Five Principles of Crisis Communications

From major product recalls, to a tsunami-triggered nuclear meltdown, to Penn State’s damaged reputation nightmare, we’ve reached a crisis management tipping point that is driven by digital and social media.

The old crisis playbook is now obsolete.

Here are five key principles for effective crisis management in the age of digital.

Crisis Management Key No.1: Authenticity

Your actions should express your core values.

They should be your compass, your North Star.

Communicate those values with a human voice, rather than an institutional one.

Stakeholders want to hear directly from the source, not the middleman.

Research indicates millennials mistrust authority figures.

The most senior executive is not always the most knowledgeable…or the most trustworthy.

Often the expert—the chief scientist, engineer, operations specialist—is the person who can offer the most authentic answers.

He/she is also the one person who is not handcuffed by talking points.

For example, in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, the chief nuclear officer has become a key spokesperson for TEPCO.

Crisis Management Key No.2: Transparency

Even when the news is bad—especially when it’s bad—transparency can earn trust.

Tell your stakeholders what you know, when you know it, and what you don’t know.

Everything is discoverable these days.

You’re in a stronger position if you release the information on your own terms.

Cultivate a working relationship with your organization’s lawyers.

The executive team needs to understand you can win the legal battle only to lose the reputational battle.

And the latter can inflict greater damage to your brand.

The Volkswagen lawyers probably won the early rounds of discussions on disclosing the emissions gaming scandal.

Crisis Management Key No.3: Speed

We’re operating with a half-second news cycle.

You must act with speed to fill the information vacuum.

If you don’t, others will do it for you.

Furthermore, delays make it look like you’re hiding something.

When sharing information rapidly, you have a much greater chance of shaping the narrative.

Developing strong digital and social platforms, as well as listening capacity, makes you more nimble and responsive in crisis.

Crisis Management Key No.4: Agility

Situations unfold more rapidly in the digital age.

The leadership team must be able to respond to an evolving crisis.

This means the communications team needs a seat at the table.


Crisis doesn’t end with one news cycle—usually there’s more on its way.

You need to be able to shape messages and create content quickly to respond to the cascade of events. 

Crisis Management Key No.5: Creativity

You are competing with all forms of media to tell your story.

Creative compelling content will reach more stakeholders and help you win hearts and minds.

That means well-crafted messages, strong video, insightful infographics, and intelligent social media content.

In what might seem like a counter-intuitive move, we linked the SoCal Gas webpage to the YouTube infrared video of the natural gas emission plume during the Aliso Canyon gas leak in Southern California.

We knew the video was attracting a large audience, so we used that content to draw stakeholders to the SoCal sites—and to its key messages.

For some clients we’ve prepared an entire crisis handbook, with a communications plan, holding statements, infographics, photos, and other assets in order to have high-quality content at the ready.

If you can apply these principles to the situation, while letting your organization’s core values guide your decision-making, you can navigate any crisis.

image credit: pixabay

Jeff Hunt

As partner and co-founder of PulsePoint Group, Jeff Hunt specializes in crisis management and preparedness, branding, CEO communications, reputation management, and social media strategy. These topics are touched on in his blog, 'Conversations In Crisis', and in his upcoming book, 'Brand Under Fire'. During the course of his 25-year career, he has worked with IBM, AT&T, Dell, Nike, Whole Foods, and many others.

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