Crisis Communications – Take a refresher course in the basics

Someone tweeted a professional chat list I visit, asking if a crisis communications plan was “nice” or “necessary”. My answer: does night follow day? Do you leave for an extended road trip with the needle on empty?

The example the tweeter used was the Walmart/Mexico fiasco. Lots of debate – would things have gone differently if the crisis comm plan was implemented right from the get-go instead of well into the mess? What about the CEO’s response to a New York Times article? I read the response and found it ponderous, loaded with corporate-speak, too much detail, too many twenty-dollar words and probably dictated with too much input from the legal department. (But that’s a subject for another blog).

In short, flannel.

You get the point. It’s a massive YES to the question. If you want to stay in business, have a crisis communications plan, take it out for walks regularly, give it lots of fresh air and sunlight, keep it fresh, shiny and squeaky clean, and hire someone outside the organization with fresh eyes to get it ready for you. Make sure said outside person consults broadly with everyone including the receptionist so that they don’t foist something on you that doesn’t fit, like a sweater that’s too tight.

Most companies know they need a crisis communications plan (not to be confused with a crisis plan itself, which includes stuff like who goes where if there is a fire in the building, a security threat of some kind, or what to shut down after a chemical spill). The communications plan communicates – to two key categories of audiences that embraces a whole slew of other categories: first – employees, and, second –  Mr. and Mrs. Public. Everything else -government, suppliers, regulators, industry organizations – is a subset – an important one, mind you, but a subset nonetheless.
Here are some steps to follow when you are implementing a crisis communications plan correctly:

  1. The communications person or team gets details ASAP, or, at a minimum, advance warning in time to plan and execute properly. Ideally a communications person sits at the crisis planning table and isn’t called in once the mess is well underway. Unfortunately, the norm is the opposite and the crisis communications team starts at damage control.
  2. In this day and age of social media, everything must be done at hyper-speed, because the tweeting masses will be busy spreading disinfo, metaphorically hanging your executive team in the public square, and otherwise calling for blood. The cost to your organization in terms of reputation and credibility, is huge. And it can happen in a nanosecond.
  3. Team identifies who is accountable, who is responsible,(usually NOT the same person), who is to be consulted (outside experts) and lastly, who will be kept informed (executive floor) on the communications process. This should have been already done and written in stone into the plan, but if it hasn’t been done, do it now.
  4. Identify purpose of communications person and role of consultants, if any. I’ve seen people step on one another’s toes when roles haven’t been clarified and outside consultants arrive with a formulaic one-size-fits-all solution to every problem and absolutely no understanding of the corporate culture. This is what happens next: corporate communications person gets elbowed aside, everyone salutes for the outside consultants, and the anxiety level shoots through the ceiling because the consultants don’t fully understand the company or its key players.
  5. Communications person (or communications team) identifies key audiences. Note: this is a flexible menu and obviously you pick and choose what’s appropriate for your situation:

Here’s a sample:

  • Employees (Always first. Always. They work for you, they are invested in your rise or fall and they have a right to know what their company/organization is doing to address the problem). When Greenpeace stormed Du Pont Canada years ago in Mississauga, Ontario, the folks at the main desk had no idea about what was happening.  One thing the company did right was to dial the reception desk immediately and give clear instructions about what to do and say. Mind you, we were all caught by surprise and had to make it up on the fly. We locked down the executive floor (for safety) and issued regular standby statements. The intrepid communications specialist Tina Warren, from whom I learned a great deal, played a key role in calming employees, planning as she went and facing down screaming activists dressed in white who had highjacked employees’ work day and scared the living daylights out of them.
  • Constituents (if you are a municipality).
  • Governments (unless someone from the planning department committed suicide in the downstairs bathroom – and even then if there is a hint of corruption behind the act –  most crises require a response to government).
  • Police We needed them at Du Pont, and again at the annual general meeting in Kingston, when they staged live theatre a la Saul Alinsky in the midst of the AGM, which that year was thronged by proud elderly pensioners dressed in their finest. We had to lock the doors and keep the pensioners inside, (in the heat, on a hot summer day in a room with no air conditioning) for hours, while the police restored order among shouting activists just outside the doors.
  • Hospitals see above. I was genuinely worried one of the pensioners would collapse from the stress and uproar taking place just outside the barricaded doors.
  • School boards (do schools need to be closed? Kids kept home?)
  • Public Health – When Peterborough Ontario encountered its “flood of the century” in 2004 and large parts of the city were underwater, the predictable household mould problem occurred. Public Health became a key resource and source of information to help people clean up the mould.
  • Media – always, regularly, every day during the average 90-day crisis cycle. Never stop. Don’t think that just because the energy around the issue has subsided somewhat in the organization that there aren’t still groups that need to know what’s going to happen next. In the case of the Peterborough flood,one such stakeholder was the home insurance industry. The then CAO stick handled this one with letters, phone calls and visits to Toronto to explain in detail to the industry organization what the City had done to prevent such extensive water damage from ever happening again.


