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

A few years back, I was attending a professional development session.

The icebreaker was to talk about the greatest challenge we 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 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.

It’s to create a point of empathy between the organization and the affected public.

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.

When to Bring in the Experts

 Most organizations don’t have the resources to have someone devoted to crisis communications.

Does your organization need someone doing just crisis communications full-time?

If so, then your biggest problem probably isn’t comms, but whatever is causing these crises!

So there are times when a crisis communications consultant or firm should become part of your organization’s team.

Consultants Can Help with a Crisis Communications Plan

First, I think it’s often a good idea to bring in a consultant to help with a crisis communications plan.

The outside person brings two things to the table: first, they often see things you may not; second, while they’re working for you, your crisis plan is their ONLY deliverable for you, while you probably have a dozen things you are juggling.

That singular focus can lead to a stronger plan.

When an Issue Becomes a Crisis

Second, when an issue becomes a crisis.

When is that?

There’s no simple and unequivocal answer.

But the way I look at it is this: does an issue post a significant and immediate threat to your organization’s reputation, financial health, customers, or community?

Then it’s a crisis and you need to treat it as such.

A complaint about a nasty smell from someone whose property borders your company’s, well, that probably isn’t a crisis.

If someone finds a few dozen dead birds directly in the path of your company’s smokestack and goes to the media claiming your business is creating pollution toxic enough to kill animals… that sounds more like a crisis.

The Advantages of Crisis Communications Planning

One of the advantages of doing a solid crisis communications plan is you’ll go through the exercise of defining crisis for the specifics of your organization.

That will make it easier to know when you’re in crisis, and when to bring in an outsider to help.

But when—and you WILL—you find yourself in a crisis, the more prepared and experienced you are with that mode of communications, the more solid your performance will be.

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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.

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