Life would be much easier if emergencies arrived with fair warning. There would be no need to prepare for them in advance.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Crises come when they're least expected. And, if your organization waits until a crisis hits to start planning, you'll likely fail to avoid catastrophe. This is why a crisis communication plan is a necessity for every company to have before one happens.
In this post, let's discuss what crisis communication is and how you can create a plan to protect your organization in any scenario.
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication refers to the dissemination of information by an organization to address a crisis that impacts customers and/or the organization's reputation.
The idea is that a company's reputation is perceived by everyone who's aware of your company whether you manage your reputation or not. So, it's in a company's best interest to have some input about the narrative. Not only that, but customer satisfaction increases when expectations are transparent.
While crisis communication can be fairly reactive, it helps to have a crisis communication plan in place before you need to use it to make the process easier on your team members.
What is a crisis communication plan?
A crisis communication plan is a set of guidelines used to prepare a business for an emergency or unexpected event. These plans include steps to take when a crisis first emerges, how to communicate with the public, and how to prevent the issue from occurring again.
Crisis communication plans focus on the company's response and how it will communicate a crisis to its stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches employees, partners, customers, media, the general public, and any other valuable stakeholders.
Most importantly, a crisis communication plan helps guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message on all company platforms during a time of crisis. That message depends largely on what the crisis involves and how all parties are affected by it.
Now, you might be wondering, "What constitutes a crisis?" Let's dive into some examples below.
Crisis Scenario Examples
Just about any scenario could manifest as a business crisis that warrants communication from your organization. Some of themost common types of crises include:
- Financial - Financial loss such as announcing a bankruptcy or store closures.
- Personnel - Changes to staff that may affect operations or reputation such as employee furloughs, layoffs, or controversial behavior.
- Organizational - An apology for misconduct or wrongdoing as a result of organizational practices.
- Technological - Technological failure that results in outages causing reduced functionality or functionality loss.
- Natural - Natural crisis that necessitates an announcement or change of procedure. For example, defining safety precautions amid a health crisis.
In addition, anything else you can think of that could stall or halt business continuity is a good example of a crisis that warrants communication with customers and/or the public.
While your communication plan will differ depending on the crisis you're dealing with, below are some common strategies that businesses use to deliver an effective response.
Featured Resource: Crisis Communication Plan Template
Use HubSpot's Crisis Communication Plan Template to build out your company's plan. Included are charts, sections, and prompts to help you document your company's strategy when a crisis hits.
Your messaging when you find yourself in one of these scenarios is crucial to your brand’s reputation. I
Examples of Key Messages in a Crisis Communication Plan
- Financial Crisis: Why the budget restructuring is necessary, how it will save jobs, and show shareholder value.
- Personnel Crisis: Apologize for actions of the individual, reiterate company values, and state the consequence.
- Organizational Crisis: Apologize for deception and state how the matter will be rectified.
- Technological Crisis: State awareness of the problem, apologize for the inconvenience, and that the resolution is underway.
- Natural Crisis: Apologize for disruption and emphasize employee safety before a natural disaster.
1. Financial Crisis: Explain why the budget restructuring is necessary and how it will save jobs or shareholder value.
Let's say a business has to restructure the budget due to a significant loss of demand, something that greatly affects employees in terms of pay or job security. The business will be looking for ways to cut costs, and reducing employee pay seems to aid in covering immediate short-term costs.
Key Message: “We will be reducing employee hours by one day per week. This temporary furlough is expected to last 3 months and is essential to avoid major layoffs. Leadership takes full responsibility for the lack of foresight leading to the churn of a major client, and will ensure more resilient client acquisition in the future.”
Impact: The message prepares employees for changes in compensation beforehand. This way they are given transparency and understanding to avoid more dismay.
2. Personnel Crisis: Apologize for actions of the individual, reiterate company values, and state the consequence.
For example, a chief executive officer is recorded saying unethical, controversial statements that go against the company’s values. The brand’s reputation is at stake because the public, including loyal customers, is shocked and disappointed.
Key Message: “We apologize for the actions of our board member. Their statements do not reflect our company values and they will be met with disciplinary action.”
Impact: This messaging will reassure the public that the actions of the chief executive officer are not being taken lightly. They will trust the brand more than if they said nothing at all, or tried to cover up the details.
