The Fundamentals of Crisis Communications

Crisis communications at its most basic level consists of three elements: crisis planning, crisis response and crisis recovery.

A. Crisis Planning

Crisis planning is the work done to define what constitutes a crisis for the organization, identify vulnerabilities -- both likely and less-than-likely -- assign responsibilities, prepare a spokesperson with media training, practice periodically and prepare standby materials as appropriate.

A good working definition of a Crisis is: An event or series of events that is out of an organization's control, disrupts the organization's normal business operations for a period of time and prompts intense public scrutiny of the organization.

I've seen organizations spend tens of thousands of dollars on the development of a crisis communications plan the size of a phone book and I've seen others create a perfectly functional crisis plan on the back and front a business card. Make sure to maintain a database of those who need to be called upon to help in the decision making: the Crisis Response Team. Each should be accessible 24x7 and have an alternate in the event they are unreachable.

Most important are the thinking that goes into the process of crisis communications planning and the commitment to occasionally practice it.

B. Crisis Response

Crisis response is the short-term effort to get the organization's arms around a crisis by implementing the crisis communications plan.

Critically important here is having a trained spokesperson ready at all times. Obviously, that means planning ahead. So make it a point to offer media interview skills training at least annually to keep those skills sharp.

Crisis response can take a day or it can take a week. It rarely takes more than a week because by then the crisis typically evolves into a manageable issue. The difference between a crisis and an issue is that a crisis is completely out of an organization's control. In contrast, an organization can influence the course of an issue.

The best posture for crisis response is for an organization to be open, honest and humble. Deal with people first in both your actions and your words. No matter how sure you are about something, don't suggest that you know things that you may not. Therefore, avoid absolutes. Words such as "always," and "never," have no place in crisis response. Likewise, don't speculate. And always consider reaching out to those with whom you have a positive relationship, since you may need to access this reservoir of goodwill you've established.

C. Crisis Recovery

Crisis recovery is the work done during the aftermath of the incident to help the organization get back to normal business operations. Typically, an organization that survives a crisis comes out of it a much different organization, either due to changes in policies and processes that have been deemed unsafe or inappropriate, or due to changes in leadership.

A crisis often will prompt an organization to be introspective about what it does, why it does it, how it does it and how all these things can be done in a better or different way. Therefore the period of crisis recovery often is a time of great change for an organization.

If an organization does not change in the wake of a crisis, it is bound to endure a similar crisis in the future. Change is necessary for the organization to apply what has been learned during the ordeal and make necessary adjustments. With the right approach and leadership that gets it, crisis recovery can be a positive time for an organization; a period of renewal and a recommitment to the core principles under which the organization was founded.


DPK Public Relations specializes in proactive and reactive media relations, media interview skills training, presentation skills training and corporate crisis communications planning and recovery. Guided by an accredited Houston public relations veteran, Dan Keeney, APR, DPK Public Relations helps clients increase visibility in order to build demand for their products and services. With a background in journalism, we know what it takes to secure media placement through expert writing and persu...

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