Chain of Command: Crafting and Sharing Crisis Messaging

March 4, 2019

[leigh wells]
[leigh wells]

It’s 4:30 a.m., and you receive a text from your CEO: “Are you awake? Need to talk now.”

From experience, you know this can’t be good. Your chief executive is not the excitable type, nor one for early morning chats. You take a breath, roll out of bed, fire up your laptop, pour the caffeinated drink of your choice and reply “Yes” to the text.

The CEO calls with a crisis — maybe the company is going under, or cybercriminals have stolen customers’ financial information, an employee is in trouble with the law, someone in the organization has died or gone missing overseas, an executive has embezzled funds, or a 7.0 earthquake has struck a location where your nonprofit has 15 employees and contractors stationed. The list of possible crises is endless.

As an experienced communicator, you know some crises are more serious than others, especially when human safety and wellness are at stake. But you also know that regardless of its severity, any crisis can bring your organization’s reputation under fire and draw scrutiny from interested parties and the general public. You remember the dormant stakeholders — people who might not have thought about your organization for a long time or ever before, but who are now quickly forming negative opinions of it.

You clear these thoughts from your head and get to work.

Informing employees before the media

The company’s board and senior leadership are immediately looped into the situation. But who should receive the news next?

When crafting crisis messages, organizations too often think only about the news media and the general public. In some cases, the people closest to a crisis are not informed — at worst intentionally, at best by accident. To maintain organizational health, goodwill and morale, those closest to a company crisis — its employees — need to hear what’s happening from the CEO before they see it on Facebook or in the news.

We know that employees are vital to achieving desired organizational outcomes, but it’s more than just the work itself. What makes high performance possible is the belief of employees in the organization and its mission, and their deep-seated desired to work where they can make a difference. Some employees perceive their work as a service for the greater good. But those convictions can go down the drain quickly if employees are blindsided by a crisis and feel — rightly or wrongly — that their employer has put the bottom line ahead of its own people.

At a minimum, provide employees with a holding statement that explains what you know about the crisis so far and when they can expect an update. If applicable, say that a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document will be available soon.

Noting the sequence of communications

A sequence of messages to different audiences is an essential part of your crisis-communications plan. As a general example, start by communicating with internal stakeholders:

  • Chief executive and board
  • Senior leadership
  • Employees most affected
  • Other employees (or students, in the case of higher education)

Next, the sequence of communications moves to interested parties outside the organization:

  • Donors, grant recipients, shareholders, alumni, government officials
  • Media you know well, including local media
  • Other media

Managing the whirlwind

Make sure senior executives have talking points about the crisis which they can cascade to their direct reports, who in turn can answer employee questions. It’s OK if managers don’t have every answer at this stage; you can provide further details as they become available. The important thing is that managers don’t speculate or make up information about the crisis, but rather tell employees they will provide more facts as soon as possible.

A town hall meeting may be in order to give employees an open forum for their questions. Remember they’re more than just brand ambassadors — employees are your professional family. During the week of a crisis, you may see them more often than your own family.

As a communications professional, your work life will be a whirlwind when a crisis occurs. As you take care of your work, remember to also take care of yourself. Don’t let the stress of a company crisis harm your health or your relationships with family and friends.

When the crisis has passed, consider surveying employees with a questionnaire to learn what you did well with your communications and what could be improved next time.

Learn More About Employee Comms

Join hundreds of passionate PR professionals on May 15-17 in Phoenix for the 2019 PRSA Employee Communications Section Conference. Connect 19 is where you’ll discover the hottest trends, effective tactics and proven strategies in internal communications.

Matt Charles, APR

Matt Charles, APR, is a consultant (Matt Charles Public Relations), adjunct professor and Fulbright Specialist who has worked as deputy spokesperson for the University of Virginia, director of media relations for the UVA Darden School of Business and communications director for Danville (Va.) Regional Foundation. Contact him at


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