top of page
  • Writer's pictureMark Button

COVID-19: Was it a timely reminder to revisit crisis management policy?

Well it wasn't the end of the world as we know it.. but still. UGH.

But as we saw some of the disinformation and hysteria our there around COVID-19, you'd think REM had it right on the money. While it's obviously still a serious global health concern and not to be taken lightly at all, by now we've all got an idea of what the best practice is. Much of it is common sense.

I speak as somebody who contacted the virus in February of 2020, and nine months later was diagnosed with permanent lung scarring as a result of CV-19. I was lucky - the scarring - or Interstitial Lung Disease - was minor. I have had to make some adjustments as oxygen is slower to get into my bloodstream. I get tired more often, but I am figuring out a fitness and nutrition regimen that will help me.

I suspect that, like me, you had emails from the CEOs of pretty much every company you interact with. I've counted more than 50 so far, including Capital One credit cards, Volvo, Air New Zealand, Grubhub, Sonder, Lyft,, Hanz De Fuko, Hybrid shoes, any number of car dealerships, Groupon, my old firewood supplier from Oregon, and many others. Nordstrom was first out of the gate days before anybody else with a really well-worded email from the Nordstrom family. Kudos.

Obviously some of the companies will be directly affected by the pandemic as they're in travel, public retail, hospitality and so on. Others, not so much. But, it's great that so many companies are reaching out and giving good advice anyway. The more awareness and correct information flowing out, the better.

As the effects and impact of COVID-19 continued to increase, and precautionary measures started to be put in place, many companies are still facing communication challenges in addition to operational and logistical ones. What became apparent to me is that this is probably a good time for companies generally to think about their crisis management and communication protocols. For a start, do they have one? And if so, is it known, shared, part of training? Or is gathering proverbial dust on a drive or intranet somewhere?

I'm not a doctor, Jim, I'm a storyteller, but what I can do is share some information pulled from around the web and from personal experience as a PR counsel about crisis management procedures, which I hope might be of use.

Firstly, Companies Need a Crisis Management Plan

No organization, regardless of size, should operate without a solid plan to deal with crisis communications. Crises and accidents happen all of the time. It’s likely that some kind of crisis is going to present itself at some point. Consider data security breaches - they're a regular occurrence these days and trying to secure networks and monitor and mitigate breaches is an industry expected to be worth more than $1 trillion dollars by 2021.

Almost all crises have a consistent element that must be planned for in advance - how an organization communicates with the media and public during and after the crisis. This element of crisis management is critical because how well companies manage the information they are sharing and their media relations during a crisis often determines the direction and extent of how the company, its employees, customers, and other publics, are impacted. Many companies who do not handle these issues correctly risk severe consequences, which could include the end, or at the very least, the reorganization, of the company.

Remember high profile corporate scandals – Worldcom, Enron for example - and how those company’s bottom lines were affected? It got ugly, quickly. Conversely, there are examples of good crisis management, such as the original poisoned Tylenol case, where J&J came out more positively positioned with the public than they were before the crisis.

The Two Elements of a Crisis Management Plan

A crisis management plan is a reference tool that provides key contact information, reminders of what typically should be done in a crisis, and forms to be used to document the crisis response. It is not a step-by-step guide on how to manage a crisis. It is designed to save time during a crisis by pre-assigning some tasks, preparing information, and serving as a reference source. Pre-assigning tasks assumes that there is a designated crisis team, whose members should know what responsibilities they have during a crisis.

There are two key elements of any crisis management plan:

  1. The crisis plan itself - how a company plans to deal with the issue to ensure safety at all times and seek to minimize loss and downtime.

  2. The crisis communications plan - how a company will communicate with the press and other publics about the crisis that is occurring and how it is being managed.

Many companies prepare one element without the other; unfortunately, both are vitally important. Most company crises never get reported in the press. Sometimes that happens because the story was not newsworthy, but more often it is because the company handled the situation skillfully enough that it never escalated to the point where the media were made aware. However, at other times, a crisis may be significant enough to get press attention. Social media and public reporting are such that we see more situations being reported as they break now, so companies need to be increasingly vigilant and responsive.

Handled responsibly and correctly, the attention around a crisis either lasts for a very short period of time, or it is so well-managed that the company gains plaudits for its handling of the crisis. Developing a comprehensive crisis communication plan is the best way to ensure a positive outcome. The sad reality is that most companies don’t have a crisis management strategy, and yet it is vitally important to have a protocol to effectively communicate with the press and other public audiences when a crisis occurs. An effective crisis communications plan may be the most important part of a crisis planning process.

