The Truth About Crisis Communications


When an unforeseen crisis strikes your business, who will you call to ensure your reputation isn’t ruined? The right answer can be the difference between a temporary tough time and, sometimes, going out of business all together.

If your house were on fire, you wouldn’t ask your neighbor for his garden hose. You’d want the fire department.

The same idea is true when you find your business in crisis. You wouldn’t call just anyone. You would call someone with extensive experience managing crisis scenarios.

Why? Because a crisis is like a fire. It starts small and grows quickly. Those with the right expertise will put the fire out while assessing the cause and the damage to help ensure it can’t happen again.

If your house were on fire, you would call 911. But who do you call when your organization is in crisis? Selecting crisis communications experts requires planning and realistic expectations.

Start with a Plan

The first step to mitigating a crisis is to have a plan. Hire a crisis communications firm (usually a public relations agency with deep crisis communications expertise) to assess your organization, identify crisis risk factors and create a response plan. Decide whether you would like a plan you can execute using in-house resources or if you would like to empower the communications firm to lead for you during a crisis. The best approach is to always have an outside, unbiased third party lead the assessment and plan creation, working closely with your management. Your in-house team may have blind-spots or biases that cause critical factors to be overlooked.

The value of a plan can’t be overstated. Nearly everyone has participated in a fire drill at least once in their lives. Local fire departments are always advocating for families to make evacuation plans from their homes in case of fire. Knowing how to escape and who to call can make coping with a fire more manageable while, hopefully, reducing the risk to lives and property.

At a minimum, prudent organizational leaders should identify and interview qualified crisis communications firms they can call should a crisis emerge. After all, you wouldn’t want to start interviewing fire fighters as your house burns. This goes for crisis communications teams as well.

Don’t Expect It to Be Cheap

Crisis communications work is not inexpensive. With no plan to follow, those costs only rise.

Remember, you are seeking expertise that public relations agencies don’t always offer. Just as a local, volunteer fire fighter is not inherently qualified to fight massive forest fires, not all PR agencies have the capacity or expertise for crisis communications. In those cases, the Forest Service calls on specialized crews with specialized training and tools—just as you will call on crisis communications experts.

These experienced crisis communicators do a rapid assessment of your actual situation, not just what you believe it to be. This includes identifying the players, looking at your organization’s public history, reviewing media coverage, identifying your internal resources and coordinating with your legal team. They then use their experience and insight to develop a plan to ensure your side of the story is heard clearly by all audiences.

When hired, your crisis communications team commits to being available to you 24/7 until a clear resolution is achieved. Depending on the crisis, that time commitment can be substantial.

This is why reputable crisis firms require an upfront retainer to begin any crisis work, and these retainer rates vary widely.

Rather than asking what that retainer can “get you,” what clients need to consider is how the retainer will be applied. What work will those up-front dollars allow a crisis team to begin on your behalf? Who will populate your crisis team? And what initial steps need to be taken to tamp down any dangerous embers that might spark a bigger fire?

When hiring a crisis team, you are not purchasing a defined set of tactics (i.e., three press releases and a one hour consult). Rather, you are engaging a firm’s time, reputation and established expertise to help guide you through a crisis situation. And as circumstances evolve and change, you’ll have an experienced team helping you navigate the situation as best possible.

Recognize You Must Act Quickly

Some crises you see coming: A pending legal matter. Terminating a disgruntled employee who is likely to cause trouble. Others, just like fires, begin and spread so quickly you don’t realize what happened until it’s over.

Organizational leaders should act quickly when a crisis emerges. What might at first seem trivial can quickly spiral out of control. The faster you move to bring in experts to assess and address a situation, the better prepared you will be if what appears to be a minor situation ends up having major implications.

A recent national news event in my backyard of Philadelphia is a perfect example of underestimating a crisis. What started as an apparent loitering dispute at a downtown Starbucks—in less than 24 hours—turned into a series of street protests and a prolonged national media storm. It has become a PR nightmare for both Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department, both media-savvy organizations. Both have experience at the center of crisis situations within the glare of the media spotlight. Yet neither saw the crisis coming until it was already dominating headlines.

Be Realistic

Creating a crisis communications plan can help you identify risks you didn’t realize you had, and might even help you avoid a future crisis. Not having a crisis plan is the surest way for any organization to guarantee a very expensive crisis when one emerges.

However, even with a plan, you still need a skilled communications team to help. Experienced PR crisis professionals won’t “spin” or lie or cover up. Rather, they will help ensure your organization speaks with one voice and that your side of the situation is related clearly and honestly. This also means you’ll need a plan for what comes after.

A good crisis team cannot remove all potential damage. Sometimes the crisis team isn’t called in until after headlines and news alerts have already blared. Being realistic also means recognizing that after a crisis, there will be clean up work needed to begin to repair the damage that has been done. This doesn’t happen quickly, and certainly not without a plan.

Helping to save reputations, jobs—sometimes the organization itself—isn’t easy, isn’t for amateurs and isn’t cheap. We know because, since our agency’s founding in 1995, crisis communications work has been a hallmark of Kimball Hughes Public Relation’s services. I’ve personally been involved in crisis communications planning and response efforts for nearly 15 years. Our agency president, Gary Kimball, has been leading crisis communications matters since before our company was founded, going back to his corporate communications days in the late 1980s.

Done well, crisis communications can make all the difference and help organizations ultimately get back to their missions.