The 12 critical commandments of crisis communications

July 2015 Security Services & Risk Management, Integrated Solutions, Editor's Choice

The past few months have seen many companies dealing with a variety of crises, many occurring due to uncontrollable factors and some self-inflicted due to negligence or lack of preparedness.

Looking at these crises in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer environments, it’s easy to see why companies have their public relations work cut out for them for a number of reasons. They have to contend with media that is hungry for a good story and can break the news within minutes of receiving the facts or allegations about an incident. There is also the ever-present threat posed by a litigious public, compliance and governance-driven officials, and the vast amount of social media channels available to a public happy to use any platform at a moment’s notice.

Other contributing factors include companies who are slow to respond to an incident, are caught off-guard, or are simply poorly prepared. Response speeds, actively monitoring the risk landscape, ongoing preparation and crisis readiness exercises are significant contributors to a company surviving a critical event.

While there are numerous ways to plan for a crisis and implement relevant strategies, there are 12 commandments, in my opinion, that form the basis of a solid crisis communications and management framework.

1. Have a crisis plan

You shall always have a crisis plan and keep it handy, and, you shall have other plans and keep them handy as well.

Responsible management and practitioners of good corporate governance must ensure that their organisations have a fully-fledged crisis plan that deals with all eventualities. The plan should be based on a bespoke vulnerability and risk audit and scenario planning. The plan must be integrated into the following plans, which accountable businesses should have: supply chain, business continuity and emergency management, among others.

2. Executive support

You shall ensure your crisis planning receives the support of company executives.

You will ensure that C-suite executives support crisis planning and business continuity and emergency management planning, among others, by endorsing their plans and efforts. You will ensure that these planners have the necessary resources and access to audit your business, write the PR crisis plan, and test and exercise it on an ongoing basis. The C-suite will let the company know how important this is and that it is supported at the very highest level. In addition, you will ensure that the crisis communications and management team has the resources to deal with any eventuality when it happens and does not have to jump through hoops to get the necessary assets needed to manage a full-scale crisis.

3. Tell it all

You shall tell it all, you shall tell it fast, and you shall tell it honestly.

There are three cardinal rules in crisis communications: as soon as something happens, tell it all, tell it fast, and tell it honestly. By following these rules, you will immediately control the message. Keeping quiet and letting the press, staff, or clients break the news will immediately cause you to lose control of the situation. Resisting rapid communication empowers the rumour and speculation mill. Never forget this because you do not want to have to manage a crisis and put out secondary fires that could have been avoided.

As updated information and facts become available, disseminate these widely. Depending on your crisis, government requirements, and the stage of the crisis, you may have to let a spokesperson from law enforcement or an industry regulatory officer communicate about the crisis.

It is advisable in most, but not all, situations to let your staff have access to the facts either before they are released to the outside world or at the same time. Obviously, in certain circumstances specific types of information must not be made available immediately; you must, however, tell the media and wider public why this information cannot be made available.

4. Stare the devil down

You shall stare the devil down and be very brave.

When a crisis hits, many company executives practice ostrich management, either burying their heads in the sand or trying to sidestep the issues at hand and hoping the crisis will go away. Reality paints a different picture. The best way to manage a crisis is to meet it head on and do whatever it takes to protect your brand and retain as much public trust as possible. While proactive crisis management can sometimes turn a crisis into an opportunity, the pursuit of the opportunity must not be the overarching objective.

Do the right thing and face the crisis square on. Be honest and tenacious, act with speed and clarity, and communicate.

5. Love the media

You shall love the media and embrace them.

During a crisis, the media are mistakenly seen by many as the enemy. They are not. The media must be seen as a conduit to get messaging and information out to all publics, both internal and external to the company in crisis. Irrespective of the type of news that needs to be communicated, the media must be seen as a critical information audience and conduit. The spokesperson must deal with difficult questions in press conferences and one-on-one interviews. The spokesperson must be accessible for interviews or comments at the last minute or when the media are on deadline.

Embracing the media includes the social media universe that must receive the same information that the print and broadcast media receive. Many companies make the mistake of wanting to communicate on as many social media platforms as possible. This can become cumbersome and pressurising in the eye of the storm. Consider two or three platforms and resist the urge to respond to every single post made.

6. Communicate widely

You shall communicate widely and consistently.