3. Organizational Crisis: Apologize for deception and state how the matter will be rectified.
Let's say an acclaimed cruelty-free, vegan brand is caught using animal testing for some of its products. This news causes an outcry from ethically conscious consumers who have chosen to buy from this brand over competitors, infuriated by its deception.
Key Message: “We apologize for breaking your trust, and will live up to our company’s mission by being more transparent about our practices, and discontinuing any cruel testing moving forward.”
Impact: While it may not help retain every customer, many will accept the apology and trust the brand after they become more transparent about production. This impact is much more positive than risking the brand’s reputation altogether by not addressing the matter at all.
4. Technological Crisis: State awareness of the problem, apologize for the inconvenience, and explain that the resolution is underway.
For example, in a scenario where a service provider has equipment go down, that affects thousands of customers. The company is flooded with phone calls with complaints, and the customers are searching for answers.
Key Message: “We have identified a blown circuit that has caused an electric outage affecting many of our customers. We apologize for the inconvenience as our team is working diligently to resolve the problem. We will provide updates as they come to us.”
Impact: Customers will be less frustrated as they know the root of the issue, and will appreciate the timely explanation and update.
5. Natural Crisis: Apologize for disruption and emphasize employee safety before a natural disaster.
Let's say a business operating in a downtown office is made aware of an incoming hurricane developing. Employees are worried about missing work to protect themselves and relocate to a safer area until it runs its course, and customers still want service.
Key Message: “Our business will be closed for the following week in response to the news of the hurricane. We apologize for the operations disruption as we want to ensure the safety of our staff during this time.”
Impact: Employees will be able to prepare for the tumultuous weather and customers will appreciate the notice and plan when to go to the business accordingly.
These are all great examples of how to deliver key messaging for different scenarios, but before the messages would even be created, crisis communication strategies would have to be in place first.
Crisis Communication Strategies
1. Spokesperson Response
When your company makes a mistake, the best thing you can do is to apologize and be human. The most effective way to do that is to assign a spokesperson to speak on your brand's behalf. After all, it's a lot easier to relate to one person than a group of lawyers.
This person could be your CEO, a company executive, or someone you feel is best suited to represent your company. It's important to choose a good communicator as their actions will influence how your key stakeholders will react to the situation. If they can make your company look human and your mistakes appear manageable, that will play a major role in maintaining stakeholder support.
2. Proactive Damage Control
No matter if things are going well now, you should always prepare for a crisis to occur. Don't worry, this doesn't make you a pessimist. Instead, it makes you proactive.
Proactive damage control is what you do to reduce or prevent the effects of a crisis before it occurs. For example, adding security software that records and backs up company data will help you avoid a malware crisis. Additionally, you can train your employees to watch out for suspicious or harmful emails that might reach their inboxes.
At HubSpot, our security team sends out routine training videos to educate employees about different security protocols. The videos are short and the multiple-choice quizzes are so light-hearted that they act as additional learning tools in case you didn't pay close attention to the video. This makes the training easily consumed, and, more importantly, successful in teaching employees how to protect company data.
3. Case Escalation
Sometimes crises can be resolved on the individual level before they reach a viral tipping point. For these cases, it helps to create an escalation system within your customer service team that can diffuse the issue before it gets out of hand.
At HubSpot, we have specialists who work on complex or time-sensitive cases. When customers have needs that require additional attention, our experts intervene to assist. This helps the service rep manage a tricky situation and ensures a more delightful experience for our customers.
4. Social Media Response
Social media is a wonderful marketing tool that allows companies to reach audiences across the globe. But, this reach works both ways, as customers can share stories, post pictures, and upload videos for the world to see. One viral video painting your company in the wrong light can lead to millions of people developing a negative perception of your brand.
Crises are battled both in-person and online. So, your company needs a social media plan that can manage the digital buzz around your business. This may include assigning more reps to monitor your social channels or updating followers with new information. But, regardless of how you use it, social media can't be ignored when your company is working through a crisis.
5. Customer Feedback Collection and Analysis
Sometimes you may have a crisis occurring, but it isn't on the front page of the news or going viral on social media. Instead, it's silently affecting your customers and causing churn, but you're unaware of it because you're not gathering enough feedback from your customers.
