:
‘To protect our organisation’s image and reputation to maintain our customer base.’

Determining a strategic goal is a key step when preparing to respond to a crisis. A goal should minimise uncertainty and help your organisation choose the best tactics needed to overcome the crisis.

Many tasks will need to be undertaken, but you may not have the bandwidth to carry them out all at once. Hence the reason why prioritisation is such a valued crisis management capability.

Listen to Your External Audiences

Listening to your external stakeholders is an essential part of effective crisis communications.

Formerly, PR departments would put out statements and press releases setting out the company’s position on a crisis. Ideally, these messages were picked up by the media and amplified. It was very top-down.

With the emergence of social media that all changed. Now effective crisis comms is all about listening to your stakeholders and responding to them, sometimes individually. For larger organisations with a social media team, this is achievable but for small firms, it can be tough.

A common mistake is to just continually emphasise the company viewpoint. You won’t want to reveal everything about a crisis, but if you are seen to be ‘spinning’ the story, at best social media will say you have a tin ear or more seriously you may be accused of hiding an inconvenient truth.

Keeping in touch with the public mood has been called rule one of crisis comms. If you don’t listen to your audience, you won’t understand their mood and, in a crisis, there can be violent mood swings among your audience. Only by listening and communicating with your stakeholders will you be able to understand and address their concerns.

Improving Your External Crisis Comms

Here are just a few ways to improve listening and communicating with external audiences:

  • A simple step is to pay attention to direct messages and interactions with your social accounts - check in daily
  • Setup these alert types to get instant updates on interactions to accelerate response times:
    • Email alerts - for updates direct to your work email
    • Web push notifications - to receive alerts through your web browser
    • Mobile push notifications - to receive alerts direct to your smartphone, only if you have the relevant social app downloaded
  • Explore a social listening tool, like Hootsuite or HubSpot, and set the tracking of brand mentions
  • Consider an AI-powered sentiment analysis tool to track the mood of your followers about your brand reputation

Don't Overlook Internal Crisis Communications

In a crisis, it is easy to overlook continued communication with internal audiences. This is a big mistake. Don’t allow employees to get all their information from social media, which is inevitably toxic.

Staff are critical to maintaining a company’s reputation - keep them on-side with good dispassionate information about events as they unfold.

Provide your customer-facing staff with clear direction on how to respond to an enquiry about an ongoing crisis. This can be as simple as a few pre-approved information points, or a link to an announcement on the company website. Your staff won't end up ambushed by a valued customer, or inadvertently sharing sensitive or inaccurate information.

There may be legal reasons why you can’t tell employees everything. If that’s the case, it’s best to be candid about it. Crises are inevitably stressful so make sure employees are looked after. If they are ignored, they may turn against you and start leaking to the press.

It’s a company’s people who play a large part in rescuing it from adversity. Bosses must be attentive to the thoughts and feelings of their employees. Communications need to be couched in sympathetic terms but should also exhibit optimism and confidence that the crisis can be overcome.

Deploy a Crisis Communication Platform

Effective communication in a crisis goes beyond planning and a common sense approach. In the most extreme situations, rapid and reliable information may be the difference between life and death.

Dialling the drama back from 11, you'll be faced with real communication challenges during a crisis. Stakeholders demanding information for key business decisions, and critical messages that require sending for staff safety, meanwhile you might still be seeking a clear picture of the crisis.

A crisis communications platform will vastly improve your response and mitigate the worst effects of an incident. Allowing rapid mass communication, teleconferencing, instant messaging and document sharing to accelerate your crisis resolution.

Look for a crisis communications platform with the following functionality and features:

  • Mass alerting through multiple channels - email, text, voice, instant messaging - the more the merrier
  • Two-way alerting - enabling you to check staff safety and location in an emergency
  • Secure instant messaging - allowing instantaneous communication during a crisis, while maintaining corporate oversight
  • Teleconferencing - letting your crisis response teams communicate in a group call and make decisions in real-time
  • Document sharing - to distribute vital business continuity and emergency response documents. Make sure there is offline access
  • Mobile accessible - so you can connect and continue to communicate regardless of location and system outages such as power and internet
  • Cloud-hosted and/or independent from everyday systems - ensuring resilience in a crisis, so you can keep communicating even if your internal systems are knocked offline
Jim Preen
Post by Jim Preen
January 29, 2024
Jim Preen is crisis management director at YUDU Sentinel where he provides client specific advice on all aspects of communications and designs and delivers simulation exercises via the Sentinel app. Formerly, he was a journalist working at ABC News (US) where he covered stories including the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and the Concorde crash. He won two Emmys for his work.