Successful Crisis Communications

By Susie Adams

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The best of organizations face challenges. Sometimes these challenges are man made. Sometimes they are acts of nature. Either way, a company’s response can make or break their reputation, impacting stock price, customer relationships and employee engagement. 



1. Keep your "good will" bank full.

It takes a long time to build a reputation and one leak, one act of discrimination, one missed commitment to destroy that good will.  A strong reputation buys you the benefit of the doubt when the unthinkable happens.

2. Respond quickly.

When the @#$% hits the fan, the natural instinct is to gather the decision makers, gather the facts, analyze options, write, rewrite, have a bazillion approvals and then release information. In the day when every person with a cell phone is a reporter, analysis paralysis will not serve you well. People will be speaking for you while you gather approvals. Have a rapid response approach with the communicator working directly with senior leadership to develop an initial response that does not have to cover every detail, but it must acknowledge the gravity of the situation and establish the company’s commitment.

3. Establish a war room.

You have to have all of the decision makers together, sharing information, ideas and collaborating on decision making. This war room can be virtual, but it must foster ongoing minute by minute collaboration.

4. Get to the scene.

Our military leaders would acknowledge that you can’t manage a war from the Pentagon. If a location is involved, get the right people (including senior leadership) there asap. That will help demonstrate commitment and focus.

5. Connect with supporters.

Early in the response, make contact with your friend. Update employees, customers, partners, shareholders, etc. They want to defend you. They can’t if they don’t know your position.

6. Connect with local decision makers and influencers.

They will be the people that the media go to for comment. If they say they have not heard from you, that communicates.

7. Think of those impacted first and foremost.

Some businesspeople tend to think shareholder first. If you do that, you will fail. Think first of those impacted. If you do the right thing by them, the rest will follow including the market.

8. Listen to the lawyers, but don’t litigate the response.

Talk to your stakeholders in real speak, real language. If your organization has messed up, you will likely pay for it. How you communicate your response, can impact the number of 0s on the check.

9. When you are wrong, say you are wrong.

We hate to say we’re sorry. But how impactful it is to hear someone say, “Our performance did not meet our expectations.” Or “We saw the videotape and we too were horrified/disappointed/angered.”

10. Do something about it. And do it fast.

A 24-hour news story is bad. A 48-hour news story is worse. A two-month news story is devastating. In one of the most effectively managed corporate crises in recent memory, a Starbucks employee had two black men arrested in a Starbucks on a Thursday. The video went viral. Senior management was on the scene by the weekend meeting with influencers, including the young men who were arrested. On Monday they announced store closures for training, and they reached settlement with the young men within two weeks. They focused, they took significant action and the story left the front pages

In one of my favorite quotes of all time, Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” He’s right. He goes on to say, “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

In the 1980’s Johnson and Johnson pulled all Tylenol off the shelves after a death from a tainted pill. When they made that move they were pretty sure that the situation was isolated, but they weren’t positive and they did the right thing. It did more for their reputation and their stock prices than a slow, “not our problem” response could have ever done.

In the aforementioned Starbucks response, the situation was fully inconsistent with the Starbucks brand, but the response was classic Starbucks. Disavowing the situation, demonstrating commitment to educating all employees, at the expense of the business, and building for the future in the commitment to the young men who had been arrested.  

Some Closing Thoughts

President Teddy Roosevelt said it this way, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” That is sage advice during times of crisis. If Interact Studio can help you with your communications during any moment of decision, we’re here.