Gathering feedback is an excellent way to prevent a crisis. That's because it provides insight into how customers are feeling about your business. This allows you to spot major roadblocks before they escalate into a crisis. And, it allows customers to share negative criticism that you can use to improve other customers' experiences.
When faced with an unhappy or escalated customer, our success team recognizes this as a chance to collect customer feedback. They begin interactions by asking customers to review their experience and discuss any unsatisfactory elements. This helps our team create actionable steps that they can use to align themselves with the customer's needs.
Rachel Grewe, a HubSpot Customer Success rep, explains this strategy in the quote below.
"I open with asking for the opportunity to hear their feedback on their experience, then I make sure to close with actionable next steps for myself and the customer. An escalated customer isn’t always a sign of failure but an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our customer’s success." - Rachel Grewe, HubSpot Customer Success
For some businesses, writing a crisis communication plan can be difficult, so let's follow the steps below to get started.
Crisis Communication and Management Kit
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How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan
1. Identify the goal of the plan.
Before you begin, your team should determine what the objective of the plan is. It can be as simple as: "This plan creates a structure for communicating with internal and external stakeholders, in the event of a crisis that affects the reputation or normal business functions of the organization." This ensures every aspect of your plan aligns with this common goal.
2. Identify stakeholders.
When writing the plan, it's important to know who the plan is designed for. Outline a list of all stakeholders you'd want to keep informed about the crisis.
This list probably includes employees, customers and users, partners, investors, media outlets, the government, and the general public. The latter likely includes social media followers or people located nearby in the event of a location-based crisis. You should also add all necessary contact information for each of these groups in your plan.
3. Create a hierarchy for sharing information on the crisis.
The person or team that reports a crisis doesn't always handle crisis communications. So, a part of the plan should be dedicated to forming a hierarchy outlining how information should be shared within the company. That way, no matter who notices the crisis emerging, they'll know whom to go to first.
This order depends on the structure of your team. The first step may be to notify the CEO or president of the organization, followed by the head of communications or public relations. The plan should also constitute what information should immediately be disclosed to these parties. This might include known details about the crisis, the source of the incident, and any existing backlash
4. Assign people to create fact sheets.
Your plan should detail which people on the team are in charge of creating fact sheets about the crisis. Fact sheets are lists of known facts about the crisis. They prevent rumors or misinterpretations from spreading to media outlets.
Additionally, you should set a deadline for when these fact sheets will be prepared. Depending on the crisis, you may need them within 24 hours, six hours, or even 30 minutes.
5. Identify and assess example crisis scenarios.
When a crisis does happen, you will likely feel overwhelmed. Your mind will race and you will feel pressured to respond to phone calls, social media mentions, and media inquiries.
This is why it's best to outline common scenarios in advance. Some types of crises that may affect your organization are natural disasters, disruptions in normal business functions, customer or employee injuries, and product tampering.
6. Identify and answer common questions.
During any crisis -- no matter how big or small -- people are going to ask questions. Whether they are customer advocates or reporters, the public will want to uncover the truth. After all, in most cases, companies are seen as guilty until proven innocent.
Crisis communication plans can help you identify and answer questions that you can expect to be asked during your crisis scenarios. For instance, if a natural disaster strikes your headquarters, some questions you may get asked are, "Was anyone injured in the incident?" and "How long will it take for the business to return to normal functionality?"
7. Identify potential risks.
No matter how well-thought-out your crisis communication plan is, there are always going to be pros and cons. Naturally, you'll stick with the plan that maximizes benefits while minimizing costs. However, the costs are still important to consider.
Under each plan, you should list out the potential risks you'll face. That way, if the plan does backfire, you won't be caught off guard. You will have prepared yourself and aid out steps for recuperating from these additional losses.
8. Create guidelines specific to social media.
Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. To offer as much transparency as possible, teams should focus on preparing press materials and sharing information about the crisis. The more information you retain, the more the public will want to know what you're hiding.
Reactive communication is just as important. Team members must be focused on social monitoring during a time of crisis. Any negative social media mentions should be dealt with immediately and with consistency. There should be sections of your plan dedicated solely to social media crisis management.
Now that you know how to craft your crisis communication plan, check out the following examples to get some added inspiration for your writing process.