Aims of a Crisis Communications Plan

While good management practices will help lower the risk of potential crisis incidents, elements outside the client's control typically create the actual crisis that stimulates media headlines. It's impossible to second-guess all eventualities of potential crisis, but it makes sound business sense to prepare a framework that can be applied when a crisis breaks. Over time a live crisis procedure should be developed that is assessed after every instance that is deemed a crisis situation. The best crisis management plans have the capacity to be flexible whilst maintaining the discipline to ensure that public concerns, misconceptions and attempted sensational journalism are dealt with honestly and to the benefit of the organization, its customers and its employees.

The main aims of the procedure are as follows:

  • Ensure safety is the primary focus at all times and all actions keep that front of mind.

  • Minimize negative media and subsequent public effects of the crisis.

  • Act like a human and sympathetic company – people, planet, profit in that order.

  • Ensure that all internal and external audiences are aware of the actions taken to rectify the situation.

  • Ensure that all internal staff are aware of what action to take if they are involved in an actual crisis situation.

  • Prepare for any media inquiries and to be able to respond quickly.

  • Be proactive in dispelling spurious media claims with facts.

  • Behave like a professional and caring organization – create a positive image despite the crisis.

The Pre-Crisis Phase

Prevention involves seeking to reduce known risks that could lead to a crisis. This is part of an organization’s risk management program. Preparation involves creating the crisis management plan, selecting and training the crisis management team, and conducting exercises to test the crisis management plan and crisis management team. Organizations are better able to handle crises when they:

  • Assess what are the most likely crises to affect a business given the nature of that business.

  • Have a crisis management plan. Review and update each year.

  • Have a designated and properly trained crisis management team.

  • Conduct exercises at least once a year to test the crisis management plan and team.

  • Pre-draft select crisis management messages including content for specific web pages and templates for crisis statements. Have the legal department review and pre-approve these messages.

Crisis Management Team

Common members of the crisis team include C-level executives, legal counsel, security, operations, finance, corporate communications/PR, and human resources. Of course, both crisis plans and response teams need to be put through their paces periodically so we know they actually work effectively. Training allows team members to practice making decisions in different crisis situations.

Crisis Communications Resources

In preparing a plan, keep in mind that a crisis may allow a business to continue as normal, or it may result in a situation where teams aren't able to get access to the tools they normally use to do their job. So, any crisis communications ‘kit’ needs to help an organization to operate as normally as possible even in the most abnormal situations.

A crisis communications kit should include information, back up drives (physical and/or virtual, graphics, documents, video, photos, etc. that are normally readily available. The kit should be duplicated in numerous offsite and online locations.

Here's a starter list of seven items that should be included in any crisis communications kit:

1. A list of crisis management team members - which should include, at minimum, the CEO, a trusted assistant/top manager from the CEO's office, heads of each department, public relations and marketing team members, experts, legal and security. In an actual crisis, this team will be focused down applicable to that specific event.

2. Contact information for key officers, spokespeople, and crisis management team members - including company and personal phone numbers, email addresses, cell numbers, IM handles, addresses, even spouse's cell numbers.

3. Fact sheets on the company, each division, each physical location, and each product offered - emailable or available for download.

4. Profiles and biographies for each key manager in your company - as above.

5. Copies of your company, division and product logos, your press release format and the scanned signature of your CEO - also as above.

6. Q&A documents and answers to anticipated questions – When information is not available, be honest. Saying that we don't have that information yet, but will let you know as soon as it becomes available, is perfectly acceptable. "No comment" is not.

7. Contact information for all of your key constituents (local, national, international). This includes media, key financial press and analysts, and appropriate political, regulatory, and union leaders. Don't be afraid to go overboard here - if, for example, a chemical has a large chemical release, then the CEO will probably want to call not only the Mayor, but the Governor and congressional representatives.

When a Crisis Breaks

Chain of Notification

As with the media sign off, a Chain of Notification must be adopted for any crisis procedure. It is necessary to support this protocol with a communications chain of notification. Notification to the various parties will follow in the order as detailed below:

  • PR/Communications Manager informed of the situation from the Contract Operations Manager/ Director. Prior to all leave, messages on landline telephones, mobile telephones and email to indicate period of absence and alternative contact telephone numbers. At this stage of communication only base details to be gathered in order to speed the process of activation.

  • Communications Manager contacts the designated ‘lead’ person of the crisis situation. Crisis management team established & spokesperson appointed. In-depth factual detail of elements surrounding the crisis established.

  • Communications person within the client contacted to ensure that they are aware of the situation – facts as known relayed.

  • Communications Managers instruct their own staff to search for web-based media interest. Social media monitoring. Clipping service and TV/radio monitoring. High level of media monitoring maintained throughout the crisis period.

  • Debrief session to be undertaken following the crisis completion.

