6 November 2017

Communicating in a Crisis

Geoff Michels, Senior Corporate Communications Adviser

A crisis is an event or a series of events that adversely affects the health or well-being of employees, the environment, a community or the wider public, the integrity of a product or the reputation of an organisation.  A crisis can be operational (fire, an accident) or non-operational (workplace discrimination, an embarrassing internal memo and fraud, among others).  When a crisis occurs, the court of public opinion is quickly in session.


Most crises have five identifiable phases.  The duration of each is determined by the nature of the event, the circumstances in which it occurred and the way the company responds.  For the purpose of this article, we will concern ourselves with just the first two phases:

Phase 1 – Warning

Most crises are preceded by some sort of indication that trouble lies ahead.  Media communication seldom, if ever, occurs in this phase.  But, if the warning goes unheeded, the landscape can change very quickly.

Phase 2 – Acute

The crisis is in full swing.  Employees are busy dealing with the problem, the media are clamouring for information while affected external stakeholders are at the door.


    • Siege mentality – get out of the bunker.
    • Surprise – uncertainty about when a crisis will occur or what form it will take.
    • Panic – you plan for there to be no panic but a certain amount is inevitable.
    • Rapid flow of events – things move fast and you can be swept along. Reaction time is critical where media are concerned.
    • Lack of information – often in a crisis very little is known early on yet the demand for information is high and insistent. This creates uncertainty.
    • Government involvement – a crisis often concerns elected and appointed officials and government agencies.
    • Internal conflict and confusion – there can be differences of opinion about the degree to which a company should communicate.
    • Forgotten employees – it’s easy to overlook the need to tell employees what is going on.
    • Media scrutiny – how well we perform with media can have a great impact on immediate and ultimate public perception.


  1. Communicate early and often.
  2. Identify your top three stakeholder groups: Determine who the crisis affects, or potentially might affect, the most.  Then identify the next-most-affected group and so on.
  3. Eliminate or lessen any conflict between you and the people affected by your crisis.
  4. Provide a timely local response. Reporters dislike waiting for a “statement from head office”.
  5. Get answers to basic questions quickly. What happened?  When?  What are you doing about it?
  6. Never say “No comment”.
  7. Pay attention to detail. Small, almost subtle issues can become a lightning rod for media and government attention, especially perceived insensitivity to the needs of affected people.
  8. Do the right thing – good communications will not make your organisation appear caring if your actions are not.


    • speculate about cause, consequence or liability
    • predict when, or whether, things will return to normal
    • estimate the adverse financial impact of a crisis
    • make any statements about the effectiveness of other people’s responses
    • place any blame on an employee, equipment or a contractor
    • reveal any proprietary information
    • talk “off the record”
    • permit rumour and incorrect information to go uncorrected or unchallenged
    • give an “exclusive” story to any reporter- always give everybody the same information
    • attempt humour
    • allow hostile questions to throw you or cause you to lose your temper.
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