Crisis Communication and Reputation Management

Problem : Managing your reputation with good crisis communication

Learning objectives :

  • How to prepare for a crisis?
  • How to manage a crisis?
  • How to manage your reputation after the crisis?

Defining a crisis & crisis management :

A crisis is considered as anything that threatens the continuity and viability of a business. It can befall any business at any time and typically falls into one of four categories – a natural crisis; a technological crisis, a confrontational crisis, and a malevolent crisis.

Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, financial collapses, litigation, tarnishing of brand and business reputation, and other crisis situations have captured public attention to an unprecedented degree in recent years. In the face of these and many more potential crises, and the damaging aftermath that can follow, it is imperative that every business has, as part of its overall risk management plan, a sound crisis management plan.

Put simply crisis management involves:

• Identifying a crisis
• Planning a response
• Responding to a sudden event that poses a significant threat to the firm
• Limiting the damage
• Selecting an individual and team to deal with the crisis
• Resolving a crisis

From a communications standpoint, a crisis is a business or organizational problem that is exposed to public attention, and that threatens a company’s reputation and its ability to conduct business.

A crisis can take on many forms, including natural or man-made disasters, environmental spills, product tampering or recalls, labour disruptions or criminal acts, to name a few. What makes them a crisis is the fact that they are the focus of intense media scrutiny.


!! Crisis management plan !!

A crisis management plan should be an integral part of your organisation’s risk management plan.

You should already have in place a risk management plan which identifies the risks and their impacts that could threaten the viability and existence of an organisation.

Within your risk management plan you should have a contingency plan which identifies back-up procedures, emergency responses and post crisis/disaster recovery.

Your crisis plan

Your crisis plan should identify the process of responding to an event that might threaten the operations, staff, customers, reputation or the legal and financial status of an organisation. It should cover strategies to minimise the potential impact of identified crises by limiting any damage and minimising any losses that your organisation might face, and ensuring the continuity of the business.

The plan should detail the key business functions you need to ensure you are operating as quickly as possible, and the resources you’ll need to do so; and the roles of individuals in the emergency. Within the crisis plan there should be a business continuity plan setting out in writing how you will cope if a crisis does occur; and a contingency plan which identifies back-up procedures, emergency responses and the like. These strategies are important if you need to claim on your insurance policy.

The following is a checklist of the contents of a good crisis communications plan:

  • Names and contact information of the crisis team/ spokespeople. People need to know who holds responsibility for leading the organization through the crisis.
  • Crisis triage. Understanding what level of “crisis” you’re facing. Establishing criteria to decide when a minor incident has the potential to become a national crisis can be a challenge.
  • ” First response. What information has top priority? How will you initially respond to media?
  • Alert/ notification procedures. Who needs to get information, and in what order of priority? By phone, e-mail, pager or fax?
  • Situation room. Assess the physical space that will be the nerve centre for managing the crisis, including the required hardware and software, staffing, location and layout.
  • Stakeholder communications. How do you plan to communicate with customers, shareholders, employees, government and the media?
  • Contact lists. Include the “inputs (which media outlets and Internet message boards should be monitored, which opinion leaders should be kept track of, etc.) and “outputs” (which journalists should be contacted, which newspapers and television programs should be approached, which media outlets need to hear your story).
  • Template responses. Standardized format,language and protocol for all communications.

Some tips :
1. Prepare a system that will allow you to respond to the emergency– Although emergencies are unexpected by nature, you can make a list of the predicted problems and implement a plan to possibly deal with them. For example, a good idea is to hold a brainstorming session with influential members of the organization to identify events that might bring unfavorable publicity.
2. Develop policies: Each company or organization should have a set of policies or guidelines to deal with emergencies. When asked by the media what the company’s policies are about a certain situation, your spokesperson should be able to answer firmly. This assures the public that the company’s employees are reliable and knowledgeable.
3. Create a crisis management team: Assign certain individuals to be fully knowledgeable about the company’s policies and who are efficient in problem-solving to deal with emergencies. Appoint a team leader, a spokesperson to deal with the media, team members to deal with the victims and emergency officials, and others to guide the staff and volunteers.
4. Assemble and Organize resources: Make sure you have up-to-date information to be able to react immediately without having to do extensive research. Resources include: lists of contacts for team members, volunteers, staff, as well as emergency officials such as police, hospitals and the fire department.
5. Distribute an emergency procedures guide: This is to ensure that volunteers, staff and team members know what to do in case of emergency. For example, how to talk to the press as well as how to deal with the safety of the people involved.