  • A full and up-to-date copy of the crisis procedure to be made available. Updates to be forwarded to all respective parties as and when appropriate.

In addition to keeping the client informed of developments it may also be necessary to communicate with the following interested stakeholders:

  • Local Residents / Liaison Groups – where feasible residents and the relevant liaison groups to be contacted so as to inform them of the situation and the planned action/actions taken as soon as possible.

  • Environment Agency - To be kept informed of all developments and where appropriate agreement on media releases.

  • Internal Audience - Employees to be kept informed of all developments via verbal and written notices. It is critical at the onset of a crisis to remind them of what to do following direct contact by the media i.e. forward inquiry to the Communications Department.

Crisis Response

A crisis situation puts companies under pressure to respond with accurate and complete information as quickly as possible. A trained spokesperson should be appointed and an informative statement drafted and issued to the press immediately. Often companies set up an information center or helpline to ensure information is readily available. There are various methods for responding to a crisis such as:

  • Denial – the company explains that there is no crisis. Usually, there is no smoke without fire, so a denial has to be phrased correctly if, in fact, there really is no crisis.

  • Mitigation – a company minimizes its responsibility for the crisis, often used when there has been product tampering. Again, this has to be phrased and executed correctly.

  • Justifiable explanation – the crisis is minimized with a statement that there is no serious damage or injuries. This is often done when there is a contained industrial accident.

  • Corrective action – steps are taken to repair the damage from the crisis and to prevent repetition.

  • Full apology – the company accepts responsibility and asks for forgiveness.

A key component of crisis team training is spokesperson training. Organizational members must be prepared to talk to the news media during a crisis. Media training should be provided before a crisis hits.

In formulating a sound response to the crisis, it is crucial that the Chain of Notification is followed, and a thorough investigation into the nature and scale of the crisis is carried out in a timely fashion. In business, when a crisis arises, companies who are honest and straightforward in acknowledging and dealing with the situation are the ones that generally come out with their reputations intact, even when it appears that there has been significant malpractice or gross negligence. Taking a responsible stance is the best way to avoid or repair a damaged reputation.

Initial Response

Practitioner experience and academic research have combined to create a clear set of guidelines for how to respond once a crisis hits. The initial crisis response guidelines focus on three points:

Be quick - provide a response in the first hour after the crisis occurs. That puts a great deal of pressure on crisis managers to have a message ready in a short period of time. Again, we can appreciate the value of preparation and templates. The rationale behind being quick is the need for the organization to tell its side of the story. In reality, the organization’s side of the story are the key points management wants to convey about the crisis to its stakeholders. When a crisis occurs, people want to know what happened.

Crisis experts often talk of an information vacuum being created by a crisis. The news media will lead the charge to fill the information vacuum and be a key source of initial crisis information. If the organization having the crisis does not speak to the news media, other people will be happy to do so. These people may have inaccurate information or may try to use the crisis as an opportunity to attack the organization. As a result, crisis managers must have a quick response.

An early response may not have much new information but the organization positions itself as a source and begins to present its side of the story. A quick response is active and shows an organization is in control. Silence is passive and gives others the opportunity to control the story and suggests the organization has yet to gain control of the situation. A quick, early response allows an organization to generate greater credibility than a slow response. Crisis preparation will make it easier for crisis managers to respond quickly.

Be accurate - Obviously, accuracy is important anytime an organization communicates with the public. People want accurate information about what happened and how that event might affect them. Because of the time pressure in a crisis, there is a risk of inaccurate information. If mistakes are made, they must be corrected. However, inaccuracies make an organization look inconsistent. Incorrect statements must be corrected making an organization appear to be incompetent. The philosophy of speaking with one voice in a crisis is a way to maintain accuracy.

Be consistent - Speaking with one voice does not mean only one person speaks for the organization for the duration of the crisis. The news media want to ask questions of experts so they may need to talk to a person in operations or one from security. The public relations department plays more of a support role rather than being “the” crisis spokespersons. The crisis team needs to share information so that different people can still convey a consistent message.

The spokespersons should be briefed on the same information and the key points the organization is trying to convey in the messages. The public relations department should be instrumental in preparing the spokespersons. Ideally, potential spokespersons are trained and practice media relations skills prior to any crisis. The focus during a crisis then should be on the key information to be delivered rather than how to handle the media.

Once more preparation helps by making sure the various spokespersons have the proper media relations training and skills.

Quickness and accuracy play an important role in public safety. When public safety is a concern, people need to know what they must do to protect themselves. This information can be referred to as “instructing information.” Instructing information must be quick and accurate to be useful. For instance, people must know as soon as possible not to eat contaminated foods or to shelter-in-place during a chemical release. A slow or inaccurate response can increase the risk of injuries and possibly deaths. Quick actions can also save money by preventing further damage and protecting reputations by showing that the organization is in control. However, speed is meaningless if the information is wrong. Inaccurate information can increase rather than decrease the threat to public safety.