  • Regulatory authorities for your industry/non-profit.

6.  Now, articulate the key messages for each audience and start blogging and tweeting. Take a press release and carve it up into tweets (Former coach Ron Wilson did this to great effect when he was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs – one tweet after another appeared on the CBC newsfeed and I thought:  aha! a press release in three tweets. Kudos to his PR people).

7. Watch the hashtags for your crisis and use them to guide your messaging if you are running to catch up to the opinionverse. You must exercise judgement at this point. If nasty sniping has started, start a parallel twitter stream putting out  your org’s message, assurances, apology, sense of responsibility, next steps, etc. Stay out of the direct line of fire and keep pushing out the facts. Do not get into a shootin’ match with some nerd who lives in his mother’s basement. Have a background release on your website to refer people back to. Have key facts on the site about what really happened and what you are doing about it, and refer them back to that, using bits of it in your tweets. As things change, build the info into your website and keep it right on top. If you don’t have the answer right away, say so, then go find it.

8. Share your Question and Answer sheets, or Fact Sheets, with all your employees. Dial them in on every update, twitter feed, and blog post you put out. Make sure that employees understand they are not spokespeople. This is difficult in our brave new world of citizen journalists and tweeters, but do try. If they insist on tweeting, make sure they are speaking for themselves and not for the organization.

9. Identify your key spokespeople in advance, when they will be available for interviews, so that “not available for comment” never appears in the media, ever. Have a number 1, a number 2 and even a number 3 spokesperson so they can spell one another off in the era of 24/7 news.
Have them do six-hour shifts so that no-one gets exhausted. When one spokesperson hands over to another, ensure that they brief one another so that the message remains consistent.

10. In the event of a transit or garbage strike, offer regular media briefings. Don’t let the union set the agenda with the media. See my blog on Editorial Board meetings. This can be the type of situation where it’s good to set one up.

11. Can’t say this enough. Make sure whoever is on switchboard knows everything about the spokespeople/their timetable and has a little script at their right arm. Switchboard becomes very important in a strike situation, or during any organizational crisis. Have the numbers the media can call after hours, and a person designated to “man the lines.” Leave no hour unattended (think time zones). Monitor your phonelines after Friday at 5 p.m. and all weekend. Designate a person to do this and make sure they step up.  It seems to be an unwritten law of the universe that if a crisis can happen after work hours or on a weekend, it will.

12. Get the message out before the media call, if possible. Set the agenda for the public ahead of time so you are not constantly in “response” mode but are seen as proactive and concerned for the common good, which, of course, you are!

13. Never appear on camera with an angry striker or activist. It takes highly developed skills to handle this situation, and your in-your-face-screamer is interested in THE CAMERA,  not in your response. You are little more than window dressing in this situation, and you’ll probably look as hapless as you feel.

14. Spokespeople express strong and genuine regret/sympathy in advance for the public who are inconvenienced by a strike, car recall, flood, etc. It should be the first thing out of their mouths. Then, they can deliver assurances about what’s next, what the fix is, and that there will be regular updates.

15. Lastly, spokespeople need to be always available for media calls. Depending on the severity of the crisis, this may well mean stopping their “real” job and doing nothing but working the crisis. Ignore this at your peril – it’s the fastest route to “unavailable for comment” that I can think of. And, return media calls ASAP. They’re tweeting too.


About Jane Carthew Davidson

As a former senior public relations specialist with a large publicly traded multi-national chemical company, Jane Carthew Davidson produced the company’s award winning annual report for several years. Later, she was media relations specialist for Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), where she wrote speeches for the executive team, trained spokespersons across the province, and developed talking points and strategies designed to clarify the role played by property assessment within the municipal taxation system. Jane is a former business reporter for the Globe and Mail Report on Business, and the Toronto Star’s Business Today. Her articles have appeared in the Toronto Star, the Medical Post, the Anglican Journal, the Financial Post and most recently, the Globe and Mail’s special supplements on subjects as wide ranging as organic farming and new investment regulations. On several occasions, Jane’s media savvy and quick research skills enabled her to win broad media attention and investment queries from Canada, the Unites States and Europe, for a unique medical device start-up venture. Following Peterborough’s Flood of the Century in 2004, Jane handled media relations for the City of Peterborough, developing and implementing the communications plan for the city’s media outreach to afflicted citizens, concerned insurance companies, city staff and other government stakeholders.
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