Don't wait for a crisis to happen!

Plan for a crisis BEFORE it happens!

The White House is facing an onslaught of controversies — from the IRS targeting of conservative groups to the Justice Department secretly obtaining phone records of AP reporters.  So far, polls show this has not affected the President’s approval ratings.  As the facts and stories unfold however, public opinion will largely depend on the Administration’s ability to manage communications.

I thought this might be a good time to share the basics of crisis communications based on my own work, and urge you to make a robust, tested crisis response plan a priority in your organization!

The key to managing a crisis in any organization is prevention.

When a crisis occurs, your organization must be prepared to act, not react. The speed, forthrightness and skill with which managers and designated spokespeople meet these imperatives will have direct bearing on public opinion about the organization. Although crises can damage an organization’s image, they also present opportunities to represent an organization as honest, professional and steady under fire.

Managing a crisis entails knowing what to do when a crisis happens, what to do afterwards and how to work with the media throughout. Some general rules to remember:

  • Develop a crisis communications plan before a crisis happens.
  • Define basic operating principles early – for example – stage a crisis drill to be sure that each staff person understands what is expected of him or her.
  • Develop a standard reply in advance that does not put you in the position of saying, “No comment.”
  • Develop clear messages that focus on people, not programs. Acknowledge that a problem has occurred, and show compassion for any victims or family members involved. The initial statement should not assign blame but should rather assure the public that you recognize the seriousness of the situation. It should indicate that not all of the facts are known and that a full investigation will begin immediately to prevent the situation from recurring. Meet emotion with emotion.
  • Present a spokesperson with good media skills. Refer all media requests to this person.  Develop a written message or “talking points” memo for responding to crisis-related phone calls.
  • Monitor local media coverage as the situation unfolds.
  • Form a proactive media team to correct inaccurate information that appears in the media. Request retractions if necessary.
  • Be available 24 hours a day. Position yourself to the public has helping the media obtain accurate information.
  • Consider setting up a special online crisis site for those that want to stay engaged and/or informed.

 Roles and Responsibilities

As part of the crisis response team, the CEO and senior communications staff must work together effectively. The CEO has the primary responsibility for investigating and managing any internal situation that could develop into a crisis. Make sure you have a phone/contact tree for all members of your crisis response team.

In a crisis, the CEO should do the following:

  • Assemble the crisis team and make or delegate staff assignments and policy decisions related to the situation
  • Ensure that current operations are meeting all standards
  • Shield family members affected by the situation from intrusive media attention
  • Contact and brief Board members and other officials as needed
  • Review potential liability issues, obtain legal counsel, and implement appropriate actions
  • Hire outside crisis management assistance if needed
  • Formally request a review of any suspicious death or injury by the appropriate authorities.

In a crisis, the director of communications should do the following:

  • Respond to all media inquiries, and communicate strategic messages
  • Meet with designated spokespeople to reevaluate the communications strategy as the situation progresses
  • Try to determine what reporters already know, what angles they are pursuing, and where they are getting their information
  • Monitor media coverage of the crisis.


As part of your advance planning, ask your crisis response team to identify high-risk scenarios such as financial mismanagement or a staff person charged with sexually molesting a child.

Role-play your worst-case scenarios. Start by naming crisis team members. Review when to activate the crisis management team. And set your goals, which might include the following:

Strategic objectives – What do you hope to accomplish with your statements and actions?

  • Ensure that family members of victims are notified immediately, tactfully and properly and provide support for the family in dealing with the tragedy
  • Ensure that young family members are shielded from intrusive media attention
  • Minimize damage to the organization’s operations and reputation.

Strategic messages – What message to you most urgently need to convey?

  • The most important thing in your communications with internal staff, as well as with the media and public, is to remain patient and open. If your next step is to notify the next of kin, say so. If you don’t know how the situation will affect agency operations, admit that as well.

Action – What concrete actions are you taking to contain the crisis and to prevent a recurrence?

  • Remember that you will be judged by how you handle each crisis.  Describe a plan and report back to the media on its implementation. Accept responsibility, show concern, and explain what changes will be made to prevent another situation.