Devote attention to media relations - The news media are drawn to crises and are a useful way to reach a wide array of publics quickly. So it is logical that crisis response research has devoted considerable attention to media relations. Media relations allow crisis managers to reach a wide range of stakeholders fast. Fast and wide-ranging is perfect for public safety—get the message out quickly and to as many people as possible. Clearly there is a waste as non-targets receive the message but speed and reach are more important at the initial stage of the crisis. However, the news media is not the only channel crisis managers can and should use to reach stakeholders.

Make use of your website, social media, and intranet - Websites, social media, intranet sites, and mass notification systems add to the news media coverage and help to provide a quick response. Crisis managers can supply greater amounts of their own information on a website. Specific landing pages can be created to provide information and updates. Not all targets will use the website but enough do to justify the inclusion of web-based communication in crisis response.

Social media is key to sharing accurate information rapidly and in real-time. It can also combat so-called 'fake news' by responding with facts. Mass notification systems deliver short messages to specific individuals through a mix of phone, text messaging, voice messages, and e-mail. The systems also allow people to send responses. In organizations with effective Intranet systems, the Intranet is a useful vehicle for reaching employees as well. If an organization integrates its Intranet with suppliers and customers, these stakeholders can be reached as well. As the crisis management effort progresses, the channels can be more selective.

Be sympathetic and genuine - Crisis managers should express concern/sympathy for any victims of the crisis. Victims are the people that are hurt or inconvenienced in some way by the crisis. Victims might have lost money, become ill, had to evacuate, or suffered property damage. Expressions of concern help to lessen reputational damage and to reduce financial losses. Studies have shown that organizations did experience less reputational damage when an expression of concern is offered versus a response lacking expression of concern.

Consider your employees - Crisis managers should never forget employees are important publics during a crisis. Employees need to know what happened, what they should do, and how the crisis will affect them. The earlier discussions of mass notification systems and the Intranet are examples of how to reach employees with information. Keep employees apprised of how the crisis will affect them in terms of when they would work, where they would work, and their benefits, and so on. Well-informed employees provide an additional channel of communication for reaching other stakeholders.

Stress and trauma counseling - When the crisis results in serious injuries or deaths, crisis management must include stress and trauma counseling for employees and other victims. The trauma teams address the needs of employees as well as victims’ families. Crisis managers must consider how crisis stress might affect the employees, victims, and their families. Organizations must provide the necessary resources to help these groups cope.

Crisis Communication Channel Preparation Best Practices

1. Be prepared to use a unique web site or part of your current web site to address crisis concerns.

2. Make sure you are on top of your social media channels. Monitor, respond, share.

2. Be prepared to use the Intranet as one of the channels for reaching employees and any other stakeholders than may have access to your Intranet.

3. Be prepared to utilize a mass notification system for reaching employees and other key stakeholders during a crisis.

Initial Crisis Response Best Practices

1. Be quick and try to have an initial response within the first hour.

2. Be accurate by carefully checking all the facts.

3. Be consistent by keeping spokespeople informed of crisis events and key message points.

4. Make public safety the number one priority.

5. Use all of the available communication channels including the internet, social media Intranet, and mass notification systems.

6. Keep it real - Express genuine concern/sympathy for victims

7. Remember to include employees in the initial response.

8. Be ready to provide stress and trauma counseling to victims of the crisis and their families, including employees.

Post-Crisis Phase

In the post-crisis phase, the organization is returning to business as usual. The crisis is no longer the focal point of management’s attention but still requires some attention, as does the management of restoring the company’s reputation following a crisis. A reputation repair program may be discussed at this stage and initiated during this phase. There is important follow-up communication that is required.

  • First, crisis managers often promise to provide additional information during the crisis phase. The crisis managers must deliver on those informational promises or risk losing the trust of public audiences wanting the information.

  • Second, the organization needs to release updates on the recovery process, corrective actions, and/or investigations of the crisis. The amount of follow-up communication required depends on the amount of information promised during the crisis and the length of time it takes to complete the recovery process. If you promised a reporter a damage estimate, for example, be sure to deliver that estimate when it is ready. Intranets are an excellent way to keep employees updated, if the employees have ways to access the site. Mass notification systems can be used as well to deliver update messages to employees and other publics via phones, social media, text messages, voice messages, and e-mail. Personal e-mails and phone calls can be used too.

No crisis is permanent. But preparedness and the correct course of action are paramount.

The sun will rise tomorrow.

12 views0 comments


bottom of page