Crisis Communication Guide
In the Crisis Communication Guide, we provide you with an overview of the most important topics and the basics of crisis communication and crisis management.
- What is crisis communication?
- What is important in a crisis?
- Which steps and processes are important?
- Goals of crisis communication
- Basic principles, rules and strategies
- Stages of a crisis
- Crisis communication & crisis management
- Success factors
- Crisis communication for businesses
- Crisis communication for the food industry
- Crisis prevention
- Manual Crisis Communication & Crisis Management
- Tools and actions
- Crisis communication statement
- Crisis communication in social media
- Crisis communication with emergency services
- Early detection of reputational risks
- Guidelines for managers on how to deal with crises
What is crisis communication?
A crisis can be triggered by a variety of factors, such as an emergency, a disaster, an accident, a major loss event. But compliance breaches, data losses, waves of redundancies, hacking or product recalls can also put companies in a state of crisis. What all these situations have in common is that they require immediate action and suspend the rules of everyday business. The task of crisis communication in these critical situations is to inform all parties involved and stakeholders as promptly, comprehensively and purposefully as possible and to achieve acceptance for the solution adopted. In this approach, the reputation can be protected in the best possible way.
What is important in a crisis?
In a crisis, it is not primarily what has happened that matters, but how the problem is dealt with that is decisive for public evaluation. People accept misfortunes if a plausible solution to the crisis is presented – but they have no understanding if something is covered up or blame is shifted, information is withheld or there is a lack of compassion towards those affected. Therefore, transparency, openness and empathy are essential when dealing with a crisis.
Which steps and processes are important?
As an essential part of crisis management, crisis communication also requires clear structures and prepared strategies. The definition of responsibilities and reporting channels in a crisis guideline or crisis manual ensures immediate ability to act and security in the processes in case of an emergency. You can find the most important steps and processes of communication in the event of a crisis in our crisis communication checklist.
Goals of crisis communication
In addition to the operational handling of crises and the comprehensive information of all stakeholders, the primary goal of crisis communication is to re-establish trust with stakeholders and the public and to protect the reputation. It is about showing that the organisation or company in question has recognised the situation and is reacting, has initiated a solution and is taking care of those affected (and, if necessary, is supporting the authorities in clarifying the situation). In the case of a prolonged crisis situation, continuous updates ensure communication sovereignty and leave no room for speculation.
Basic principles, rules and strategies
The following rules and basic principles of crisis communication have proven themselves in many years of practice:
- Open, fact-based and truthful communication is the key to success (“you don’t have to say everything, but what you say has to be true”).
- The publication of information is actively controlled. In this way, one gets ahead of other sources (is “ahead of the wave”) and secures control and interpretive sovereignty.
- The master story (core messages) defines uniform wording. It requires know-how, experience and coordination with all protagonists in the crisis team. Once created, it forms the basis for all internal and external communication measures.
- The first and best source on the case should always be the company or organisation itself – therefore questions from media are answered and statements are given (preferably in writing). However, there are exceptions, such as criminal tactical considerations.
- Empathy and customer friendliness should always be taken into account, even in a crisis. This includes a willingness to provide service and, above all, empathy toward those affected.
- It is important for problem solving to think “one step further”.
By means of the “scenario technique”, alternative possible developments are identified and prepared in terms of communication in order to always remain capable of action. The important scenarios include the best case, the worst case and the most probable development.
Our crisis communication checklist provides important information and the exact procedures for communication in a crisis.
Stages of a crisis
In the dynamic development of crises, the following stages can usually be distinguished:
Stage 0: Crisis prevention
This phase is not actually part of a crisis, but it is nevertheless elementary. This is because effective crisis prevention can significantly reduce the impact of crises on reputation. This works efficiently by defining structures and strategies in a crisis communication manual or crisis communication guidelines. In addition, tools for early crisis detection such as issues management, media monitoring and early warning systems ensure secure handling of critical situations.
