Preparing leaders to communicate during a crisis

January 8, 2013

When you’re spiraling into a crisis, one communications tool can help steady the course: key messages. Preparing strategic statements and helping spokespeople deliver them effectively are essential to a successful outcome.

The media’s constant need for information, the rapid proliferation of news and the inherent controversy require your organization to move fast in a crisis — really fast.

Your response during the first 24 hours is crucial. Underreacting during the early stages of a crisis can cause it to escalate exponentially. Not taking action won’t stop a news story; it may even generate more negative coverage. Your company’s actions — or lack thereof — will impact its image and public perception long after the situation is under control. 

Therefore, it is critical to know where to start and what you’ll need before an emergency unfolds. Key messages prepare leaders to address media representatives, as well as internal and external stakeholders.

Less than a page of copy will serve as the cornerstone for all spoken and written communications. But because crises are dynamic, you will often need to refine statements and points of view.

Key messages concisely address the confirmed facts surrounding a crisis and deliver the company’s position on relevant issues.  You should limit these foundational statements to a few main points. Craft a handful of explanations that are a couple of sentences long and that you can state in a sound bite.

What to say

Keeping your constituents in mind, messages should address what the public wants to know, answering four basic questions:

  1. What went wrong?
  2. How can we fix it?
  3. How does it affect me?
  4. What will we do to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?

Beyond that, the following guidelines can help you prepare your leaders:

  • Make a good first impression. Since many people jump to conclusions after hearing a company’s preliminary response to a crisis, early statements are important to restoring public confidence.

    When developing first responses, use language that enables a spokesperson to come across as humane. Employ sentiments and terms that position him or her as a good person working for a fair, concerned and empathetic organization.
  • Arm your leaders with confirmed facts. Empower your spokesperson to share explanations about what he or she knows is true.  There isn’t any room for speculating, attributing blame or offering opinions. Use your early statements to reinforce that the company has responsible programs in place to lessen the crisis’ impact.
  • Address what your organization plans to do next. At the early stage of a crisis, when the situation is evolving still, it would be inappropriate to suggest an ultimate course of action.

    Instead, fashion a message that offers sincere assurances about steps to take during the next few minutes, hours or days. This approach allows the spokesperson to focus on plans and actions, potentially shifting the dialogue from tragedy to remedy. 

Dos and don’ts

Prepare simple and succinct key messages. Make it easy for leaders to recall and repeat prescribed language. Try to present information from the public’s point of view, avoiding statements that sound too officious, defensive or trite.  Avoid jargon that could be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

In some statements, consider employing the pronoun “we” and reserve the company’s name. Instead, pair the name with information that positively highlights the organization’s preparation, protocol, cooperation and sustained efforts.

And be careful not to release information that could jeopardize public safety, the company’s competitive position or invade anyone’s right to privacy.

Other rules to follow:

  • Never deny the obvious.
  • Never make promises that the organization cannot keep.
  • Never offer dollar estimates or speculate about financial ramifications.
  • Never discuss the situation in a manner that puts your company at risk for future liability claims. 

Effective delivery

With repetition, key messages can ensure that you disseminate clear, consistent and compelling information.

Once they are approved, you can adapt them into standby statements, press releases and Q-and-A responses.  Also, you should try to weave them consistently into social media content, website copy,  internal announcements, switchboard or call center scripts, and other communication vehicles. 

Key messages serve as your anchor in a crisis, as well as a starting point for developing a robust set of communication tools. Proper preparation can help your organization manage any crisis.

Debbie Wetherhead
Debbie Wetherhead is president of Atlanta-based Wetherhead Communications, a full-service PR agency. She has 25 years of experience, has conducted 500 trainings and has presented at three PRSA International Conferences.


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