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Crisis Communication: Strategies to Communicate Better During a Crisis

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Pretend you wake up tomorrow to your government ordering everyone to stay at home. All non-essential businesses now have to shift to fully remote teams while those that can’t, cease operations until further notice.

Today, we are all experiencing this new reality.

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All too often, crises come without warning, forcing your business to adapt. The key to adapting successfully is preparing for the unexpected — and communicating effectively with your team.

After all, broken communication during a crisis will cause havoc among your employees and even customers.

Although you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, you can prepare and put processes in place to help your employees and customers navigate their new normal. And as Murphy puts it, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Whether you believe Murphy or not, it’s up to you to prepare for a worst-case scenario and communicate accordingly.

Keep reading to learn about the different types of crises, the phases of communication, and how to develop a crisis communication plan for your business.

Understanding the 5 Types of Business Crises

Not all crises are created equal. Each one comes with a set of challenges you may have to face head-on at one point or another. While there are countless events that can potentially hurt your business, most of them can be grouped into five categories:

  • Natural disaster
  • Financial
  • Technology
  • Organizational
  • Personnel

Image via PWC

Because each type of business crisis is unique, each one will affect your company in different ways. So, it’s important to understand what they are and how to prepare for each one.

Disaster Type #1: Natural Disaster

Imagine a new contagious virus starts spreading around the world. As a result, governments enforce strict lock-downs, require non-essential businesses to shut down, and accidentally create a national toilet paper shortage.

This is just one, relevant example. Natural crises are outside of your control. But, preparing for them isn’t.

Other natural disasters include:

  • Earthquakes
  • Tornados
  • Wildfires
  • Tsunamis
  • Flooding
  • Hurricanes

Disaster Type #2: Financial

A financial crisis happens when a company loses the ability to generate revenue. This could happen due to a stock market crash, a drop in demand, or other economical issues.

Image via The Balance

When this happens, businesses have to shift their business model and distribute their assets to cover short-term costs. During that process, they must find ways to generate additional long-term revenue to stay afloat.

Disaster Type #3: Technology

It’s no secret a lot of businesses rely on technology to function. When this technology or software breaks down, along with vital business tasks and operations. As a result, businesses may experience:

  • Unexpected downtime
  • A lack of internal and external communication
  • A spike in customer service issues
  • Negative user experiences
  • Missed deadlines
  • Loss of revenue

Disaster Type #4: Organizational

Organizational crises happen when companies don’t live up to customer expectations. This may be because of a lack of transparency, intentional wrongdoing, or exploiting customers.

The result of an organizational crisis can be devastating or as small as a one-star review. It depends on the nature of the situation. Handling this type of crisis usually requires a shift in company culture.

Disaster Type #5: Personnel

A personnel crisis happens when someone within your company is involved in unethical behavior. This behavior may include sexual harassment, market manipulation, illegal activities, or other negative acts.

This can be an event that occurred at work or outside of work. Either way, your company’s association with this person may hurt your reputation.

The Importance of a Crisis Communication Strategy

79% of business decision makers believe they’re less than 12 months away from experiencing a crisis. And 7 out of 10 leaders have experienced a crisis within the last five years.

So, your company isn’t immune. Having a communication plan in place is important.

But, having a crisis communication plan may help mitigate your losses and help you come out better than you started. Being prepared and knowing what to do are essential for the future of your business.

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A crisis communication strategy and team management plan is a roadmap for handling each type of business crisis we talked about earlier. A well-done strategy includes a step-by-step process for identifying, communicating, and solving these problems.

During a crisis, accurate information and effective communication form the backbone of a company’s response. So, your crisis communication strategy ensures the right information gets delivered to the right people in an appropriate manner.

Image via WhatIs

In times of crisis, people look for answers. And, it’s up to you and your team to develop a plan that ensures an accurate and timely response to these questions while minimizing the impact on your business.

The Different Phases of Crisis Communication

Now that you know the different types of crises, let’s move on to the phases of crisis communication. A strong communication strategy covers what to do at every step, starting before a catastrophic event occurs.

1. Preventative Crisis Communication

Preventative crisis management is an ongoing evaluation of your employees, customer relations, and stakeholders. Continuously monitoring your risk can help prevent a crisis from happening in the first place.

Image via Reputation Management

This includes activities like:

  • Creating a crisis communication strategy
  • Proactive damage control at the earliest indication of a crisis
  • Ensuring excellent customer service via software and your employees
  • Developing strong customer relationships and communication channels
  • Identifying and implementing a mass communication notification system
  • Using effective surveys to evaluate customer/employee experiences

2. Reactive Crisis Communication

Reactive crisis management happens after or during a crisis. Your professional response during a time of chaos can help ease customer and employee uneasiness as well as secure the future of your business.

This includes activities like:

  • Reactive damage control during a crisis
  • Ensuring an appropriate social media response
  • Using appropriate internal and external communication channels
  • Identifying a spokesperson to handle external communication
  • Delivering accurate information to your spokesperson

3. Post-Crisis Communication

Post-crisis communication is needed after a crisis occurs. Preparing for internal and external post-crisis communication is as important as reactive communication. This can affect your reputation and management of crises going forward.

This includes activities like:

  • Issuing an apology statement
  • Assessing what lead up to the event
  • Preparing a plan to ensure the future of your company
  • Communicating your next steps to important stakeholders and customers
  • Assessing employee actions and reactions throughout the crisis
  • Re-evaluating your current crisis communication strategy

Developing Your Crisis Communication Strategy

Now that we’ve covered the different phases of crisis communication, it’s time to talk about how to develop your crisis communication and team management strategy. As you go through, document your ideas to bring back to your team for discussion.