Stage 1: Pre-crisis phase / Latency period
In the pre-crisis phase or latency period, the first signs of the crisis are visible, but it is not yet public. Therefore, the room for maneuver is still large here and it is particularly important to use it, because this is where the further course of the situation is decided. Therefore, as soon as a crisis case is known and reputational risk is identified, all necessary measures for crisis management should be initiated – even if the case is not yet public. The earlier this process begins, the greater the scope for a positive resolution of the situation.
Stage 2: Acute crisis phase
In the acute crisis phase, the crisis escalates and is now acutely felt. A well-developed crisis plan pays off in this phase. In addition, it should be ensured that the information flows within the members of the crisis team function smoothly. At the beginning of the acute crisis phase – at the latest, however, when the first media inquiry is received – a short statement should be issued on the awareness of the problem and the search for a solution in order to position the company or organisation as the first and best source of information and, if necessary, to communicate targeted messages. Our crisis communication checklist provides further advice on the most important steps and processes of communication in the event of a crisis.
Stage 3: Post-crisis phase / Evaluation
Once the crisis is out of the headlines and public interest subsides, the post-crisis phase finally occurs. The members of the crisis team should now analyse and evaluate the course of the crisis: Which methods have proven successful? How can the company or organisation position itself even better for future crises? Is an update of the crisis manual needed? Should further checklists, action plans or text templates be added in order to be able to proceed in an even more structured way next time and save valuable time? Through mutual exchange and the introduction of appropriate measures, a crisis can thus lead to noticeable improvements in the company.
Crisis communication & crisis management
The term crisis management generally describes the systematic handling of a crisis situation. This includes all actions that serve the operational management of the crisis.
The crisis management process includes:
- Situation assessment based on all relevant facts (continuous updating, if necessary)
- Initiation of immediate measures to prevent further progression of the crisis
- Analysis of options for action
- Prioritisation of actions
- Decisions on actions
- Awarding of contracts
As an important element, communication has a central significance within crisis management. It should show a way out of the crisis and restore confidence in the organisation or the company. To this end, it must already be closely coordinated with crisis management during strategy development. This also includes, for example, that the possible solution scenarios are evaluated by communication experts with regard to the expected public reactions and thus their feasibility.
The main task of crisis communication is to secure trust in the company or organisation and the persons acting. This is achieved, among other things, through:
- Immediate, open and transparent communication, if necessary with continuous updates in the case of long-term crises or when new developments / findings occur
- Ensuring the flow of information and adequate communication with affected target groups
- Credible communication of the facts and the countermeasures taken
- Assumption of responsibility
- Personal communication to restore trust with customers / the public
- Expression of empathy towards those affected as well as sensitive handling of stakeholders (recognising and respecting needs)
- Comprehensibility of statements and clear language in communication
- Consistency between statements and actions
- Signaling a willingness to engage in dialogue with stakeholders and the media.
- The involvement of crisis communication experts ensures the success of the measures and content.
Crisis communication for businesses
In a crisis situation, professional and early communication protects the company’s reputation – both internally and externally. Those who know how to inform efficiently immediately after the crisis becomes known to have a higher chance of gaining control over the situation and keeping the damage as low as possible. Transparency and openness about the incident, the description of an adequate solution as well as empathy and, if necessary, service for those affected are important components of communication. Crisis plans, crisis manuals, checklists and regular training ensure that a cool head can be kept in an emergency. Our crisis communication checklist shows the most important steps and processes of communication in a crisis.
Crisis communication for the food industry
In the food industry, apart from product recalls, it is above all hygiene issues, manufacturing and production conditions or the declaration of products that can trigger crises. Food crises receive extremely high media attention, which leads to an enormously accelerated crisis dynamic and scandalisation. In addition, the industry is constantly in the spotlight through NGOs such as Foodwatch. Professional crisis management is therefore crucial for affected companies. Carefully prepared crisis plans, crisis manuals, checklists and text templates guarantee a structured approach in these cases and ensure the ability to act quickly.
