The Golden Rule of Crisis Management: Acknowledge Incident. Accept Responsibility. Apologize.
An employee posts a comment online that damages your reputation. A customer attacks you over a defect in your product. Your accountant uncovers an embezzlement scheme when a half-million dollars goes missing.
Don’t think it can’t happen to you, regardless of how well you think you know your company. Nobody hit by a crisis ever thought it could happen to them.
Communicating in a crisis has taken on a new level of complexity and urgency in the digital age. Social media and instant news delivery can escalate matters rapidly, causing lasting damage to your reputation.
United Airlines still hasn’t recovered after authorities were filmed violently dragging a passenger off a plane in 2017. The passenger reportedly refused to give up his seat on a flight the airline overbooked. Instead of apologizing, CEO Oscar Munoz initially blamed him for causing the incident, calling him disruptive and belligerent. By the time Munoz finally apologized a day later, the damage had been done.
This 5-step guide will provide you with essential strategies and examples of how to navigate a crisis effectively in today’s fast-paced media landscape.
Preparing for the unexpected is the first step toward getting through your next crisis even better than when it started.
1. Prior to a crisis. Get your reputation intact
You can start to manage your reputation with well-placed articles in the news media. It also helps to offer a steady stream of positive content on your newsletter and social media channels.
It really matters whether you walk the talk though. Word gets around when you offer great wages and benefits, accommodations for personal situations and an inclusive culture.
Your employees talk not only to one another, but to their friends and families as well.
People are much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when you come under attack if you already have a solid reputation.
They also talk about the companies that preach a great game, but offer low pay, rigid work conditions and a fearful environment.
Those same people will only be more than happy to contribute to your bad fortune if the opposite is true.
Meta – the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – is a great example. It has become one of the most hated brands in America for facilitating child sex trafficking and spying on its users.
Consumers readily accepted claims that owner Mark Zuckerberg interfered in U.S. elections with direct cash grants and allowed Russian disinformation to run rampant on the platform.
On the other hand, fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A handily survived a boycott threat in 2023 over hiring a Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Supporters thought the move betrayed the company’s Christian values because DEI programs often result in racist outcomes over meritocracy.
In reality, the position contributed to its culture of belonging. It aligned with its legacy of closing on Sundays, positively influencing whoever contacts Chick-fil-A and to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.”
2. First 15 minutes of your crisis
Resist the temptation to speculate when answering phone calls and responding to emails when you have limited or no information at all.
Do not communicate externally until you figure out what’s going on. Talking without knowing the full story will likely compound your problem.
Do not remove any social or blog postings until the event passes. It will look as though you are hiding something or avoiding accountability.
People will find incriminating material if it once appeared anywhere on the web.
Acknowledge to any reporters who call that you received their request, and that you will need to get back to them. Make sure you follow through on your promise.
Prepare a holding statement within 15 minutes to send to them and to post on your website. Ideally you’ll have a rough draft prepared for just such an occasion.
The holding statement should acknowledge the situation, apologize for any stress it caused, say that you are gathering information and that you will give them more information later.
The most basic holding statement would say something like, “We recently learned that an incident occurred within our company. We apologize for any harm that the matter may have caused. We are gathering information and are in contact with authorities who are investigating the matter. We will provide more information when it becomes available.”
It will buy you space to gather all of the facts, truly understand the situation and give you time to issue a lengthier statement that includes more details.
It gives reporters a response they need from you when writing their stories without boxing you into saying something you don’t know to be true. You’ll be much more in control when you do formally respond.
It prevents the dreaded “no comment” response from you as well. “No comment” reeks of guilt even when you’re completely innocent. It also helps to prevent a rumor chain from taking off on social media.
3. 15 minutes to 4 hours. Identify the audiences that matter to you.
Take control of the narrative. Don’t let anyone else do it.
Gather everyone who matters such as your CEO or president and critical staff.
Call a reputable crisis communications firm like DYS Media for guidance. Crisis communications firms have been there and done that. They often know instinctively the severity of your problem and how to appropriately address it since they have been in similar situations so often in the past.
Contact a lawyer and the authorities immediately if you suspect anything illegal transpired.
Note of caution. Many lawyers will advise you to say nothing in an attempt to bury a story. It can work for a time if nobody knows about the crisis except you.
Be aware though that a journalist will eventually find the information if it’s important enough, and when they do they will report on it in terms unfavorable to you.
Identify what you know to be true and write it down. Get the answers to as many questions as you can, especially the most difficult ones.
