Crisis Communication: Effective strategies for defusing a crisis


Of all the blog posts on my site, the ones people keep coming back to again and again are about crisis communications. I’ve worked in crisis comms at major global organisations, and I’ve seen what happens when something unexpected happens and a company has no plan.

Crises are all but inevitable, but with the right plan in place you can limit the damage to your organisation’s reputation and profit margins. One thing you don’t want when a crisis hits is a document that’s 80 pages long to leaf through – you simply won’t have that kind of time.

That’s why I created this Emergency Response protocol; it contains everything you need to manage a crisis and nothing more. It’s fully customisable, and a crucial component of your policies and procedures. This week only, I’m having a flash sale, so it’s available ay 50% of the normal cost. Check it out.

What is crisis management?

Crises are inevitable. From operational breakdowns to financial scandals, from servers getting hacked to rogue employees choosing to air their grievances in public, no business or organization can consider themselves immune. Crisis management plans are how companies mitigate against these threats. Investopedia defines crisis management as follows:

Crisis management is the identification of threats to an organization and its stakeholders, and the methods used by the organization to deal with these threats. Due to the unpredictability of global events, organizations must be able to cope with the potential for drastic changes to the way they conduct business. Crisis management often requires decisions to be made within a short time frame, and often after an event has already taken place. 

Here, we offer four examples of coherent strategies you can and should use in a crisis scenario, and two that you definitely should not.

Depending on the nature and scale of the crisis, several of the strategies below may be appropriate. Your crisis response team should be totally familiar with each of these approaches, and be able to assess the situation and choose the most appropriate approach on short notice. That ability will determine how your organization fares in media coverage of the incident.


Crisis Management Strategy 1: The Sincere Apology

If it is immediately clear that the crisis has broken due to human error on the part of your employees, or because of a fault in your organisation’s products or services, an apology is appropriate. The most recent high profile example of this is the Oscars, where a mistake by Price Waterhouse Cooper led to the wrong film, La La Land, being announced as winners instead of the Best Picture category, instead of the actual winners Moonlight.

PWC issued an initial statement apologising to all involved, sent their Chairman Tim Ryan out to deliver face-to-face apologies to the press, and then issued a second statement accepting full responsibility for the mistake. They issued an apology that sounded genuine and heartfelt, and  that also invoked some of the other strategies we’ll discuss below.

However, organisations should not issue apologies before the details of a crisis have been uncovered, as to do so may imply that they accept responsibility before the facts are available.

Crisis Management Strategy 2: The Promise to do Better (…and the follow through)

Of course, apologies are essentially meaningless unless they are backed up by action. Uber has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons over the last few weeks. First, #deleteuber trended on Twitter after the company’s  deeply ingrained culture of institutional sexism revealed in a blog post by former engineer Susan Fowler. Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO, called an all-hands meeting where he promised change and announced an investigation.

This was a good move, and should have steadied the boat for a time, except that Kalanick almost immediately undermined himself by berating an Uber driver in a video that was then leaked to journalists. A promise to do better is essential, but it must be backed up by real action. Kalanick’s credibility as an agent of change is severely in doubt, and it’s a safe bet that there will be major changes in Uber’s senior management in the near future.


READ: How to write a holding statement

Crisis Management Strategy 3: The Explanation

The old political maxim says “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”, and there is a degree of truth to that, but when something has gone wrong in your organization, explaining what happened is an essential step in re-establishing credibility. Where there is an ongoing problem, like a service outage, give your clients as much information as you feasibly can, including what the problem is, how long it’s likely to be impacting for, what you’re doing about it and where they can find updates.

Your clients, partners and investors will need to understand why the crisis happened, what person or process was to blame, and what steps the senior leadership team have taken to ensure it never happens again. Independent investigations and  internal audits are often important parts of this process.

READ: Identifying your stakeholders in a crisis

Crisis Management Strategy 4: The Reminder

Going back to the Oscars, PWC made sure that their apology referenced a subtle reminder that for more than eight decades, they had gotten it right: “For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy.” In the aftermath of a crisis scenario, it may be appropriate to remind your stakeholders that while the organization has come through a difficult time, it is still worthy of trust. This can help position the crisis as a one-off.

For established organizations that invest consistently in their relationships with stakeholders and general enjoy a good reputation, this can be quite a powerful strategy.


READ: How to craft powerful key messages

Crisis Management Strategy 5: The Denial

A controversial approach to managing communications crises, often favoured by the Trump administration, is to simply deny that a crisis has taken place. This strategy – which we don’t endorse – often involves attempting to discredit news organizations covering the crisis, distracting the media by changing the subject, refusing to answer questions asked by the media, and ad hominem attacks. Often, the goal of this strategy is to leave the public confused, so they don’t know who to believe.

READ: Choosing proactive or reactive responses in a crisis

Crisis Management Strategy 6: The Blame Game

Another strategy often used by the Trump Administration and other politicians worldwide is to play the blame game: Instead of taking ownership when things go wrong, Donald Trump has chosen to lay blame for his tumultuous first weeks in office on the media, the judiciary, President Obama, the constitution, other Republicans including John McCain, the military, and the comedians of Saturday Night Live amongst others. Rather than owning up to what seem to have been major strategic errors, including the abandonment of the United States’ One China Policy and the death of a Navy SEAL in a botched operation in Yemen, Trump has lashed out at allies.

The fall out from this remains to be seen over the next four years, but blaming those around you for avoidable mistakes often looks unprofessional and immature – this is rarely a strategy any company should use, unless they can categorically prove they are not to blame.

Katie Harrington is a Communications and Content professional based in Dublin, Ireland. Her e-book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November. Katie has worked with global brands including EY, Accenture, Emirates Airline and Allianz, as well as the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. Connect with her on Linkedin

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