Image via Infinite Ideas

After that, you should create an official document everyone can access when they need to. Formalizing this process helps ensure a quick and appropriate response from your entire team should your company face a crisis.

So, let’s start at the beginning!

1. Define Your Objective

Start by revisiting your long-term business goals. From there, define a specific objective for the crisis communication process you’re going to create.

Defining this goal helps keep everything in line with the purpose of your new process. It also helps ensure your process does its job while aligning with your long-term business goals and mission.

Example: This process governs and defines Company ABC’s internal and external communication strategy before, during, and after a business crisis.

2. Develop a Plan to Minimize Preventable Crises

Many catastrophic events could have been avoided if a proper plan and strategy were in place to detect the issue and manage it before it became an issue. Early detection and mitigation are an essential part of your crisis communication strategy.

Each company’s approach to this may differ depending on the industry, size, and scope of the business. So, walk through your ideas with your team to come up with the perfect prevention plan for your company.

You should consider things like:

  • Effective project and task management practices
  • Frequent peer and process reviews
  • Employee/customer satisfaction surveys
  • How to hold your team members accountable for their actions
  • Continuous monitoring of customer reviews

Image via EachNight

The idea of this section is to develop a plan that helps you detect problems before they escalate to a crisis. So, consider which actions are most effective for your team and implement them into your strategy.

3. Identify a Crisis Management Team

Because every crisis is different, the appropriate management team varies. But, it’s recommended to include someone from each of the following departments:

  • Public relations
  • Legal
  • Operations
  • Security
  • Human resources
  • Finance

You may need additional team members depending on the nature of the event.

Going further, it’s important to define who is in charge of executing and managing tasks, gathering data, presenting data, and communicating internally/externally. So, develop a hierarchy for communicating data and making important decisions.

This step will look different depending on the crisis, so it’s imperative to develop a system that works in most situations. Choosing the right team is vital for effective crisis management and could mean the difference between success and failure.

4. Identify an Official Spokesperson (or People)

External communication can be confusing for customers and important stakeholders if it isn’t presented well and organized in an easy-to-understand way. So, identify one person or a small group of people in charge of communicating with the public.

It’s important that this person understands how to convey information without causing panic. Additionally, they need to know where to turn internally for accurate data and information.

This person may be the CEO, a public relations specialist, or anyone within the company with knowledge about the event and a proven track record of handling the public.

Image via Activated Growth

This may not always be the same person, so make sure to develop a decision-making process that works in most cases. Lastly, remember to minimize external communication from other people while managing a crisis.

5. Prepare Crisis Response Templates

Response templates are used to create quick communication in times of crisis. They might be fill-in-the-blank style or more open-ended to allow for additional information.

These can then be copy/pasted for easy, accurate, and quick communication. You may want to consider working with your public relations team (if applicable) to develop these.

You may want to create a universal proposal template for frequently asked questions, as well. As a result, your team is equipped with the language and voice to answer these questions in a timely manner.

Include these in your process for easy access when the time comes.

6. Define/Develop/Identify an Internal Communications System

At times, internal communication can get scattered and go unchecked. During a crisis, this can escalate to something messy and unmanageable. So, identifying a system for internal crisis communication now will help prevent this in the future.

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Whether you’re privy to team communication tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams or prefer to use email, ensuring effective internal communication channels is key.

Develop a plan to escalate problems and data via the proper channels to make sure everyone stays in the loop. This is also essential for providing data and information to your spokesperson (or team).


Image via SaylorDotOrg

7. Define External Communication Channels

Each company will have preferred communication channels, but clearly defining them helps your spokesperson prepare content to share with the world. You should avoid testing out new channels during a crisis and stick to what you know.

You may want to consider:

  • Doing a pre-recorded or live webinar explaining the situation
  • Creating a presentation outlining your management plan
  • Offering a live Q&A session for community members
  • Developing a press release with data and an actionable plan
  • Using social media to answer questions and provide reassurance

The idea is to deliver information to anyone who needs to hear it in a transparent and easy-to-understand way. So, determine which channels you’re going to use and consider developing training for your spokesperson.

8. Define a Post-Crisis Evaluation Strategy

At this point, business is back to normal. But, that doesn’t mean your crisis communication process is complete.

Evaluating your response after a crisis is resolved may help prevent future events from happening and can help refine your communication strategy. So, it’s important to develop a plan for assessing your response after an event occurred.

At this time, it’s vital to establish rapport with your customers, the public, and your employees. So, remember communication doesn’t stop once a crisis is over.

You may also need to provide additional information to the public and your team regarding how you handled the situation. So, be sure to think about what steps need to happen afterward. Include those in your process so they aren’t forgotten.

9. Evaluate Possible Crisis Scenarios and Examples

No plan is complete without thorough testing. Although it sounds silly, it’s important to run through your process for a real-life scenario to make sure you have everything you need.

When a crisis occurs, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. So, practicing these responses can help prepare your team to move forward.

Start by outlining several crisis situations and go through the entire process from start to finish for each one. Remind your team to take this seriously so they’re prepared when the time comes.

Your Final Crisis Communication Takeaways

As you can see, developing a crisis communication strategy is important to have in place before a crisis strikes. And, it may be more complex than you thought. But, now you have the tools and information you need to:

  • Understand the different types of business crises
  • Plan ahead for communication at each crisis phase
  • Develop an all-inclusive crisis communication strategy

Don’t wait for a crisis to strike to take action. Sit down with your team and start developing your communication plan today. It’s never too early but it can always be too late!

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