Crisis Communication Plan Examples
- University crisis communication plan
- Fatal accident crisis communication plan
- Unexpected crisis communication plan
- School crisis communication plan
- Restaurant crisis communication plan
- False accusation crisis communication plan
- Could go either way crisis communication plan
- Changed tactics crisis communication plan
- Coming together crisis communication plan
- Hold the line crisis communication plan
1. University Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
In a university crisis communication plan, it's essential to focus on crises that may affect normal school and administrative functions. For instance, my college always emails students if a dangerous incident occurs on or near campus and gives us a list of tips to remain safe. Universities also plan for crises such as marches or protests, injuries or deaths of community members, and bad press relating to the school.
The University of Washington has an extensive crisis communication plan geared towards preserving the safety and security of community members. As a university, the main audiences for communication include students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, as well as visitors, temporary residents, the general public, and media.
2. Fatal Accident Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Spokesperson Response
Southwest has consistently been one of the safest airlines in the world. However, that doesn't mean the company doesn't experience accidents.
On Flight 1380, an engine malfunction resulted in the death of a passenger and was recorded as the company's first in-flight fatality. The company's CEO, Gary Kelly, immediately responded to the situation by offering a sincere, heartfelt apology to the victim's family. He then pulled all advertising from their social media channels and made personal phone calls to passengers offering support and counseling resources.
While it's hard to consider grim crises like these, they do occur and impact businesses. Even though Southwest had never encountered an accident like this before, the CEO was prepared for this situation and demonstrated genuine remorse both through his words and his company's actions.
3. Unexpected Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Spokesperson
If you're familiar with Tide Pods, then you might remember that trend when people were eating them -- yes, eating. As you could imagine, participants of this fad got sick from consuming laundry detergent and Tide had to release a campaign warning customers not to consume its product. Safe to say, the company's marketing team didn't expect this issue to come across their desks.
Nevertheless, the team got to work and came up with an ingenious response to the crisis. They paired up with former NFL player, Rob Gronkowski, to release a PSA to its customers. You can check out one of these videos below.
This example proves it's hard to “expect the unexpected,” but when the unexpected does occur, your team needs to act swiftly to resolve the issue.
4. School Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
Similar to universities, schools need to deal with crises efficiently, especially if they impact the normal class schedule. Since schools deal with children, parents and guardians must be made aware of any situations that could affect the education, safety, or health of their kids.
The Virginia Department of Education has created a lengthy management plan including crisis communications. The plan highlights various crises that would require communication with parents -- such as a school bus accident -- and gives letter templates that can be quickly sent out.
5. Restaurant Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Social Media Response
In 2018, restaurant chain, KFC, got into an awkward situation when it ran out of chicken to serve its customers. Having built its brand on its 11-spice fried chicken recipe, this was a crisis that the company probably didn't plan for.
But, KFC's marketing team quickly got to work and was able to put a positive spin on the situation. They released videos and tweets like the one below that light-heartedly apologized for the shortage and showed off the brand's humility.
This is why a crisis communication plan is essential for restaurants. Some scenarios you'll want to plan for are the spread of food-borne illness, unsanitary working conditions, and, of course, delivery issues affecting food supply.
6. False Accusation Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
Some crises occur when customers tamper with products and try to create media attention or drum up a lawsuit. This was a major problem in the early 1990s when Pepsi cans were being tampered with in stores. Customers in over 20 states reported that they found sharp objects in their cans when drinking Pepsi.
While the public's initial reaction was negative, the company stuck to its communication plan and assured customers that the canning process was tamper-proof. Marketers released videos of the canning process and invited reporters to tour their facilities. Once the FDA cleared Pepsi and surveillance videos were catching people putting objects in cans, the media and general public agreed the crisis was a hoax.
You can review the full story in the video below.
7. Could Go Either Way Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis communication strategy: Find the funny
In 2011 a social media specialist for the American Red Cross posted a tweet on the organization’s official account that was meant for her personal page:
The Red Cross had several options here: They could have simply deleted the tweet, or they could have issued a statement about their employee’s behavior indicating that she would be reprimanded and make a public apology.
Because the potential crisis was relatively minor, however, the organization leaned into the humor with this reply:
The result? A quickly defused situation with minimal impact all around. The lesson? When it comes to crisis communication, it’s important not to overreact. Jumping to conclusions can sometimes have the opposite effect intended and make a small issue into a big problem.
