How to Develop an Effective Crisis Communications Strategy

Sooner or later, every business will have a public relations crisis. How you react to it will determine survival or failure. Peter LaMotte, Senior Vice President at LEVICK Public Relations, has 7 tips on how to handle the media spotlight.

QDT Editor
3-minute read

How bad were the after-effects of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s audiotaped comments recently released to the world?

For starters, a horde of high-profile advertisers jumped ship almost immediately, including Mercedes-Benz, CarMax, Virgin America, Red Bull, Burger King, Samsung and State Farm.

Making matters worse, National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for life, fined him $2.5 million and called on the league’s board of governors to force him to unload his stake in the team.

While a crisis of this type and magnitude is unlikely to befall your business, it’s impossible to predict if and when some event will occur that threatens the integrity of your brand. Businesses that design a communications strategy for the unexpected invariably fare better in the marketplace than those caught flat-footed and ill-equipped for the media turmoil that follows.

Here are 7 essential steps to take so you’re as ready as a business can be in the event of a crisis:

Tip #1: Be Prepared

Get into the mindset that, no matter how successful your business is today, something might happen tomorrow that puts everything in jeopardy. This will help you and your team design a crisis communications plan with one key objective — to respond quickly and with authority, in order to prevent damage to your brand (or minimize any damage that’s already occurred).

Tip #2: Assemble a Crisis Response Team

Responding to a crisis is a team effort. As part of your plan, assemble a team of individuals who can play a supporting role when the time comes. In many cases, this includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) the CEO, COO, CFO, chief communications officer, a VP of marketing, in-house legal counsel and internal PR (and/or external PR agency). Compile and maintain a response team contact list so people can be reached ASAP when every minute counts.

Tip #3: Determine Your Primary Audiences

Your response to a public crisis will be covered by the media, but many other audiences will also be affected — everyone from your employees and customers, to business partners, vendors, and local and state officials. Determine who needs to be kept in the loop when a crisis strikes and modify your message for each audience, as needed.

Tip #4: Test Various Scenarios

Here’s where you must go into “apocalypse-mode” thinking. What’s the worst thing that could happen to your business? Embezzlement? Arrest of a senior executive for DUI? Some other type of financial or legal scandal? Encourage your team to brainstorm any and all possibilities. For each eventuality, determine what key actions you’ll have to take. Assemble the different scenarios in a crisis folder, accompanied by specific plans and messaging for each.

Tip #5: Anticipate Likely Questions

As part of scenario planning, determine as best you can the kinds of inquiries you’ll receive. When the time comes, don’t expect the media to act deferentially to you; reporters will ask tough, offensive and politically incorrect questions. Have a reasonably good idea of how to respond, while being mindful of legal obligations and other factors that limit the extent of your message. Never speculate. Only offer verified facts.

Tip #6: Identify a Spokesperson

In the event of a crisis, it’s absolutely necessary to speak with a single voice. In many cases, the central spokesperson is the head of the company, but that’s not set in stone. Whoever you select, make sure this individual is knowledgeable, skilled in media relations, and can speak with sensitivity and authority on behalf of the organization. This helps ensure consistency in your message, a key element of any effective crisis communications strategy.

Tip #7: Include Social Media in Your Plan

In a crisis situation, social media can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, rumor and innuendo will fly at the speed of light, making it that much harder for your team to stay on top of things. On the other hand, Twitter provides a great opportunity to be proactive and divulge appropriate information in real time. You can also post ongoing updates on Facebook and monitor what people are saying about the crisis.

As part of your communications plan, appoint one person to handle social media, while working closely with your appointed spokesperson. Ideally, all messages should be filtered through that person before getting posted.

When it comes to crisis communications, every second counts. Sooner or later, nearly every company will experience an unfortunate event. Those that answer the call transform a PR crisis into an opportunity. Those that don’t, risk everything.


Peter LaMotte is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and Chair of the firm’s Digital Communications Practice. He is also a contributing author to LEVICK Daily.