Crisis Communications Plan In 10 Steps [To handle any crisis]

Crisis communication protects an organization's reputation against various threats and challenges. It helps prevent uncertainty and gives you a plan for handling an event should anything happen. In the age of social media and instant news, a sensible strategy is to have a contingency plan for a crisis. So here we examine how to develop a crisis communication plan and the key components of such a plan.

published: November 23, 2022
updated: February 15, 2024

What is crisis communication?

What is crisis communication, and what is a crisis communication plan?

It is the communication involved in responding to a threat to an organization's reputation.

Crisis communication is used in the event of a significant incident. It is easier for the crisis team to handle a crisis if they are prepared. Customers, employees, external stakeholders, and the organization's assets are protected, and businesses can continue "business as usual" until the problem is resolved.

Learn more about the definition of crisis communication

What is a crisis communication plan?

The crisis communication plan provides guidelines on how a business prepares for crises. Here, in a nutshell, we look at the pre-planning stages, the steps to take once it occurs, and communication plans. We examine why these are necessary should a crisis occur and your plan kicks in.

A crisis communications plan — also known as a crisis management plan, focuses on the organization's response and communicating this to its internal and external stakeholders.

Its purpose is to update people promptly, whether that be internal stakeholders such as employees or external ones such as shareholders or customers.

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When is a crisis communications plan needed?

Organizations are faced with a range of crises daily: physical, digital, tangible, and non-tangible. Here are just a few:

Data breaches

Criminal cyber attacks are on the rise and can cause significant harm to those they impact and the company whose watch it happened under. With so much data in the online space, the fallout often makes headlines.

When UK broadband provider TalkTalk experienced a cyber attack in 2015, the banking details of around 160,000 customers were illegally accessed. Some customers complained of being targeted before TalkTalk disclosed any details. The incident cost TalkTalk £42m and over 100k subscribers.

Product recalls

Besides an inconvenience and even a danger to customers. faulty products can be hugely detrimental to a company’s reputation and its earnings, and may involve legal proceedings if severe.

When medtech and pharma giant Johnson & Johnson were forced to recall over 30 million painkiller products due to the purposeful lacing of Tylenol bottles with cyanide, which caused the deaths of 7, they decided to immediately pull all the products from the shelves, put a stop to all advertising, contact healthcare facilities, issue a public warning to consumers., and set up a hotline for concerned customers. It was a masterclass in crisis handling. As such, J&J is one of the world's most valuable companies. But it could have gone the other way without such well-planned and executed communication.

Discriminatory practices

Discrimination or even perceived discrimination can lead to public anger and reputational damage.

Airbnb faced a huge backlash after customers started sharing stories of hosts rejecting them because they were black. Some even said they got bookings once they used the faces of white people on their profiles, leading to the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack trending. CEO Brian Chesky said discrimination was “the greatest challenge we face as a company.” So much so that he hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder and former ACLU official Laura Murphy to help them fix it. They helped formulate its “Open Doors” initiative,” where if a guest cannot find a place to stay due to discrimination, Airbnb’s “specially trained” staff will find for them.

Workplace related

A workplace practice-specific crisis is when a company’s negative policies, procedures, or culture come to light and cause a public outcry.

In 2017, Uber came under intense scrutiny when a former worker detailed a culture of sexism and harassment within the organization. It led to an internal investigation and the resignation of a handful of senior executives, including the CEO, Travis Kalanick. Uber was forced to change workplace practices significantly to address these issues head-on.

A crisis communications plan in 10 steps

It is imperative to communicate as soon as a crisis occurs. When business operations are disrupted, customers want to know the impact. There will be concerns among employees, and they will want answers. Your inbox could be flooded with media requests. Brands must recognize and respond quickly and appropriately to PR crises to build long-term reputations.

There is no such thing as a crisis-free business. You can either sit and wait for it to happen (not recommended) or prepare a comprehensive plan for if/when the worst should occur.

Part of the role of crisis management is to reduce response times and control the narrative of the event to limit the possible damage resulting from it.

This is why a plan is crucial. But where to start, I hear you ask. Below, we give a step-by-step process for creating such a plan and all the other important information you need to consider.

Learn more about the definition of crisis management
Crisis communications plan
1

Anticipate crisis communications needs and procedures

This first step is crucial as it leads to the formation of a crisis management plan tailored to your organization. It should include both communication and operational elements. As well as communication needs, there needs to be an internal action plan to follow through on to remedy certain situations. Look at what, if anything, is in place currently. Is this sufficient? It may be possible to prevent some of these situations by modifying existing protocols. In situations where you know a crisis will occur because you're planning it, such as redundancy, this should help you create a procedure and contemplate your resources and other needs.

