From Mad Cow Disease to Cyber Security Breaches, Lessons in Crisis Communications

February 8, 2017

I have dealt with a few crisis situations during my career and no matter how much you prepare or how deep your experience, “we are in crisis mode” are still the most dreaded words you will hear, or say, as a PR person.

Fortunately, during our All Hands company meeting in Denver last week (see post: #1BarokasPR – Highlights of our Mile High Meet), we had the opportunity to learn a few tips and tricks from industry experts.

Our panel of industry experts included Michelle Baum, Steve Krizman and Michele Murray. Their crisis experience spans the gamut, but most notably, one of our panel members dealt first hand with the Mad Cow Disease crisis (I haven’t been able to eat beef since).

They all provided great insights into the best ways to identify if you are in fact in a crisis or simply dealing with an issue, and the best strategies to execute if a crisis is imminent. The three things that stood out most to me include:


Crisis Philosophy
Before a crisis, draft a Crisis Philosophy Statement – something you can refer back to that guides actions during an intense, tough situation. It’s essentially a mission/vision statement for the characteristics you and your company want to embody during a crisis.


Keep the crisis to 24-48 hours
Customers and stakeholders want to hear from the company as soon as possible otherwise, they’ll start to make up their own scenarios. That doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers, but communicating that you are aware and working to resolve the issue is called a ‘holding statement’ and is the first step. Addressing the crisis head on and working to bring the situation to a close, allows you to limit the crisis to a 24-48 hour cycle, also known as ‘containing the timeline.’


Avoid Absolutes
Once you begin communicating to the public, your verbal and written statements will be referred to until the cycle ends. Avoid using absolutes such as ‘we always…’, ‘we never…’, because things will evolve and change throughout the process and if you give misinformation, it will look like you’re hiding or covering something up.


Be proactive, even if you don’t have to
There are too many cautionary tales of companies thinking they can sweep something under the rug only to have it blow up in their faces later. It’s always in your best interest to be proactive and communicative even if you don’t think you have to.


When initiating a response, you should:

  • Be honest and accurate
  • Provide updates on the recovery process
  • Announce the cause as soon as it is known
  • Tell stakeholders what actions will prevent crisis from happening again
  • Identify and promote third-party support—if there is data or research that supports your efforts, be sure to utilize the third-party support to help strengthen your recovery process


When a crisis hits, it’s not uncommon to forget everything you know and practiced. It’s reported that in a crisis you only use 20% of your brain. So, take a deep breath before making any emotional decisions, refer back to your Crisis Philosophy and have your team ready to initiate your crisis plan.


Navigating a crisis is a tough job for everyone involved and it’s naive to think you and your company are absolved from ever dealing with this type of situation. Take the time to prepare, practice and most importantly, use your PR team.







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