The Marketing Bureau

Specialist Marketing & Communications Resourecs



Communicating In A Crisis

By Brian H Meredith

From the NZBusiness"Marketing Maestro" Archive
First published April 1998

When your company or organisation is facing a crisis (and it will, someday, somehow) the way in which you manage the communications surrounding that crisis will dictate whether you recover. Or not.

Take The Initiative

Do not try to maintain a low profile. The incident/accident/crisis will be subject to speculation in the media long before any official or semi official enquiry gets going.

Accordingly, how a company behaves in the initial period is vital to goodwill - and business, both now and long into the future!

A company must take the initiative. No news ( and "no comment" ) will always be interpreted as bad news. Silence will imply guilt.

Keep In Contact With The Media

Dialogue must start when times are good. This can pre-empt a crisis - or at least mitigate its effect. It will put any bad news in context. It will provide a favourable background for the good news.

Speak The Truth

Journalists are better at detecting lying than company spokespersons are at lying. And anyway, telling the truth is always easier in the long run.

Treat The Media With Respect

The incident is a genuine news item. It probably irks the company to realise it will get more coverage from this than it achieved in total in the past three years.

Nevertheless, it must realise that the journalist has a job to do and should not assume that he/she is antagonistic. (Furthermore, relationships forged in fire may well last!).

One Company advises its executives:

"The reporter on the scene or on the phone only wants to report the facts, not to pass judgement on the company. The quicker we give him what he needs, the quicker he will move onto another story and permit you to get on with your work.”

Keep a list of news media handy so that you can call on them with details if they are not on the scene.

If you have a camera, shoot your own pictures.

As reporters arrive, give them all pertinent information and advise them regarding photographs. Do not force them to seek it out for themselves.

Do Not Speculate

A company must only deal in facts. It must assume that everything it says will be quoted. Thus, speculation - in the belief that it's "off the record" - should always be avoided.

Do Not Ask For A Retraction

Misquoting will frequently happen, particularly in a Crisis Situation. By then, the damage is done. Retraction generally adds to the story's development.

Make Sure Internal Communications Are Good

Good internal communications generally indicate good external communications. (This was certainly the case with J & J during the Tylenol crisis).

Keep Your Communications Simple

The media don't know as much about the company as the company does. In a Crisis Situation, a company should say as much as necessary and no more. A spokesperson should not answer questions that are not asked. (J & J restricted the discussion to Tylenol, did not discuss other products and guarded the corporate reputation).

Jargon must be avoided. The journalist a company deals with in a crisis may not be the industry or business journalist the company is usually in touch with. The company cannot assume knowledge.

Think Of The Headline

This concentrates the mind and condenses the message. The main facts must be communicated first. As with all communication, the sender must put himself in the position of the receiver.

Think About The Questions

Similarly, the spokesperson must consider the questions a good, well trained, journalist will ask - who, what, when, why, where, how?

The release must also answer these questions.

Think In Terms Of People

News is about people. Facts, statistics and stories must be personalised.

Monitor All Media Coverage

Only by keeping tabs on every release, every phone conversation, every report, article, comment and news item, can a company hope to retain some control over the story. When the media makes a factual error they should report it at once.    

Communication is continuous dialogue. Keeping tabs teaches the company how media relations work and what works better.

Follow Up

The story isn't over when the crisis ends. The company should write and thank the media, provide follow-up information, maintain the dialogue

Lynette commented on 11-Feb-2012 12:40 PM
Brian, thanks for this excellent article - very useful, practical advice that's clear and concise and covers all relevant aspects of the issue.

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