As soon as it becomes apparent that a crisis has occurred or is likely to occur, all the necessary facts must immediately be collected and collated. Once the facts have been digested, uniform information and messaging must be formulated. The company spokesperson should first communicate internally to all staff and then externally to the media, clients, suppliers, shareholders, local communities and social media followers and antagonists using the most appropriate channels.

In certain circumstances, it will be necessary to break the news to internal and external audiences at the same time. Updates must be regularly fed to all audiences and messaging must be consistent. If there is no news at the time of the next update, then this must also be communicated. The reason is simple: when companies and organisations in crisis say nothing, the media and other recipients may start to think that there is a deliberate attempt to stop communication or manipulate it. Above all, the words “no comment” must never ever be uttered. If no information can be made public then the reason why it cannot be made public must be communicated.

7. Crisis management team

You shall have a crisis management team.

A crisis management team forms a critical part of dealing with the issues at hand. They bring expertise and different types of knowledge and problem-solving skills to the situation. Typically, the crisis management team is made up of a cross-section of senior managers from across the organisation that operates with board approval. Allowance must be made for external consultants who can form part of the greater crisis team; these could include social media consultants if the company does not have a social media team or person responsible for this critical function, lawyers, engineers, psychologists and ministers of religion, etc. The entire crisis management team and the external consultants must be media and crisis trained. In addition, the crisis management team must have a designated crisis operations centre from which it can manage the crisis.

8. Practice and train

You shall practice and train and you shall like it.

One of the key ways to become crisis ready is to hold regular crisis practice exercises. Organisations are advised to hold at least one tabletop exercise per year and one major exercise every 12 to 24 months. It is only through these drills that weaknesses in the crisis plan can be identified and strengthened. In addition, the exercises hone the skills of the crisis team members so that when an incident happens everyone is focused, knows their roles, and knows what is required of them. Practice exercises are also important because if one team member is ill or unable to get to the crisis team, fellow crisis team members will know exactly what needs to be done to plug any gaps.

9. Have a spokesperson

You shall have a spokesperson that you use consistently.

One of the more damaging aspects in a crisis is a constantly changing spokesperson. The media and the wider public will interpret this as a sign of a deeper crisis occurring behind the scenes. The spokesperson should be chosen based on his or her seniority, industry and corporate knowledge, media skills, and ability to engage the public and engender a feeling of trust and understanding. In most circumstances, but not all, the spokesperson will be the CEO or COO of a company and would hopefully have these skills anyway. Depending on the circumstances of the crisis, the spokesperson may have to share centre stage with various third parties who have been called in to help manage the situation, including police, doctors, forensic experts, lawyers and accountants.

10. Don’t speculate

You shall refuse temptation to speculate and muddy the waters.

Company spokespeople are sometimes tempted to either speculate as to why something happened or, as a strategy, to make things appear unclear, simply because they want the wider public’s and the media’s attention to be taken away from them. This is dangerous because when the real facts are exposed, the company may face a secondary crisis – that of trying to explain why it made certain statements before official findings were made public. Spokespeople should simply say what they know and are allowed to legally disclose, not what they think or what they want the market to know.

11. Show emotion and empathy

You shall show emotion and empathy.

Crisis management is not just about standing up, communicating, and then giving an update an hour or day later. It’s also about emotion, showing that you care, that you empathise with the people feeling pain, and that you understand their position. If a spokesperson or company representative appears cold, unemotional and stony faced, it can portray the company and its brands as insincere, uncaring and totally devoid of empathy. Even in the most difficult circumstances, simple gestures, reassuring comments of commitment to sort out the problem, and/or statements of condolences will go a long way to reassure the greater public. By the same token, overdoing the dramatic stuff will make a company look insincere or seem as though it is trying to hide something. Remember to always put people first. Lives cannot be replaced; profits and equipment can.

12. Crisis planning is a business investment

You shall see PR crisis planning as a business investment, not a chore, and you shall never forget this.

You will not see your PR crisis planning as a chore or a waste of time. When you are staring the crisis devil down, and you are ready to do battle because you have a plan that is tested and exercised, you will feel confident. A real return on investment is only attained when a crisis occurs and the plans are activated and help protect the business, its reputation, employees and ultimately its future. Seeing crisis planning as a chore could also result in a lacklustre effort to become crisis ready that could lead to the potential demise of your company or your career.

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