Some tips :
1. Bring the situation under control: Ensure the safety of those involved in the crisis. “Always protect people first and property second.”
2. Analyze the situation and gather all the facts: Once safety and security have been restored, gather the information of the incident and begin thinking of a solution to the problem. Don’t blow the problem out of proportion before gathering all the facts.
3. Notify the families of those involved: Assign your team member to personally and kindly contact the families of those involved to inform them about the situation. Never publicly release the names of dead or injured before contacting the family first.
4. Keep internal publics informed: Keeping your staff and volunteers informed will ensure that the right information is being released. Try to inform your internal publics before or at the same time that you are releasing information to the media.
5. Communicate with the media: The only way for your affected publics to be informed is by watching or listening to the media. Therefore, it is your duty to inform the media outlets as soon as possible about the situation.
6. Effective crisis management calls for open, honest communication between the company and its publics: It is almost human nature to try and minimize the problem when the reality is too difficult to deal with, but it is your duty to your publics to keep them well informed. They depend on you, therefore you have to correspond by treating them with the same respect.

During the crisis, one of the most vital skills a company can possess is the ability to determine if, when and at what level of importance a crisis has struck:

  • Is this a crisis, or is it simply a continuing business problem coming to the surface?
  • Is it confined to a local area, or does it have the potential to become a situation of national or international importance?
  • Has someone verified the incident or crisis?
  • What are the legal implications?
  • What level of resources will be required to manage it?

What about the media :


How to manage your reputation after the crisis?

1. Call an end to the crisis: Ensure that your company has done everything possible to fix the problem and declare an end to it. 

2. Follow up: Stay in touch with the victims, keep media informed of any updates, thank your internal publics for their support during the crisis and review company’s policies to avoid a repetition of the situation. 

3. Evaluate: Evaluate your performance, analyze what you have learned and revise your crisis management plan by including what you learned in the past experience.


1. Do the right thing: Put the public’s interest and safety before trying to salvage the reputation of the organization. Don’t try to minimize large problems as well as don’t blow problems out of proportion that don’t need to be. 

2. Give accurate information quickly: By providing the facts at least to one major media outlet, you still have control of the dissemination of information. Positive, assertive communication moves the process forward to finding a proper solution. 

3. Follow up: Make sure that the victims involved are safe and change policies within the company to prevent another crisis.

Crisis as an opportunity

• A crisis can radically change the environment in which your business operates. As devastating as it can be, it can also offer an opportunity to re-structure the business. It’s possible that there is an opportunity to take your business in a new direction by restructuring and repositioning the business.
• Consider being appropriately prepared for a disaster as a business opportunity. If your products can be used in an emergency, register them with emergency agencies. It is important that you will be ready to provide the goods and services as soon as needed.
– A well-managed crisis response, coupled with an effective recovery program, will leave stakeholders with a favourable impression and renewed confidence in the affected company.


(From our course Public Relations last year) :


A crisis = an (unexpected) event/happening that could have negative consequences for the company and that could create a risk for the continuity of the company.

Crisis :

– Crisisteam

– Crisismanager

– Crisisplan
crisis communication plan
crisis communication manager

=> Crisis communication is taking structured measures to ensure that a crisis and the negative consequences for the name and the image of the organization can be controlled and limited, as far as possible.

During a crisis it’s often hard to keep a balance between the intern and extern target groups -> panic -> rumors


– Pick a crisis manager : head of the crisisteam

– + A crisis communication manager -> in contact with the target groups.

– Create a crisis plan in advance (for a big business)

A crisis plan contains : 

> An overview of possible crises

> A schedule with the different tasks (crisis manager, safety officer,..)