Efficient crisis prevention can significantly reduce the impact of crises on reputation. After all, those who are prepared and have an instruction manual at the ready for emergencies get back into balance more quickly – or in the best case scenario, do not get into the problem zone in the first place.
Important components of a preparatory crisis management are:
- Crisis communication handbook or manual for crisis communication & crisis management
- Crisis team training and crisis exercises
- Effective tools for early crisis detection, e.g. issues management, media monitoring, early warning systems
Manual Crisis Communication & Crisis Management
In order to be optimally prepared for the different types and characteristics of crises, structures, processes and procedures are needed that take effect in an emergency: clear responsibilities, structures and procedures ensure efficient and effective handling of crisis situations.
Example of the structure of a crisis management and crisis communication manual:
- Key principles in dealing with crises
- Definitions: What is a crisis and what are the levels (from green to red)?
- Reporting and information channels for crises in the company
2. Crisis organisation
- Composition of the crisis team or crisis unit
- Tasks of the members of the crisis team or crisis unit
- Cooperation and collaboration in the crisis
- Process organisation of crisis management
3. Crisis communication
- Guidelines and rules for crisis communication
- Step by step – the central steps in crisis communication
- Internal and external crisis communication
- Crisis communication instruments
- Dealing with the media and social media in a crisis
- Checklists, action plans, text templates
- Contact lists
- Site plans and other tools
Note for implementation: Ensure central availability and regular updating of your crisis communication manual. We recommend creating a digital version with interactive opportunities for collaboration.
Tools and actions
The following applies to crisis communication: If possible, the internal and external instruments should be used that have also proven themselves “in good times”. If you use a new instrument that is being used for the first time, this is a message in itself that may attract additional attention. – An effect that you may or may not want to achieve consciously.
Selected tools for internal crisis communication:
- Simultaneous and direct information of all employees via town halls, mailings, intranet, etc.
- Communication via cascade / executives: master story, presentations, core messages and the most important FAQs ensure consistent wording
- Face-to-face meetings: direct communication, especially with affected people
- Training for employees with contact to the outside e.g. press office, hotline, reception via elaborated FAQs
Selected tools of external crisis communication:
- Press release: The central tool in external crisis communication is the press release.
press release. On the one hand, it demonstrates the ability to take action. On the other hand, it shows questioners the way to the contact person in the company.
In emergencies (fire, accident, environmental pollution, etc.) the rule is: speed before completeness of information.
Rule of thumb: 30 minutes after the occurrence of an event, a preliminary report (what? when? where?).
After 90 minutes, a fully formulated press release should be available.
- Press conference: In more serious and longer-lasting crises, a press conference may be necessary (e.g. substance leak, explosion/accident with casualties). The press conference brings together the factual and relationship levels. The aim of the press conference is to achieve credibility and acceptance. This requires suitable spokespersons and company representatives who can do both: Conveying information and expressing personal sympathy. – Consider preparation and training!
- Media interview: Every live interview with journalists – whether from print, TV or radio – requires a high level of media competence and spokesperson skills. We strongly advise regular training to be prepared for dialogue formats. In addition, every interview requires intensive content preparation with core messages/talking points and the most important FAQs.
- Mailings to customers and suppliers/partners to provide direct and comprehensive information about the incident and the initiated solution.
- Social media management: postings as well as comments in the own profiles and channels as well as in the social networks of other providers (e.g. media, influencers etc.)
Crisis communication statement
The statement is a self-contained statement that briefly and comprehensively presents the facts and expresses the company’s or organisation’s position on the issue. The statement is based on the master story, which defines uniform wording for all communication instruments (one-voice policy). In crises, the press release is a central instrument and basis for communication – both externally and internally. It briefly summarises the essential content of the current state of affairs (what, who, when, where) and must be coordinated with the relevant departments (internal/external departments, legal department, crisis communication experts, etc.) and, if emergency forces are involved, with the command.