A few important topics should be addressed in the communications plan which follows.

2

Identify your crisis communications team and spokesperson

Establish a crisis communication team for your company who will be essential in a crisis. They are the face of the company and are responsible for sharing information and updating the public and media. It is the spokesperson's responsibility to deliver your organization's message correctly and unambiguously. They must be trained, have in-depth knowledge, be able to convey empathy and be quick and resourceful. This spokesperson will rely on a crisis management team in place. Experts and specialists support the spokesperson from different aspects of the business.

The decision about who should speak is made after a crisis begins, but spokespersons must be identified for training in advance. The spokesperson may be decided based on the issue if the company is big.

Of course, there may be times when only the CEO can act as the spokesperson - if something is so severe and the CEO needs to take accountability and be the face of the situation. Such occasions include a severe error of judgment from other employees that gets attention when the company is accused of illegality or an employee's death, for example. Also, you need to find out how long a crisis will last. Using a CEO as an initial response could raise questions about judgment, proportionality, and the perceived scale of the crisis.

Hold back your CEO's authority and calming presence until the crisis grows to a level that warrants it.

It is vital to maintain the CEO's credibility. When your CEO makes factual errors or misstatements early on - whether intentionally or unintentionally - it's challenging to restore trust among customers, regulators, and employees. During a crisis, the CEO should refrain from speaking first. It could diminish the CEO's value if they march out first during crises, affecting their effectiveness at calming everyone.

3

Identify common crisis scenarios

You cannot predict when a crisis might occur, but there are specific scenarios you can anticipate or plan for. Some of these will be industry-dependent, of course. If your company creates a Crisis Communications Team, it can prepare for crises by brainstorming all possible scenarios.

For example, if you're a medical and pharma manufacturer, what would happen if it was found that some of your products had been contaminated with a potentially fatal dangerous substance? How would you react? Would you remove all products from the shelves as Johnson & Johnson did in 1982? In this tragic crisis, seven people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol, a painkiller that was the drugmaker's best-selling product. The Tylenol brand, which represented 17 percent of the company's net income in 1981, was predicted never to recover. Two months later, Tylenol was back on the market with tamper-proof packaging. A year later, Johnson and Johnson's market share of the $1.2 billion painkiller market improved from 7 percent to 30 percent.

Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis better than its competitors; It placed consumers first by recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves and offering replacement products in the safer tablet form free of charge. Before 1982, this approach was not expected.

It may be beneficial to think of every possible crisis cause and dissect it point by point. Previous experience also comes in useful here. Regardless of how credible or far-fetched it may seem, you would find something you'd never thought of before. Your crisis response can then be adjusted and improved according to the information you have gathered.

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4

Anticipate stakeholders' questions and provide answers

In specific crises, you should be able to anticipate what questions will be asked. What would you ask if you were a journalist reporting on this case? What would you want to know? If you plan for this, you can have a set of questions and answers ready.

If this crisis did happen, you could publish this list of questions and answers on your website so relevant parties can find the answers immediately without needing to contact you.

Which stakeholders matter to your organization both internally and externally? You should consider your employees your most important audience since they all serve as crisis communication representatives for your organization. Remember, they will be speaking to their family and friends when they are at home. What message do you want them to have? What do you want them to communicate?

5

Develop crisis holding statements

While the crisis itself dictates the initial statement and communication that follows, having pre-prepared statements for immediate use can help save time and help get your message out immediately. Hence, people know you're addressing the issue.

An example could be something like this: Our procedures will be reviewed, and improvements will be made to prevent a repeat of this incident. Any recommendations we receive will be put into action immediately.

One thing to be aware of is the need to update these statements. Releasing the same holding statement repeatedly will look robotic, and this happens a lot. Statements will need revising, and the situations worthy of a holding statement may alter, too. So be sure to review this also.

6

Spokesperson training

Some people can stand up and speak in front of many during a packed conference; some would freeze if they knew a camera was pointed at them. Some people can write very well but need to be trained for interviews.

It is crucial to match potential spokespersons' skills with their assignments as members of the Crisis Communications Team.

It's essential to train people effectively to communicate. Spokesperson training needs to focus on message clarity, answer questions, and address concerns effectively. Stakeholders could misunderstand a great deal. Keeping that from happening is your primary responsibility.