> Possible solutions

> Procedures for reporting (List of internal & external contact persons)

> The establishment of the crisis centre

A crisis communication plan gives information about : 

> Who is the communication manager (usually the spokesman)

> Procedures internal communication (Family victims, staff,..)

> Procedures press (Press list, guidelines interviews, list of possible questions,..)

> Procedures external communication (public authorities, consumers, distributors, local residents,..)

> Aftercare : communication to consumers, evaluation,..

5 commandments for good crisis communication :

1) First inform your employees, before you inform the press

2) Keep your relationship with unions as open as possible and continue to consult during crisis moments

3) Consumer safety must always come first bv. : when in doubt of a can of coca cola : withdraw directly

4) Never give control of your communication out of hands + make sure there is only 1 spokesman, and that your staff doesn’t talk to the press

6) Avoid leaks!



1. Respect the role of the media. The media are not the enemy; they have direct access to the audiences you need to reach. Rather than avoiding media, use them as a conduit to communicate key messages. Prepare a statement that includes the confirmed facts; communicate what the company is doing and provide background information.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. The first rule of crisis management is to communicate. Early hours are critical and they set the tone for the duration of the crisis. The media’s first questions are likely to be simple and predictable:

  • What happened?
  • Where?
  • When did you know of the problem?
  • What are you doing about it?
  • Who’s to blame?
  • Were there warning signs?
  • How will life or property be protected or compensated?

Be as forthright as possible; tell what you know and when you became aware of it; explain who is involved and what is being done to fix the situation. Be sure to correct misinformation promptly when it emerges.

  • In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani held a press conference in the ruins of Lower Manhattan that afternoon. In the coming days, he became the reassuring voice of calm for worried residents of the city.
  • In the hours, days and months after the 1998 crash of Swissair 111 in Nova Scotia, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada held a series of media updates on the status of the crash investigation, and provided regular safety alerts to the international aviation community.
  • When Pepsi-Cola heard first reports of syringes being found in soft drink bottles in 1993 — which turned out to be hoaxes — it launched a broad communications offensive to reassure consumers. Tactics included media relations and interviews, company open houses, video news releases, third-party endorsement and consumer hotlines.

Remaining silent or appearing removed, perhaps on the advice of legal counsel, tends to enrage the public and other stakeholders. A balanced communications strategy must be developed that protects corporate liability while satisfying the demands of today’s information and media dynamic.

As demanding as the public may be, they are usually inclined to give an organization the benefit of the doubt in the early hours of a crisis. They judge a company and its leaders not by the incident itself — which they recognize is often beyond the control of those individuals — but by their response.

3. Take responsibility. One of the more controversial tenets of crisis management is that someone involved in a crisis must be prepared to empathize, even publicly apologize, for the events that have transpired. This is different from accepting blame. Taking responsibility means communicating what an organization is doing to remedy a situation that the media and the public have determined involve that organization in some way.

4. Centralize information. A company needs to move quickly to gain control over information and the resolution of the crisis. Ensure that appropriate levels of management are updated with information from a wide variety of sources (media coverage, analyst comments, competitive intelligence, managers’ first-hand reports, etc.).

5. Establish a crisis team. Create and train the crisis team before a crisis strikes, and establish a situation room. During a crisis, when everyone goes into action, be sure the team has access to the highest levels of management.

6. “Plan for the worst; hope for the best.” Assume the worst-case scenario. Develop contingencies for the hours and days ahead, forecast possible consequences and determine plans of action.

7. Communicate with employees. Remember that employees are your front-line “ambassadors” in a crisis. Be sure they are aware of what the company is doing to deal with the situation.

8. Third parties. Use third parties to speak on your behalf. Third parties act as character witnesses and often carry more credibility than the organization at the centre of a crisis.

9. Use research to determine responses. Polling, market research and focus groups provide essential insight into the magnitude of a crisis and public attitudes about where hidden issues may lie. Monitor the Internet, chat rooms and blogs.

10. Create a website – If circumstances warrant, create a website to give quick, up-to-the-minute information and get the company’s story out.

Sources :


Crisis Communication and Reputation Management

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