Crisis communication with emergency services
On-site emergencies such as work injury or accident of an employee, fire, major loss event or criminal acts (e.g. extortion, burglary / theft) require the alerting of emergency forces. In this case, the procedures are determined by the management of the emergency forces on site. In the acute phase, the management and communication of the situation must therefore be closely coordinated with the operational command (especially the responsible contact person for the press).
Early detection of reputational risks
The best crisis is the one that does not exist. These tips and rules help to avoid crises or to recognise them at an early stage.
The resilient organisation
Flexibility, adaptation and evolution are elementary in today’s digital transformation and VUCA world. With organisational resilience, companies gain the ability to master these changes instead of falling into crisis. The levers you can use are employee motivation, leadership behavior and communication, and organisational structures with their values and visions.
Identifying reputational risks
You cannot master a skill immediately – and neither has any crisis. Rest assured: every crisis is foreshadowed and has a lead-in. You just have to (want to) recognise it. To this end, we provide you with three valuable rules that will help you identify and deal with crises at an early stage.
The public and media explosive power of an issue can be analysed using so-called scandal factors. They go back to the communication scientist Dr. Hans Mathias Kepplinger and form a valid basis for assessing the situation. Successful crisis communication invalidates the scandal factors from the outset in the argumentation.
Dynamic event series
Can many other interesting side events be derived from a key event (crisis)? If there is a series of events, this leads to longer-lasting reporting (media waves). Successful crisis communication actively anticipates these side events and thus prevents negative salami tactics.
Explosive power of social media
Online reports and posts are important early indicators of potential escalations. Successful crisis communication constantly monitors digital events and maintains an appropriate dialogue in social media in order to counter emerging shitstorms at an early stage.
Guidelines for managers on how to deal with crises
“If you want to get to the other side of the river, you will get wet.”
Managers, executives, communication and security officers – they are all challenged in crises, especially if they have an active role in the crisis team. In such critical situations, besides knowledge and experience, it is above all character that counts: How does the person deal with pressure and stress? How does the person deal with the requirement to make decisions under uncertainty and perhaps risk making a mistake? Where is absolute transparency needed, how open can and must I be, what do I make accessible to others and where do I protect myself? One of the lessons of crisis communication is: “If you don’t talk, people will talk about you”. But if you talk too much, you overburden yourself and possibly open doors for insinuations, projections, misunderstandings and assumptions. This must be prevented in a crisis. The following are important skills for leaders and managers in dealing with crises:
Cultivate a culture of error
Uncertainty is a constant companion of man. Only those who accept it and cultivate a culture of error in the best sense can create value from risk. Goethe’s words are apt here: “He who overcomes himself frees himself from the violence that binds all beings.
Practice unbiased gaze
In crisis situations, absolute objectivity and an unbiased view are necessary to solve the problem. How often do problems only become crises when the beginnings of a grievance are “overlooked” because they do not fit into the pattern of expectations and ideas? Often very objective people act completely unobjectively here by covering things up, ignoring them, fading them out and hoping that they will disappear of their own accord. But they do not.
Crises escalate and become scandalous when the actors lack social competence in finding solutions: it is not the “what” but the “how” that is decisive. The “how” includes the ability to approach people, to make contact and to see the person behind the problem. The change of perspective, the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes, is one of the core competences in crises.
Security in uncertainty
Uncertainty is the constant companion of crises: How do they unfold? How can they be contained? Which decision is the right one? etc. There is no answer to these questions, because every crisis is different, every company, every manager deals with it differently. As a rule, there is a lack of experiential knowledge for exactly the situation one is in at the moment. So what can provide security?
Important support in crises
Firstly, structures: Crisis handbooks, manuals, crisis plans and checklists provide security for the processes.
Secondly, colleagues: Mastering crises is a team task.
Thirdly, emotional intelligence: gut feeling and compassion count!