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Crisis Communications Tips


Crisis situations can take many forms including situations where the organization is at fault and other times when something happens to an organization that necessitates a response. While it is impossible to predict when a potentially negative issue may arise, your organization can do some advance preparation to execute an effective response when necessary in order to protect your operations and reputation.

Knowing how to respond to media inquiries and other stakeholders can be key to protecting your organization. While potentially negative situations can take many forms and specifics of each should be taken into account, the following are some general guidelines for weathering the storm:

Pre-Planning:

  • While you may not be able to anticipate specific crisis, you may be able to identify potential issues that may arise, giving you time to designate a spokesperson, determine a response, and research and create background materials that may be useful to tell your side of the story.
  • Understand vulnerabilities: Consider possible situations where your organization may be vulnerable to negative media stories or crisis. For agencies working in the area of behavioral health, there are a number of possible scenarios that could negatively impact your agency so anticipating what they may be can give you time to prepare possible a response and understand the types of background information that may be helpful to tell your side of the story.
  • Designate a primary spokesperson: In a crisis, it is critical that all communication be consistent and from a central source in your organization to maintain some measure of control and clarity. This also gives the media a central point of contact, taking the pressure off other employees from being questioned. Multiple spokespersons make it harder to manage your message.
  • Determine appropriate spokespersons for specific issues: In some cases, your executive director may be the best spokesperson to address overall issues, however consider using a colleague who has a particular expertise on certain issues to act as spokesperson if that expertise will be necessary to your message.
  • Educate staff, volunteers and board members on handling media inquiries.  All agency representatives should be educated as to what critical information should be obtained from a reporter when contacted (including name, media affiliation, contact information, general story focus and deadline) and who has been designated as spokesperson in order to refer the reporter to the right person. 

When a potentially negative situation is imminent:

  • Understand the situation before answering questions. If a reporter asks questions about a situation you don't fully understand, obtain as much information as possible and let he/she know that you do not have all the information but will investigate and get back to him/her with a response.  Be sure to return the call when you can offer some information.
  • Gather critical team members before responding. Gaining perspectives from key people will be helpful in understanding the situation and in crafting a response. This is typically internal staff but may also involve gaining information from partner organizations, law enforcement or regulatory agencies, depending on the issue. Your legal representation may also need to weigh in to flag any potential legal issues.
  • Coordinate with partners as necessary:  If the situation involves other organizations that you work with, coordinate your response to the degree possible and gain an understanding of their knowledge of the situation to be able to provide an accurate and effective response.

Crisis Response:

  • Communicate directly and quickly with key audiences. If time allows, it is important to communicate directly to critical audiences (clients, board members, donors) rather than through the media. While some audiences can wait for written communication, consider phoning those who are critical stakeholders to alert them to the current situation.  An early alert for key audiences will help them feel included and may offer a chance to shape the message for audiences close to the organization.  
  • Tell it all and tell it quickly. For many organizations, the duration of the negative media coverage can be more damaging than the actual content. If your organization needs to address bad news, sharing it all at once means it will be included in one news cycle, rather than having it covered over days, weeks or months.
  • Use/update all communications tools. Be sure to consider your website, social media outlets, newsletters and other communications tools as a means to communicate your critical messages regarding a crisis, depending on how "public" it gets. Also be sure to review communications including advertising, , to determine necessary updates and/or to remove inappropriate information in light of the crisis.
  • Respect/understand deadlines. When possible, find out the reporter's deadline and respond within that timeframe, even if it is to tell him/her that you are still gathering information for a response.

Tips for what NOT to do in a crisis:

  • Don't ignore media inquiries. Not responding at all in negative stories can sometimes become the story itself and may lead people to believe you have something to hide.
  • Don't Say "No Comment."  If you are not ready to comment, let the reporter know you are still gathering information and will be back in touch to respond and then make sure you do.  If you don't plan to comment, share the reason why if possible especially if the information is protected by privacy laws, is in litigation or
  • Don't answer questions you don't know the answer to.  If you don't know the answer to a question, say so.  When possible, refer the reporter to someone who may have the information or try to track the information down and respond later to the reporter.
  • Don't Lie/Cover up.  Any untruths are likely to be uncovered, hurting your credibility and contributing to a larger negative story.