Spokespeople must be trained to give information openly and transparently. If we use Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol crisis, James Burke, the company's chairman, was widely admired for his leadership in pulling Tylenol capsules off the market shelves and for his forthrightness in dealing with the media. He gave a complete chronology of the company's actions in a news conference only a month and a half after the tragedy.

7

Establish crisis monitoring systems

You should train staff with direct contact with stakeholders (such as customer service) to report what they see or hear to decision-makers. In crisis prevention and response, intelligence gathering is essential, and it is necessary to establish monitoring systems for both of these elements. It is also essential to always know what the public thinks of your company when making a good crisis response and to learn about overall industry trends to respond to any negative feedback. You can also track what's being said about you in social media and more traditional media. Google Alerts and Hootsuite can help here. There are several other free tools to use as well.

Learn more about media monitoring
8

Decide on communication methods

There are different ways to communicate a crisis. The nature of your business will influence this. Different methods create a different impact, and it is essential to be aware of this. A message is more effective when it is communicated in the best way, via the best style, and in the best forum. If the information is urgent, choosing a communication tool that can reach people quickly is essential. Emails, social channels, and the company website are critical here. Elsewhere, press releases and explanation letters can be distributed to media outlets and the public in general.

9

Create a social media action plan

Social media provides the best way to communicate with customers. It's also how you can be first alerted to a crisis. It's also great for discovering what people think of you, positively interacting with customers and others, and making you seem human. Its importance in a crisis plan cannot be overstated enough. Remember to publish a statement on social media immediately after a crisis occurs. You can use social media to communicate your message during a crisis to your "community" or followers and the general public, including the media. You can also control the narrative by directly responding to any questions or negative comments. So monitor your social media accounts for opportunities to do this. You must pay attention to this in today's social media age.

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10

Communicating your message

Before you do this, you must decide carefully what your message and tone of voice are. You must convey sincerity and care to match your brand's tone. Make sure to communicate across all relevant channels and monitor what happens after. Social media monitoring tools can help further by picking up keywords and tracking mentions of the brand. Use this to your advantage in future crisis management planning.

After taking the above steps, this step will be much better informed and with a greater chance of reducing any reputational or financial harm to your business caused by a crisis in any form.

Example of a crisis communications plan

PRLab previously had a client where a potential PR crisis could have arisen from questions the company was getting about how they store data. To ensure the situation was being handled well by the company's internal communications department, PRLab drafted an internal Q&A to be distributed through-out the company so that every employee is aware of the situation, understands the context thereof, and knows what to expect / say when questions are lodged. The internal Q&A was a proactive measure put in place to prepare the company’s employees in case the situation attracted attention from the public.

This scenario highlights several key aspects of effective crisis communication in PR planning:

  • Preparation: Proactively preparing internal communication tools, like the Q&A document, ensures that all employees are equipped with consistent and accurate information.
  • Consistency: Uniform messaging across the organization prevents the spread of misinformation and helps in managing the narrative around the crisis.
  • Transparency: Openly addressing the concerns and the steps being taken to resolve them builds trust with both employees and external stakeholders.
  • Empowerment: By informing and guiding employees on how to communicate about the issue, the company empowers its workforce to be ambassadors of its message, further aiding in crisis management.
  • Resilience: A well-managed crisis communication plan enhances the organization's ability to recover from setbacks, maintain stakeholder trust, and potentially emerge stronger from the crisis.

In sum, the internal Q&A document is a critical tool in PRLab's strategy to support employees during a potential PR crisis, underscoring the importance of crisis communication in safeguarding a company's reputation and stakeholder relationships.

Conclusion

We hope you've understood the need to implement a crisis communications plan. All too often, the attitude is, “it’ll never happen to us.” When your company is going from strength to strength, it's easy to understand why, yet this is even more of a reason to implement a plan! When said and done, no one expects a crisis to engulf them, and it's made all the worse with no existing crisis communications infrastructure in place. Companies must be empathetic toward consumer sensibilities and prepare for all the "what ifs." A crisis of some form can strike at any time. There is certainly plenty to be aware of, as we've seen. These include identifying what constitutes a crisis, who in the organization will see it through, preparing holding statements, relevant questions and answers, and how communication will be done.

A talented PR agency can help with this - from planning and anticipating a crisis to specific media training to handle the crisis and respond rapidly.

November 23, 2022
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