Mastering Crisis Communications in 5 Simple Steps

The communications landscape has changed profoundly over the last two decades. Declining ad revenues and shrinking newsrooms have caused a paradigm shift in journalism, at the same time that social media platforms have empowered everyone to become their own publisher and speak directly to an audience. 

In this constantly evolving media environment, a viral video on social media can reach a larger audience than a well-researched investigative report. This presents a series of new challenges and liabilities for businesses and individuals facing a crisis. 

Effective crisis management can be distilled into a set of principles. These best practices will help your team prepare your organization to act quickly and methodically when crisis strikes. 

Step 1: Train your staff to field reporter calls 

If a PR crisis hits, your organization may receive calls from members of the press seeking comment. It is absolutely critical that team members are trained on the proper protocol before a crisis. 

For inbound calls – as well as inquires sent via email and social media— inform  your staff never to provide statements to the media, nor to divulge the identities of clients or disclose any business interests, even if unintentional. They should have a message prepared to deliver over the phone. For example, train employees to say “I am not an authorized spokesperson for our company. I will give your information to my supervisor.” 

Team members must also gather basic information about the caller, including the individuals’ name, media outlet, contact information, and publishing deadline. Under an effective crisis management protocol, this information will be forwarded to supervisors immediately. Once at the C-Suite level, you should immediately loop in your public relations firm, which will help manage the crisis, craft a response, and designate a group of spokespeople who can speak on behalf of your organization.

Step 2: Get familiar with journalistic jargon

Properly managing a public relations crisis requires understanding the language used by reporters and the parameters of any interview. When it comes to jargon, nearly all journalists use the same set of terms. While not legally binding, violating the parameters of an interview is seen within journalism as a serious offense. 

Many of these terms have made their way into the popular lexicon. If you opt to speak “on the record,” for example, means anything you say to a can be quoted directly. When speaking “off the record,” your statements cannot be quoted, referenced, or used in any way. 

There’s also a strategic middle ground between these two parameters. If you grant an interview in which you do not want to be quoted, you can request to speak “on background,” which means that the reporter can use what you say for their research, but not cite you directly or indirectly. A “for attribution” interview means the reporter can quote anything you say, but not publish your name. In other words, you will likely be referred to as a “high-level official” or a “source close to the matter.”

Understanding these small, yet significant differences is important for effectively navigating an interview. You must set these parameters before the interview begins so as to not cause confusion or uncertainty regarding the terms of the conversation. As a final note, most reporters ask ahead for permission to record interviews. While there are positives and negatives to allowing a recording, more often than not you should do so. It will make your remarks less likely to be taken of out context or misrepresented entirely. 

Step 3: Practice Makes Perfection

Responding to crisis, especially under pressure, comes with a unique set of challenges that can often bring out our worst instincts.  You have to practice.  

The best way to practice this skill is to create scenarios that would warrant a crisis response and role play them with your employees in real time. Consider incorporating a series of improvised response drills into your staff training as you would with any other emergency. This will test your team’s ability to manage the crisis quickly and effectively.


One way to test your team’s response is to recruit someone outside of your organization to call and pretend to be a reporter in search of a statement on clients or internal affairs. Make sure that the individuals within your firm most likely to answer incoming calls are the ones to take the request. Create a checklist documenting staff performance at every stage of the drill. Did your team member first inform the caller of being unauthorized to provide comment? Did this individual ask for the caller’s name, outlet, contact information and deadline? And was the message forwarded to the correct manager in a timely manner? 

Then evaluate if the managers who received this request promptly contacted your PR firm. Practice these scenarios frequently and unannounced so as to create a real-world experience. Similar in purpose to an earthquake or fire drill, practice will create muscle memory needed to lead an effective response.  

Step 4: Invest in Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is all about prevention. 

Your company’s reputation could be threatened by a stealthy hacker or data breach just as easily as it could by an inquisitive journalist’s story. You should invest in cybersecurity measures to mitigate crises before they wreak havoc on your brand. 

There are actionable steps you can take to protect yourself from bad actors online. This starts with taking stock of your own vulnerabilities. Conduct a cybersecurity audit with an expert in the field to evaluate your system architecture from top to bottom and identify major risk areas, including weak passwords, unprotected Wi-Fi networks, and vulnerable servers.

Your data in the cloud could also be at risk, exposing potential liabilities if not properly secured. Investing in a highly-qualified vendor to implement strong security procedures helps avoid crises before they even occur, saving you time, money, stress and potential reputational damage.

Step 5: Timing is Everything

Mere minutes often determine the difference between an effective crisis response and a public relations nightmare. Reporters work on tight deadlines and rarely stall publishing while they wait for an official statement. Crises that play out in digital media—whether on a publication’s website or on social media—are unconstrained by the logistics of print and tend to break even more quickly The speed with which you respond is as important as the message you convey.

This is why it’s critical to loop in your company’s PR firm as soon as a media request is placed. PR representatives are a professional resource at your disposal and you should use them to your advantage. The more time stakeholders have to mobilize around a cohesive and thoughtful response, the more likely it is to yield the best possible impact for your company.

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