· 14 min read · December 18, 2023

How to Create a Crisis Communication Plan (Updated for COVID-19)

Mikko Koskinen
HR & Recruitment Manager at Smarp

Editor's note: This post on creating a crisis communication plan was originally written in 2017. Although a few years have passed, the fundamentals remain the same. We've updated the topic with an e-book covering crisis communication during the coronavirus, or COVID-19, which you can download here.

Crisis management is hardly exclusive to big business. Small firms—especially in the age of the ubiquitous internet—are also able to make use of this knowledge.

The first rule to dealing with any crisis reads that “prevention is better than cure.” A disaster (even a small-scale one) can cost the company a lot—from lost sales and compensation to the time of those who are handling the crisis and finally to the “unmeasurable” damage to the reputation. It is, therefore, better to have the procedures to prevent a crisis in place than to cope with it later.

You can find them in our crisis communication plan .pdf e-book, which was prepared together with Michelle Garrett, a renowned PR expert, and recently updated for 2020 and COVID-19.

Learn everything you need to prepare for a crisis:

  • Why you need to have a crisis communication plan in place
  • Steps in a crisis communication plan
  • How to apologize if your brand messes up
  • Crisis communications planning tips from the pros

With major brands from Pepsi to United finding themselves in hot water, the crises of 2017 have shined a spotlight on why planning ahead for one of these scenarios is so important. It brings a new appreciation for what crisis communications and PR pros do. If we can take any lessons from these situations, it’s that EVERY business really needs to have a plan in place in the event of a crisis.

[Editorial note: What is Public Relations? A Comprehensive PR Guide]

When you think about your business, can you anticipate a crisis that might arise? An inappropriate social media post or tweet. A mishandling of a situation with a customer. A public safety issue. And the list goes on. The truth is that anything can happen at any time.

And with social media, news travels fast—be it good or bad. The last thing you want is to allow a situation to fester without a response directly from you. This can make a bad scenario worse.

So what can we do?

If we plan ahead and proactively think through crises that might befall our businesses, we can be much better prepared to handle these situations appropriately.

Let’s take United as an example. They had the biggest PR crisis of 2017 when a passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight. The response from the public was swift—and furious. The airline quickly found itself in the midst of a major public backlash.

But, the way United handled it helped feed the fire. Given, the video of the incident was undeniably horrific. There was no way around that. However, the way the brand reacted could’ve used some serious reworking.

Had the airline apologized immediately and taken steps to help make the situation right, the backlash might have been far less in magnitude. Instead, it took three attempts to get it right. By then, the damage had been done.

On the other hand, we have Adidas. When they made a misstep by sending an inappropriate email regarding the Boston marathon (“Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon”), they were quick to admit the mistake and apologize, taking full responsibility for the incident and not making excuses.

So, what’s the lesson here? Of course, we’re not all United. But, are we in denial about the odds that we’ll find our businesses in the midst of a crisis? If so, let’s not bury our heads in the sand. This only makes us look guilty—even if it was a simple misunderstanding that caused the issue.

Getting out in front of the story before it blows up is in your best interest. The way to do that is to be prepared. Have a plan, even if it’s a simple one. What will you say? Who will say it? What other steps will you take? Think through the possible scenarios. Talk through it with your communications team.

What’s the old saying—“Forewarned is forearmed?” There is no excuse in today’s world to NOT be ready for the worst. 2017 has shown us that even if we believe the worst can’t happen—it can. And sometimes does.

What Belongs in a Crisis Communications Plan?

Planning is the best way to be sure you’re prepared. The crisis response plan should address at least the basics so that WHEN (not if, but when) a crisis occurs, you’re ready to hit the ground running to contain the damage before it spirals out of control. It could make the difference between a minor crisis blowing up into a major disaster for your brand.

If you’re thinking about putting together a crisis communications plan for your business, where do you start? Here are the basics to consider:

Select a crisis team

This should include various departments across the company, such as management, communications, legal, HR, and operations. For smaller companies, this may be simple, as the owner assumes many of these responsibilities. It can raise important points, for example, making sure you have an attorney in place should you need one.