8. Changed Tactics Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis communication strategy: Change course
No list of crisis communication examples would be complete without mentioning United Airlines. Already under pressure for less-than-stellar customer service, the 2017 video of Dr. David Dao being dragged out of his seat when the airline overbooked put United into a tailspin.
Their first response? Not great. United’s CEO tried to blame Dao, calling him “belligerent” and “disruptive”. Not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the public, and #boycottUnited hashtags began trending. The company then did an about-face, took full responsibility, and pointed to changes being made. While their image did stabilize over time, the changed tactics strategy is a good example of what not to do when a crisis comes up.
9. Coming Together Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis communication strategy: Create a community
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group faced a serious crisis when its Virgin Galactic test flight crashed in 2014, killing one pilot and injuring the other. Not only did the crash set back Virgin Galactic's plan for space tourism, but the incident had the potential to derail the entire industry.
Branson and Virgin managed to avoid this fate, however, by immediately sharing details of the crash and connecting with the families of both pilots. The company took full responsibility for the crash and Branson flew to the crash site. Instead of shutting down the Virgin Galactic program, the company doubled down its efforts by rallying the community with the message that although space travel is difficult, it’s ultimately worth it.
10. Hold the Line Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis communication strategy: Weather the storm
In 2017, a man named Bradley Reid asked a question on Cracker Barrel’s corporate website: He wanted to know why his wife had been let go from her 11-year manager position at one of the company’s Indiana locations.
The social media firestorm came quickly, with #JusticeForBradsWife trending and other brands posting signs that they would be happy to hire Brad’s wife.
Cracker Barrel’s response? Silence. The public never learned the circumstances of Brad’s wife’s job loss, and after a few months the crisis blew over. In this case, weathering the storm worked for Cracker Barrel, in part because the issue revolved around a single person and their specific circumstances. Speaking up — even if the job loss was benign — could have resulted in questions about personal privacy and also put the company on the defensive. Instead, they chose to wait out the storm.
The Crisis Communication Plan Template
It can be difficult to get your crisis communication plan started from scratch. That’s why we’ve created a three-part Crisis Communication Plan Template to help you navigate the process.
1. Create an incident response team
First up? Create a core incident response team and broadly define their responsibilities when a communications crisis occurs. Create a list of everyone on this team along with their email and phone number in addition to a group email or chat that can be used to activate the entire team at once. Then, build a greater response team to help support the core group. This may include departments such as customer support, legal, social media, C-suite executives, and security.
Regularly reevaluate these lists to keep them current and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
2. Identify roles and responsibilities
Next, identify the roles and responsibilities of each team member in the core group and those in greater departmental response teams. For example, you might assign one member of your core team the job of managing social media communications, while another may be tasked with drafting a public statement.
Departments such as social media, meanwhile, should each have their own crisis contact with their own set of responsibilities — such as creating a larger-scale campaign to minimize public fallout.
3. Implement an escalation framework
Crisis response comes with substantive stress: Companies must act quickly to resolve issues without making things worse. As a result, it’s worth implementing an escalation framework to help guide your response:
Step 1: Alert
Ensure that all relevant team members are notified ASAP. Define specific communications channels for this process.
Step 2: Assess
Assess the severity of the incident and your potential response. Key questions to ask include: What happened? Where and when? Who was affected and involved? How much do we know?
Step 3: Activate
With the initial assessment complete, activate the relevant team members and their department contacts to help begin the crisis management process. The first steps might include calling an all-hands meeting, responding to immediate media inquiries, and drafting communications to customers and other affected stakeholders.
Step 4: Administer
Crisis communication persists over a few weeks or months. As a result, it’s critical to continually monitor what’s happening and what’s changing to ensure communication is administered effectively.
Step 5: Adjourn
When the worst of the crisis has passed, regroup your team to debrief how the crisis was handled, what outcomes occurred, and what changes could be made to improve overall response. It’s also worth having at least one staff member regularly monitor the situation in case another response is required.
Talking the Talk — and Walking the Walk
When a crisis occurs, communication is the first step. Companies need to create response plans that prioritize clear and transparent communication that is sincere and direct but still respects staff and customer privacy.
But talk isn’t enough in isolation. Businesses need dedicated teams to help them walk the walk by taking ownership for actions, making amends where possible, and creating customer confidence in companies’ commitment to change.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.