Crisis Communications: Proactive or Reactive response

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In the face of a crisis or incident, swift action is vital. Often, it’s not the crisis itself that defines how an organisation is perceived in the aftermath, but how well the response was managed.

The response to a crisis can be managed in one of two ways, on a proactive or reactive basis. One mistake organisations often make is leaving it until the day a crisis breaks to make this decision, when the wiser choice is to have a protocol in place well in advance.

In this post, we’ll discuss the circumstances in which either approach should be used. By the way, whether you agree or disagree – I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment once you’ve read the post and let me know if you found it useful.

But first, what is a crisis? For the purpose of this post, a crisis is defined as follows:

“…an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organisation’s performance and generate negative outcomes”

Should the communications response be proactive or reactive?

When a crisis breaks, you should start working on a statement for the press straight away. (Click here to read our post on preparing a holding statement) The statement should briefly give details that are confirmed and next steps; you can see some examples and templates here. Once your statement is prepared, a decision should be made on whether it should be issued on a proactive or reactive basis.

A proactive release means that you make the statement public immediately; this could be at a press conference if the situation calls for one, or by posting the statement to your website and your social channels for the public to see. It may also mean proactively contacting journalists your organisation has a good relationship with and giving them the statement to get ahead of the story.

A reactive statement means you get your statement ready but hold off on publishing it anywhere unless you receive specific enquiries on the crisis or incident. A reactive response can be used if it is likely that the story won’t reach the media. In these circumstances, releasing a statement too soon can do more harm than good.  A reactive statement is the right choice when you know that there is a chance a negative story might break, but it has not yet happened.

A proactive statement is likely to be required if:

  • The incident has already attracted traditional or social media interest
  • There is a legal requirement to issue a statement to any Stock Exchange
  • People have been injured or their safety/well-being is at risk
  • The environment has been affected or there is a high-profile risk to the environment
  • The incident has already attracted regional or international NGO interest

If the situation warrants a proactive response, the crisis response team will nominate a spokesperson to release the agreed statement to relevant traditional and social media (including local) as well as on the corporate website (or a specific website set up to manage the incident) and any other relevant owned channels.

Don’t forget to consider stakeholders other than the media who may be impacted. Read more on that here.

Make sure to start monitoring online news services and social media for mention of your crisis, and when the incident starts to wind down, spend some time on learnings that can be applied next time.

Have you managed crises for your organisation? Have you got a crisis plan in place that outlines proactive and reactive protocols? Don’t forget to leave a comment!

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Katie Harrington is a Communications and Content Strategist based in Dublin, Ireland. Her book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November 2016. Katie has worked with global brands including EY (Ernst & Young) Emirates Airline and Allianz, as well as the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. Follow her on LinkedIn .

6 thoughts on “Crisis Communications: Proactive or Reactive response

  1. Luhce Johnston says:

    Good article – couldn’t agree more that a crisis can happen at any moment and how a crisis is being managed shouldn’t become the crisis. Scenario planning before the time is vital

  2. Judith Jones says:

    Well said. And I agree with you–it’s important that the proactive and reactive approaches are clearly articulated and documented. When crisis hits is not the time to start figuring things out!

  3. christian Lemay says:

    Two comments:
    1. Holding lines: First, as part of your crisis plan, you need to have a short and quick (ready to release) holding statement indicating that you are aware, looking into the matter, offering condolences (as required) and indicating emergency phone and website where the media and public can reach your organization for more information.
    2. I do not agree with your reactive approach by holding off on publishing it unless you receive specific media queries on the crisis or incident. It is too late … Why wait for any call or tweet? With the speed by which information travels waiting will only take your advantage away and you’ll be spending unnecessary energy just trying to correct the facts. Instead, isn’t tackling a situation head on before it becomes a crisis the best approach to establishing your organization as open, transparent and responsible? You don’t need a new conference, an interview with a selected number of reporters will go a long way while you bring the situation back to normalcy.

    • Wilde Words says:

      Hi Christian,

      I totally agree with you on holding statements, we’ve actually written about that before here:

      On reactive responses, the benefit is that no story is always better than a controversial story. For example, if an employee decides to sue your company for sexual harassment, there is always the chance that they will settle out of court – right up to the moment the case begins. In this instance, you should have a statement prepared just in case they go ahead with their plan, but the desired outcome would be settling out of court, and no news story.

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