Of course, the communications piece is critical, so if this isn’t your strong suit, make sure you have someone to call on for help. For example, we’ve seen brands digging themselves into a deeper hole than they need to when they fail to have a solid response on social media to questions or criticisms during a crisis. The public-facing piece is vital, as is communicating internally to your employees and shareholders, so don’t skimp here. Hire help if you need it.

Determine audiences

The audiences you should consider include your customers, employees, the news media, the community, partners, and perhaps investors. This varies, depending on the type of business and the type of crisis.

Designate a spokesperson

This is usually the CEO or owner of the business. In a larger company, it could be another C-level executive. If needed, you can name more than one spokesperson, such as one who can handle more complex questions requiring specifics the CEO may not be as well versed in. Remember, too, that it’s always a good idea to have a backup, just in case your top choice is traveling, ill, or otherwise unavailable.

Prepare for interviews

Practice answering tough questions. Prepare a Q&A session that covers the most difficult questions and the answers you want to provide. For example, once I worked on an agricultural event when swine flu was in the news. We prepared the spokesperson to address tough questions on the risk to the public, as we knew the media would ask.

And DON’T just “wing it”—you need practice. And it isn’t only the words you use but the tone. More on that here.

Establish policies and procedures for dealing with the media.

These may vary, but some common practices include:

  • Routing all journalists to the same contact or department.
  • Logging every call/contact.
  • Keeping notes on how each contact is handled. If you promise to follow up with a reporter on a question, be sure to do that.

If you’re proactive in working with journalists, they tend to go a little easier on you. They’ll trust and believe you more than if you’re evasive and dodge questions. Give straight answers. If you don’t know an answer, it’s OK to say you’ll find out and get back to them. Then be sure to do that, in as timely a manner as possible.

Keep in mind that this is a very basic outline. If you’re ready to start planning for what your organization will do in the event of a crisis, try following the above steps to draw up a simple framework. Or, contact a PR expert to help you flesh out a plan to fit your needs.

How to Apologize If Your Brand Messes Up

To set the stage, let’s look at how 2017 has gone for brands. I don’t know if it’s that more brands are making mistakes–or that more people now notice with social media there and always ready to spread the news—but it seems like there’s ALWAYS a company in the news for saying something it shouldn’t have said.

Missteps will happen. Some do a good job of apologizing (Southwest) while others not so much (United). Southwest’s apology was immediate and sincere, while it took United three attempts to finally begin to get it right.

So, what makes a good apology? Here are some elements it should include:

  • It should be timely: The apology should quickly follow the misstep. In these days of social media, news—good or bad—can spread like wildfire. Brands no longer have days, or even hours, to come up with an apology. They have to act fast. And, it’s important to get it right on the first try. If it takes you several tries (like United), you risk losing even more favor with the public.
  • It should be sincere: It goes without saying that the apology should be heartfelt and genuine. Yet, when people find themselves in a situation in which they need to apologize, they’ll often deny any wrongdoing. Why?

“Denial is the simple thing to do, and people grasp wildly at the first straw to occur to them,” said William Benoit, Ohio University Communications professor and author of Accounts, Excuses, Apologies: Image Repaid Theory and Research.

It wasn’t until Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, appeared on Good Morning America using words like “shame” and “embarrassment” that he began to come across as more remorseful. And, United announced it would refund the fares of all the passengers on the affected flight, a gesture illustrating empathy.

  • You should take responsibility for your actions: If you’ve done something wrong, say so. Admit your error. Don’t make excuses or try to shift the blame. There’s an appreciation for simply saying, “We messed up—and we’re sorry.” Experts agreethis is one of the best ways to begin rebuilding trust.
  • Just say it, plain and simple: No need to use fancy words. Simple terms are best. It’s better to use words that reflect language your audience relates to. Don’t use industry jargon.
  • Include an explanation of what happened: If it’s warranted, explaining what happened can also help folks understand—and perhaps be more forgiving.

