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Crisis Communication: Navigating Turbulent Waters with Clarity

Explore the art of crisis communication in our comprehensive post, delving into practical stages to craft a resilient crisis communication plan.
Written by: Penny Swift
crisis communication
Published: October 17, 2023
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In today’s unpredictable world, clarity in communication is essential – more so in times of crisis. All too often people don’t communicate effectively simply because of a lack of well-defined communication goals and supporting key messages. 

Forbes Insights and Deloitte undertook a joint survey to establish the state of crisis readiness in large organizations. Their report, A crisis of confidence shows that even though many companies have strong communication plans that reach out to their key audiences, a large percentage fail to prepare day-to-day crisis messages. They are aware of the threats a crisis brings but lack the preparation to handle them. 

They surveyed 317 non-executive board members from various parts of the world and found that fewer than half (49%) had discussed crisis prevention with management. A similar number (47%) felt their organizations had the processes or capabilities to “meet a crisis with the best possible outcomes.”  

Yet, any crisis demands a high degree of organization, coordination, and communication. 

“No board should go without a clear expectation of what questions it expects executives to answer, what steps it expects executives to take, and what lines of communication will have to be clear in a future moment when nothing else is.” A crisis of confidence

This post dives into the realm of crisis communication, unpacking its underlying principles and showcasing the importance of having a robust and comprehensive communication plan. We will share real-life examples and delve into the various stages of crisis communication. Ultimately, we will suggest ways that organizations can create their own communication plan so they can tackle crises and critical situations promptly and effectively.

Understanding Crisis Communication

Crises commonly involve a volatile combination of public action and reaction. In a business environment, this usually relates to the action and reaction of employees and customers. Knowing that people often fail to communicate because there aren’t clear crisis communication goals should trigger organizations to set goals. But to do this effectively, it is essential to understand what crisis communication involves and what effective crisis management entails.

What is Crisis Communication?

Crisis communication is an essential element of crisis management. It involves the exchange of information between the organization and its public to control the narrative during a crisis scenario. These may include customers, employees, shareholders, and even the media, government agencies, as well as the general public. The process may involve interacting with any of them with the aim of minimizing damage to the organization’s reputation and maintaining business continuity.

A 2022 Capterra’s Crisis Communications Survey found that only 49% of U.S. companies surveyed have a formal crisis communication plan. This is in keeping with the findings of the Forbes Insights and Deloitte survey mentioned above. But Capterra found that an additional 28% have an informal crisis management plan. Alarmingly, the rest either didn’t have a crisis communication plan or weren’t sure if there was one.  

crisis communication plan

The Forbes-Deloitte survey found that only 41% of those surveyed said their organizations had clearly defined coordination/communication plans. These plans varied, but more than half did include employee and customer outreach. Less than half had prepared messages on hand for the press and/or social media. This is a critical failure that can have wide-reaching repercussions.

In any crisis communication plan, formal or informal, there are key elements that will determine the effectiveness of the response. These include establishing a communication strategy, maintaining consistency, transparency, and honesty, as well as a timely response. The aim is to retain public or overall employee trust while managing the crisis until it’s over.  

Essential Elements of Effective Crisis Communication

The essential elements of effective crisis communication can be defined in numerous ways. For example, many people find it useful to base strategies on the 5 Cs of crisis communication. These are commonly defined as concern, commitment, competency, clarity, and confidence. Also known as the 5C model for crisis communication, it provides a well-organized framework that guarantees communication will be clear, timely, and empathetic. By understanding the crisis, orchestrating efforts, working closely with stakeholders, delivering effective messages, and validating their impact, organizations can establish trust, and focus on effective crisis management.

There are others who value the 5 Rs of crisis communication that look at responses the other way around. These are responsibility, regret, resolution, restitution, and reform. 

Others like to focus on the four pillars of crisis management: being proactive, monitoring the situation, taking action, and both reviewing and learning. 

Ultimately, as a leader, you need to be sure to stay positive, demonstrate concern, focus on strength, and convey your integrity. You don’t want to lie or tell half-truths. Transparency and honesty are essential, so don’t react impulsively. You don’t want to be offensive or be part of speculations. When it comes to media comments, never so “no comment!” This indicates an unwillingness to be candid and implies you know more than you are willing to share. The same applies to employees. Don’t ignore them. Rather make sure they know what’s going on and that they are aware of management responses and actions. 

You need to be honest and accurate, to deliver key messages, state conclusions together with supporting data, and offer to get the information you don’t have. Stress the facts, and if you can’t discuss issues, say why you can’t. 

Another crucial aspect is that you need to follow a strategic crisis management plan.

Effective Practices and Principles of Crisis Management Plans

A good tactical crisis management plan will be both simple and sophisticated. But you need to identify and formulate this in advance. Effective crisis communication plays an important role at each stage of a three-tiered approach that involves an operational, management, and communications response:  

  1. An operational response will identify a response procedure together with responsibilities and escalation. There needs to be an understanding that the situation will be assessed at the beginning of the crisis. Then there will be management and communications updates. 
  2. A management response ascertains and communicates facts and takes corrective action. At the same time it needs to focus on a rapid response that shows management is listening to conversations. Equally, it is vital to show care, commitment, and compassion.
  3. A communications response provides responsive, candid, and open communication that keeps employees informed and assured. It is vital to provide authoritative information regularly and to make sure that it is factual and accurate. It also needs to be confirmed by reliable sources. 
crisis management

There is no doubt that having a crisis management plan that features a well-crafted communication plan template is crucial. It will ensure that, whether you’re a small business owner, CEO of a large corporation, or a member of a customer service team at a fast food outlet, you are well prepared to efficiently handle a crisis.

Who Needs Crisis Communication?

Essentially, all organizations need crisis communication. This is because risks are inherent in all business operations and situations can unexpectedly spiral into crises. The Center for Creative Leadership has found through its research that every leader, regardless of level, must learn the art of communication as a fundamental skill. Furthermore, all leaders need to know how to communicate in a crisis.

They have also identified four fundamental executive communication skills:

  1. Self-awareness, which assesses a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, natural abilities, and opportunities.
  2. Communication, which is embedded in core leadership skills including participative management. 
  3. Influence, which implies working effectively with those over whom a leader doesn’t have authority. 
  4. Learning agility, which requires constant acquisition of knowledge including recognizing and learning from mistakes. 
Crisis Communication: Navigating Turbulent Waters with Clarity

Crisis Communication Strategy Guidelines

Perhaps ironically, COVID-19 epidemic spurred governments and organizations to create effective crisis communication plans to respond to the channels presented by the coronavirus. 

At the time, McKinsey & Company developed a strategy to help organizations communicate about this natural, global crisis. A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19, highlights five behaviors to help leaders master effective crisis communication.

  1. Provide people with the information they need when they need it.
  2. Maintain frequent communication and keep it clear and simple.
  3. Choose candor over charisma and be honest and transparent to gain trust.
  4. Stress the positives to revitalize resilience and restore confidence.
  5. Establish a clear vision to help people make sense of the crisis. “The crisis will end.”

While these guidelines clearly apply to the epidemic, they can be used in any form of crisis management. 

Crisis Communication: Navigating Turbulent Waters with Clarity

Types of Crises that Need Effective Crisis Communication

There are different types of crises, all of which need some type of crisis communication plan. 

Natural Crises

Natural crises are triggered by uncontrollable natural elements that result in earthquakes, floods, wildfires, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tidal waves. They invariably cause significant damage and present enormous challenges. These range from human and material losses to operational disruptions and market upheaval. Despite their unpredictability in terms of timing and severity, organizations can prepare by implementing contingency plans with effective emergency notification and communication strategies.

A “super El Niño” season in 2023 has led to an enormous increase in tropical storms and hurricanes that have resulted in untold damage. Hurricane Idalia, which hit the southeastern U.S. in August, is dubbed a “billion-dollar storm” having resulted in more than $2-billion in damages. There has also been ongoing damage from powerful tornadoes, with 2023 predicted to have one of the highest fatalities on record. 

These and other natural disasters continue to test the preparedness of government and local organizations, highlighting the critical importance of crisis management in the face of natural disasters.

Confrontation Crises

Confrontation crises are deliberately provoked by individuals or groups aiming to assert their demands and expectations. These instigators can be drawn from the general public, activists, protesters, or even employees. Tactics employed to incite a confrontation crisis may include boycotts, blockades, and attempts to involve the media and the public, drawing attention to perceived negative aspects of an organization. 

While wars are major confrontation crises, here we are focused on crises that affect businesses. As an example, internal unrest and confrontation from employees was something that Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook faced in 2021. As the New York Times reported at the time, it all started with employee concerns ranging from pay equity issues to whether the company should take a stand on certain political matters. The issue that took center stage was secrecy that created a culture to discourage employees from sharing their workplace concerns. 

Two years later, in January 2023, a federal labor board determined that Apple’s rules violated workers’ rights.  

Workplace Violence Crises

Workplace violence crises are sparked by acts of violence, harassment, and discrimination committed by current or former employees against their colleagues within an organization. It’s important to note that workplace violence encompasses not only physical harm but also mental harassment and various forms of mistreatment. 

The International Labor Organization highlights constant workplace violence crises that happen globally. They state that “violence is rapidly becoming an everyday reality for many workers” in a wide range of industries. Interestingly, they highlight that “shrouding it in silence and secrecy is counter-productive.” By all accounts, that’s what Apple did. While thankfully not violent, Apple’s approach led to crises that impacted everything about the company, from employees to management, and probably the bottom line. A workplace violence crisis does the same. 

Implementing Crisis Communication Strategies

Any crisis management strategy needs to consider the steps to take before a crisis, during the crisis, and when it has ended. It is also essential to decide what, when, and how you will communicate at all stages of the crisis. 

Pre-Crisis Phase: The Role of Planning and Preparedness

The pre-crisis phase involves creating a crisis management plan. Using crisis communication management plan templates can make this task easier. Ideally, these documents will outline the steps that need to be taken before, during, and after a crisis. 

The pre-crisis planning phase also involves assigning and training a crisis management team that will leap into action when there is a crisis. Since there is often not much, if any, warning that a crisis is about to happen, it’s important to have exercises regularly that test the plan in advance. 

At the same time, a good pre-crisis plan will help to prevent future crises from happening.  

Mid-Crisis Phase: Managing and Delivering Information

During the crisis, it’s important to monitor the situation closely. Team members assigned to various tasks should provide regular updates, which must be communicated quickly and clearly to the relevant parties. These communications may take a variety of forms from press releases to social media posts, and teleconferences. Internal email is also invaluable.

Crisis Communication: Navigating Turbulent Waters with Clarity

It is important to monitor a crisis situation carefully and to provide stress and trauma counseling if needed. 

According to the Forbes-Deloitte survey, in companies with robust crisis communication strategies, the key elements of their plans included engaging with their employees (71%), connecting with their customer base (63%), and reaching out to crucial stakeholders (53%).

Post-Crisis Phase: Evaluating the Approach and Adapting to Changes

Crises do end, and after any crisis, organizations need to evaluate the effectiveness of their crisis management practices. Using a crisis performance grading template can be helpful during this review. The outcome of this assessment may necessitate changes to the crisis communication plan, aimed at improving future responses. 

The Capterra survey mentioned above states that 98% of business leaders who activated their crisis communications plan said it was effective. Quite a high percentage of these (77%) said it was very effective.

How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan

1. Identify the goal of the plan.

The goal of any crisis communication plan is to maintain trust in the organization during a crisis. It should aim to limit damage to the business and provide guidelines for managing information flow.

2. Identify stakeholders.

Stakeholders include anyone who could be impacted by a crisis. This may include employees, customers, investors, and the local community. Their concerns and how they receive information should be carefully considered when drafting the plan.

3. Create a hierarchy for sharing information on the crisis.

Decide who should communicate what information, to whom, when, and through which channels. This helps to ensure consistency and accuracy in information dissemination.

4. Assign people to create fact sheets.

Fact sheets are a good way to provide relevant and appropriate information about the crisis and the organization’s response to it. These must be easy to understand and readily accessible.

5. Identify and assess example crisis scenarios.

Understanding the possible crises that your organization might face can help you prepare more effectively. By assessing potential scenarios, you can make your plan more comprehensive and responsive.

6. Identify and answer common questions.

During a crisis, people will likely have many concerns and questions. Anticipating what these might be and providing clear, concise answers in your plan can save time and foster trust.

7. Identify potential risks.

Determine the possible risks faced by your organization due to the crisis. These could be anything from data breaches to product recalls and employee misconduct. Recognizing potential risks will help your team tailor an effective crisis communication plan.

8. Create guidelines specific to social media.

Social media can be a double-edged sword during a crisis. It allows for immediate, wide-spread communication, but can quickly become harmful if not properly managed. It is vital to have a clear set of social media guidelines in any crisis communication plan.

Communicate Your Plan with the Right Communication Platform 

The assurance of knowing that all employees, no matter their location or desk/email status, are getting information during a crisis offers significant peace of mind. 

With Cerkl Broadcast, it won’t matter whether they are desk-based, deskless, email-less, remote, or working on site. This is because you can use a variety of connected channels to suit every individual employee’s needs, including mobile phones. You’ll be able to send important communications and know with confidence they are reaching the right people.

With Broadcast Manager, you can send real-time crisis communication updates to your chosen channels at the same time. For instance, your messages will be sent across your intranet, mobile app, emails, and employee newsletter, depending on which is relevant for each employee. A highly effective cross-channel strategy will ensure you don’t bombard them via multiple channels.   

Also, if you are interested in exploring more types of communication within the organization, we’ve prepared a comprehensive post on the Top 20 Types of Internal Communication. 

What’s Next?

If you don’t have a crisis communication plan or the one you have isn’t likely to be effective, now’s the time to do something about it. The Cerkl team is ready to help you design the best crisis communication strategy to suit your business. 



What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is the transmission of information and responses between organizations and those affected by the crisis.

Why is crisis communication important?

Crisis communication is a crucial part of crisis management that ensures everybody knows what’s happening and what they need to do. It is used to reassure people and restore confidence however difficult the stresses and trauma of a crisis may be.

What are the 5 Cs of crisis communication?

The 5 Cs of crisis communication are concern, commitment, competency, clarity, and confidence. They are pointers leaders can use to develop an effective crisis management plan.

How do you communicate in a crisis?

There are many ways to communicate in a crisis. Possible channels include everything from mobile phones and face-to-face communication to emails, social media posts, and employee newsletter. Ideally, choose a communication platform that accommodates every need whether employees are working on site or in a remote location.

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