You only care about your employees, customers and shareholders when crises erupt.
Not anyone in the media, and certainly not any online antagonists.
Same goes for national or international news organizations. They are not interested in doing you
Draft your full statement.
Gather all facts and bullet points that you have available. Cite only the facts. This is hard news, so answer as many as the “who, what, why, where and when's” as you can.
Mention the incident, name who is involved if you can, what happened, why it happened, the location and when it occurred. Name any steps that you are currently taking to mitigate damage.
A couple of paragraphs should be sufficient.
Designate your spokesperson.
Your spokesperson should be credible, articulate, empathetic, accountable, quick on their feet,
honest, objective and confident. They should be calm in front of a camera and not easily rattled by difficult questions.
They should know to stay on script and always revert to the main message. Always speak in positives such as “We don’t know everything yet, but what I can tell you is…”
Convey compassion and empathy in everything that you do. Actions speak so much louder than words.
Prepare talking points.
Be transparent and accountable. Acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility and apologize.
Put together 5 messages that your audiences need to hear. Keep it to one page. It ensures a consistent voice and message in your communications with reporters, customers and shareholders.
You likely did nothing wrong, but it doesn’t matter. The public and media already convicted you by only hearing from the plaintiff first. Don’t apologize for anything you don’t know, however.
Only tell reporters what you know happened and how you are responding. Give as much information as you possibly can, short of accepting any sort of culpability.
Announce specifics on how you plan to do things differently.
Determine the appropriate response for the press.
Don’t spin minnows into whales, yet don’t turn mountains into molehills. The most common response is to email your statement to individual reporters who ask.
You’ll need to escalate matters when the amount of misinformation becomes so untenable that you need to correct it. In this case you’ll need to send a press release to every news organization in your market and potentially in the country.
Only in the most severe cases – such as when someone’s life is at risk or you caused a national scandal – will you need to hold a press conference.
Honesty is the best policy.
Never under any circumstances lie to anyone or obscure the truth.
A lot of people are trying hard to give you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t make it any harder for them.
There is no such thing as off the record. Putting a notebook away or turning off the camera does not mean that the interview is ended.
Everything is on the record even when a reporter says it’s off the record. You can use this to your advantage if you know what you’re doing.
Be ready for the media to ask you if you have anything else to add. It is always offered and nearly always declined.
It is an opportunity to emphasize clear points and return to earlier questions to ensure that the reporter understands you correctly. Prepare a few notes ahead of time so that you can respond better.
It could quite literally save a disastrous interview or inquiry.
4. 4+ hours. Stay on top of social media.
Who is posting about the problem on your social media channels? Try to get them offline and on a phone call as soon as possible.
That could be all it takes to avert a disaster.
You’ll need a more detailed response if you’re facing a nationwide recall on a product.
Only respond to customers and influencers with valid questions or concerns. Do not engage with anyone with no interest in a positive outcome for you.
They include haters and trolls. They’re only after you to get attention for themselves.
Third-party activists have no other mission than to bury you. They will pester you relentlessly in hopes of getting a response. Do not give it to them. You owe them nothing.
Of the people to whom you respond, only acknowledge the concerns and questions of the sanest posts. Use variations of your statement to respond.
Commenters will generally say the same thing over and over and over again.
Take a look at your social media analytics. How an article performs – and where it appears – on TikTok, LinkedIn or X will guide you on how and where to respond.
Did your crisis end up in an obscure trade publication, or did The Wall Street Journal announce it on its front page?
The only metric that matters is whether anyone sharing it has enough followers to make a difference.
Craft messages appropriate to the social media channel. Their users are often different and use different communications styles.
Create short, informative videos for TikTok, a formal post for LinkedIn and infographics for Instagram.
You win your defamation suit. A judge sentences your former employee to repay the embezzled funds in full, reassuring your customers and investors. Following an expensive investigation, you learn that an alleged inappropriate relationship claimed by your intern never happened.
Victory is yours. You have a mountain of documentation clearing your good name. Time to call a press conference and tell everyone I-told-you-so!
Not so fast.
Remember the initial mission, which is to mitigate the damage caused by the crisis.
Does a headline or broadcast news segment that repeats your name with the original allegation really in your best interest, especially unprovoked?
No. The best response at this stage is often no response at all. Wait for a reporter to call in a month or two – or hopefully never – and very casually mention how the crisis passed.
The closer the resolution is to their inquiry, the more likely they will write about it. The more time passes, the less likely they will care.
In any case, pivot to the most recent positive news about your company.