For example, when it was revealed that PricewaterhouseCoopers was behind the debacle at the Academy Awards in 2017, the next day, not only did they apologize, but they offered an explanation of what happened. This helped them mend fences with the Academy.

If you need more examples, check out SorryWatch, where founders Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall review public apologies each week and give advice on structure and language. For instance, they recently took a stab at dissecting Equifax’s attempt at apologizing.

And what’s the one most important piece of advice Ingall gives? If you make a mistake, don’t make excuses. “Apologizing well means acknowledging that, at that moment at least, you were not good,” says Ingall.

After all, everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you apologize that matters.

“During times of sensitivity, adversity or crisis, the most important thing you can do is step up, be present, and answer the tough, yet important, questions. Even better, be prepared before a crisis so you and your company will know what to do during and after—you must create organizational muscle memory—many people are depending on you to lead them through the storm. Our mantra is, ‘If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want to be told.’”

Rob Weinhold, chief executive, Fallston Group

Identify and know your stakeholders:

“Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organization? I consider employees to be your most important audience because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others, not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.”

Jonathan Bernsteinpresident, Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.

Communicate with your wider staff:

“In a crisis, maintaining a single channel of communication with the press is vital if you want to keep control of the message being delivered. While your focus may be on what is happening externally, you have to remember the importance of ensuring your employees are aware of, and up to date on, the ongoing situation.

You have to remember; it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a receptionist or salesperson, for instance, could answer the phone or be approached by a journalist and say something they shouldn’t. Everyone who works for your business needs to know what to say (and what not to say!) if they are contacted by the media, and where they should direct them.

Advice also needs to be given on the content of your employees’ personal social media channels—this is especially true in a crisis situation and should be covered in your social media policy document.

This internal communication, alongside a robust social media policy document that limits company information being shared on personal channels, will help protect the established lines of communication between the business and the press.”

Martin Stone, associate director, Tank

Say—but more importantly DO—the right thing at the right time:

“Saying—but more importantly DOING—the right thing at the right time is key to managing a crisis. Get it right, and you could deepen your connection with your customers for the long term, and perhaps win more business through positive word of mouth. Get it wrong—and it could be a real threat to your future growth.”

Neil Hopkins, owner, NeoNodal

Make use of your internal champions:

“Plan out in advance some of the possible issues or crises the firm might encounter and draft working statements (these can always be amended if needed). Have an internal support network, spokespeople who can cover a particular area, e.g., an issue relating to HR, facilities, etc. and are aware that they are the crisis point person. You need to establish close contact with a core group of senior spokespeople who you can relay the issue to, plan/draft the response and issue. The key is speed and accuracy.

That said, make use of your internal champions, i.e., PAs, who can be invaluable in chasing down spokespeople, getting sign-off on statements, etc.”

Mark Hook, Head of PR, Brightpearl

Here’s hoping you’ve done your crisis communications planning already—and that you won’t need to use it.

About Michelle:

Michelle Garrett

PR consultant and writer. You’ll find Michelle at the intersection of PR, content marketing, and social media. As a public relations consultant, content creator, blogger, speaker and award-winning writer, Michelle’s articles and advice have been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Muck Rack, Ragan’s PR Daily, Meltwater, Spin Sucks, CIO, Upwork, Freelancers Union, SheKnows, CommProBiz, and others.

She was named a Top 100 PR Influencer by Onalytica and was recently named to the advisory council of National Organization American Women in Public Relations (Women in PR USATM) Women in PR USA.

About Prowly:

Prowly is a PR tool for agencies, communication departments, and freelancers. It allows to easily find relevant media contacts, create online newsrooms, and distribute visual press releases to the media.

Several hundred professionals in Europe and the US are already using Prowly, including PR representatives of such brands as Vimeo, Grupa Pracuj, Techland, Deloitte Digital, IKEA, Spotify, National Geographic, and Allegro.

Cover photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash