Bob LeDrew

The Secret Behind Crisis Communications

By: Bob LeDrew | March 15, 2016 | 

The Secret Behind Crisis Communications

By Bob LeDrew

A lot of people who’ve done a tour of duty in the communications trenches have some crisis communications under their belts.

I was at a professional development session once when the icebreaker was to talk about the greatest challenge we each had faced as communicators.

One friend responded with classic British understatement, “Oh, I don’t know, hmmm… I guess when I was assistant chef de Mission for the Canadian Olympic team and Ben Johnson got caught doping. That was a challenge.”


I may not have spirited a disgraced athlete past the disapproving gaze of the world’s media, but in my time as a communicator, I’ve dealt with big, external crises: Drive-by shootings, explosions, suicides on the organization’s property, outbreaks of infectious disease, continent-wide blackouts, and on and on.

And I’ve dealt with things that weren’t life-threatening, but certainly were organizational crises: Rogue employees, protests, customer-service crises, firings, layoffs, lawsuits, and things of that ilk.

I’m sure my experience isn’t that out of line with others.

Good organizations put a lot of time into preparing for crises with the ultimate goal of preventing them.

And that’s as it should be.

A Communicator’s Secret

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Communicators really, really like dealing with a giant disaster.

Some of my best days as a communicator have been the days when within my company or a client’s, the fecal matter has contacted the oscillatory device.


A few reasons:

  • When a company’s in crisis mode, it leaves behind second-guessing, bureaucracy, waffling, and indecision. For better or worse, actions get taken. And for communicators, who tend to be of the “Let’s GO!” personality, this is a good thing.
  • A crisis tends to highlight the importance of communication and lead to communicators being brought to the table. You might be left out of decision-making when it comes to HR, marketing, product development, and more, but if your organization is facing a giant, public embarrassment, you will be asked and expected to step up.
  • Crisis communications tend to be HIGHLY measurable, and its results are clearly visible and tied to comms efforts. That’s an ideal situation for communicators, who can sometimes find it difficult to point to nice, clean straight-line correlations between action and result.
  • In crisis, we are tested, and there’s a deep pleasure to be had in meeting a challenge. Whether it’s finding the perfect words to express regret at an industrial accident or the perfect way to explain the actions being taken; coaching a CEO to help her express herself effectively at a news conference; working with security staff to deal with protestors with sensitivity; leading a team to manage the organization’s website and provide valuable (maybe even life-saving) content in the right place NOW—our skills as communicators are put into the crucible in crisis, and we can discover we are valuable to an organization. I know there are crisis days when I’ve gone home feeling completely satisfied with what I was able to do and that I was really able to help my company through something. That sense of accomplishment is diffused on “normal” days.
  • Many communicators come from a background in journalism, and one of the traits journalism and PR share is a desire for adrenalin. I remember chatting with a cousin who is a paramedic. He told me if he had a shift without any serious calls, he would get headaches. But the shifts with car accidents, heart attacks, and other emergencies left him relaxed and stress-free. PR folks and journalists are similar, I think; when we are chasing down a story or scrambling to get an update on a crisis situation, we’re engaged in our work in a unique way.

So here’s the rub: Unless you’re working for the world’s worst company, crisis communications shouldn’t be happening that often.

So why not try to inject some of the thrills of crisis management into more everyday work?

The Secret Behind Crisis Communications

What if you gave yourself a deadline to write that release/document/web content?

PRETEND it’s a crisis.

If you’re a junior communicator within an organization, look at the bigger picture.

Talk to your boss and your colleagues about possible crises that might poorly affect your organization.

Develop the skill of thinking strategically.

Listen to your leaders.

Develop the ability to write in your organization’s “voice” on short notice.

Yes, under normal circumstances your company’s approval processes might be a pain in the butt.

Ask yourself why that is?

Is there a way for you to initiate change that would lead to a streamlined, more efficient process?

Use the lessons learned from crisis communications to improve your company’s processes.

One of the things that makes a crisis response successful is the ability to humanize the brand’s response—to create a point of empathy between the organization and the affected publics.

Ask yourself if your organization is as good at humanizing itself when there ISN’T a crisis as when there IS one.

If not…then work to change that.

If we look at crises as opportunities to show our skills under great challenge, perhaps we should all work a little harder at simulating those challenges on a day-to-day basis in order to keep our tools shiny, sharp, and effective.

image credit: shutterstock

About Bob LeDrew

Bob LeDrew is principal consultant at Translucid Communications in Ottawa (Ontario, not Kansas). He's been doing communications in one form or another since 1987, and in addition to his consulting work, teaches regularly at Algonquin College and Eliquo Training and Development. He's also the creator of The Kingcast, a podcast dedicated to his favorite writer, Stephen King. He enjoys cycling, animation, whisky, and playing guitar. He usually only does a maximum of two of those at one time.

  • Such an important piece of perspective, Bob!

    • Thanks, Paula. I think even Laura Petrolino would say this was an interesting piece.

      • Wait, even thought it wasn’t written from a cat’s perspective? You are an optimist! 😉

      • Gini Dietrich

        I doubt it.

      • You took the words right out of my mouth Bob. Very interesting piece. And a really interesting perspective.

  • Crisis Communication is on of my favorite things I have learned in college. And what the article says is so true we really do love dealing with disasters. Why? Because they’re interesting. And as the article also pointed out you can clearly see your work there is no question if what you’re doing is working or not. You know it is or isn’t.

    • Thanks for the comments, Ashley. Were there any case studies in your coursework that particularly stuck with you?

  • Gini Dietrich

    First, thank you for stepping in for me this morning. It was a crazy one and I was very happy to have a blog post in the wings that I could serve in my place. That said, I heard from my team that today was the worst possible day for you to have this run so double thanks for not saying a peep about it to me. xoxo

    Secondly, I’m with you…communicators DO love a crisis. I was talking to a friend about a month ago, when I was in the middle of a crisis with a client and he said, “Why are you so gleeful?” Uh…because I’m doing what I love, even though the people on the other side are miserable.

    • I’d call it serendipity, in a way– I was doing a discovery session with a colleague and client for a crisis communications plan this afternoon!

  • As interesting as this piece is, I really do love it. Since I first read it I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways we can summon the crisis communication mojo, skills, and lessons into everything we do. It’s also a really good way to frame things for clients and help motivate them as well.

  • Fantastic. I especially love your first bullet point. I do much better in “GO” mode than “give me time to think.” It takes the emotions out of it. On a side note, I used to work for the American Ambulance Association – fun group of people.

  • Love this article and the perspective. Great advice. As a former journalist I relish a crisis from time to time to keep the mental knife sharpened.