Data breaches, naughty CEOs, lawsuits, disgruntled employees, natural disasters, recalls – sound familiar? It seems every week, a new company is hit with a crisis. Crises come in many shapes and forms and can range from episodic to long-term. Some crises are avoidable, but many are not.

In today’s lightning-speed world, it’s not a matter of if, but when, your business will face a crisis. Crisis management is one way to protect your organization and its stakeholders from damage and to mitigate the impact a crisis will have on your brand. As savvy communications professionals, it’s critical to have a crisis plan in place so that you can be ready when a crisis hits.

Here are 5 tips for creating a successful crisis plan.

  1. Establish a Crisis Team

A crisis team is an internal group of individuals who should be in the circle of trust during a crisis. This includes senior-level management, legal and PR professionals within your organization. The communications team should send a notice to these individuals notifying them of the group’s existence to establish a dialogue before a crisis occurs.

  1. Identify Your Stakeholders

If someone is affected by your brand, you should consider them a stakeholder. In the event of a crisis, your stakeholders should receive communication from your company. Creating a list of stakeholders ensures that each group receives proper communication during a crisis. Stakeholders may include shareholders, internal employees, customers, vendors, social media followers, board members and key members of the news media.

  1. Circulate Your Media Policy

As a PR professional, you are the ultimate guardian of your brand’s reputation. Every employee should receive your company’s media policy with information on who to contact in the event that a member of the news media reaches out for a statement or comment. Your media policy may include social media, confidentiality and traditional media reminders. In addition to your media policy, executives and company spokespeople should receive regular media training to ensure they are properly conveying your company’s key messages.

  1. Anticipate Your Crisis

It may not sound fun, but a risk and issue analysis should be a standing agenda item for executive meetings. In addition to setting up regular media monitoring on the company, its leaders and competitors, PR professionals should have their finger on the pulse of what stakeholders and customers are saying. If an issue is brewing, it likely won’t happen overnight. When you anticipate a crisis, the question becomes not “How should we respond?” but instead, “What can we do to proactively and operationally get out in front of problems before they happen?” Anticipating difficult questions and practicing responses to a crisis before it happens will ensure a less chaotic process during a crisis and ideally minimize the impact on your brand.

  1. Create Holding Statements

To ensure a timely response, create generic, templated statements that can easily be tweaked when a crisis hits. If you manage PR for a destination in the path of a hurricane, your holding statement may be as simple as: “The safety of our citizens is our upmost priority. We have implemented our natural disaster plan and will actively update our website as we know more information.”

Now that your crisis plan is in place, it’s important to treat it as a living, breathing document that should regularly be reviewed and updated. When a crisis hits, here are 5 guidelines to follow:

  1. Assess the Situation

Just because a crisis has occurred, doesn’t mean you must operate in crisis mode. Amid the chaos of a crisis, fall back on the 5Ws (and 1H):

  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who is involved?
  • How did it happen?
  • What’s being done now?

Once you’ve gathered the facts, you can then establish the crisis level. Whether reporters are swarming your headquarters or you’ve received a string of negative tweets, assessing the situation is a critical first step to implementing your crisis plan.

  1. Convene Crisis Team and Establish Spokesperson

Once the crisis level has been established, assemble your crisis team as appropriate. While the team should always include legal and senior-level management, you may also need to loop in departments like customer service as necessary. The PR team should establish a spokesperson for this particular situation and set regular meetings or phone conferences to share status updates. Next, designate a single point of contact to manage, route and track incoming media queries. These queries should be centrally logged and tracked with follow-up action items. In the midst of a crisis, one unified voice is critical, so you may need to offer tailored crisis training to individuals as appropriate.

  1. Communicate Early and Often

The rapid 24/7 communication culture in which we live demands immediacy. The first response to any crisis should happen at the first report and should start with your holding statement, acknowledging the issue at hand. You may not have all the details, but your business should appear in control and ahead of the crisis. One example may be: “We are aware of the situation and are actively working with the appropriate individuals to learn more. We will be posting information as it becomes available to our website.” Creating a dedicated landing page is the best way to consolidate information in one place. Most major organizations have dark websites that can quickly be turned on when a crisis arises.

  1. Control and Tailor the Message

The absence of knowledge is the breeding ground for rumors. Once you’ve had time to dig into the issue, you should publish a formal, more detailed statement and share it far and wide. If you do not control the message, others will control it for you, so it’s critical to use plain speech – not corporate gobbledygook. Answer the questions that you know people are seeking answers for (hopefully these are in the FAQs that were set up before the crisis).

Tailor your message to the medium and audience, aligning your message with the company’s goals. For example, your company’s e-mailed statement should be more comprehensive than a tweet, but both should align with your key messages. If the crisis is severe, a press conference is the best way to address the issue and reach the masses.

The established spokesperson should never shut down, deny or redirect questions, but instead treat them seriously. It’s important to keep your cool and work with, not against, the media – even amid hostile situations. Here are a few Dos and Don’ts when speaking with the media:

  • Set the Tone. Body language and tone account for more than half of your message. Stay positive and engaged when speaking with the press.
  • Be Genuine. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” is a perfectly respectable answer. Never say “No comment.”
  • Limit key messages to three. Anything beyond that will lose focus. Clear, concise answers work best. Avoid industry jargon and buzz words.
  • Know Your Audience. The reporter is not your audience. When speaking, you are really conveying your message to the reporter’s audience. Think about those people and frame your response to best reach them. Answer in full, complete sentences to make the editing process smoother.
  • Be Aware of the Silence. Some journalists will create silence to get you to start talking, but you should resist the urge to fill it. Answering in concise responses and reiterating your key messages will ensure a successful interview.

  1. Debrief and Move On

After a crisis, most people tend to wipe their brow and get back to work, however the issue is still very much alive. Performing a post mortem on the crisis with the crisis team is a critical measure of your crisis plan. Ask the group: Which messages resonated? What did you learn? What didn’t go so well? What would you have done differently? The findings from these questions may need to be folded into your crisis plan. Share your findings with the appropriate stakeholders and update your internal policies accordingly.


Once you’ve conducted this exercise, it’s time to turn the page. One way to do this is by implementing an ongoing strategic brand-building program that builds morale and regains trust by sharing good news.