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7 Crisis Communication Tips Every Organization Should Master

Industry Advice Communications & Digital Media

Mere weeks after Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Note 7, reports surfaced of the smartphone catching fire. Within a month of the device’s launch, the company recalled 2.5 million Note 7s, citing faulty batteries as the cause of the crisis.

What started as a manufacturing mishap quickly escalated into a public relations (PR) nightmare. With customers’ safety at stake, all eyes were on Samsung, which didn’t take full responsibility of the flaw for more than three months after the phone’s recall. The company’s mobile division experienced a 96 percent drop in operating profit as negative headlines continued to emerge, including airlines prohibiting passengers from bringing the phone on flights.

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What happened to Samsung could happen to any company; several other brands have faced recalls. For example, Johnson & Johnson pulled its Tylenol products from shelves in 1982 after seven people died in the Chicago area, and Hasbro halted sales in 2007 of its Easy Bake Oven after reports of the toy badly burning children.

“In today’s fast-moving, electronic world, your reputation could be enhanced or denigrated in a moment,” says Ed Powers, PR faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program.

What can change your company’s fate is how you communicate to customers and handle the crisis—or rather, any unanticipated event that could disrupt your organization’s daily operations and cause potential harm to the brand’s reputation, such as a security breach, product defect, negative press, or lawsuit.

“Crises don’t happen just on the front page,” Powers says. “They occur every day, affect groups of all types, and come in different shapes and sizes. Every organization needs to have crisis planning in its communications tool chest.”

Unsure of where to begin? Here are seven crisis communication tips your organization should master.

1) Respond Quickly

With the rise of digital and social media, customers expect a quick response to any issues that arise, because companies have the technology to address them. In most cases, if you don’t respond within the first few hours, people typically jump to two conclusions, according to Powers: That the brand is guilty or that it’s not in control of its message.

“One principle that’s existed in PR for decades is, ‘If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,’” Powers says. “When in doubt, it’s better to respond to a claim—particularly if it’s base-less or off the mark in some way. The ability to respond and put the crisis in context is only going to help the organization.”

Powers recommends responding on the same channels where the crisis initially occurred. Meaning, if a slew of negative comments surfaced on Facebook, post any updates or feedback on Facebook first. The longer you leave the commentary unanswered, the stronger, and angrier, the audience will become. In today’s digital age, minor missteps can become major crises within minutes.

2) Leverage Your Supporters

Every PR professional’s dream scenario is to have supporters come to the brand’s aid in times of crisis. Responses seem more genuine and are more valuable when it’s coming from someone with no direct company affiliation. To achieve that, though, you need to make building and fostering community a priority throughout the year.

“You can’t build a community once a crisis hits,” Powers says. “You need to already have that community in place.”

Focus on establishing a strong rapport with your audience. Take the time to understand your stakeholders, their needs, and what motivates them. Are you providing valuable content, asking questions and engaging your audience, or regularly saying “thank you” for their support? Each action goes a long way in building community.

3) Put the Victims First

When a crisis strikes, remember: It’s not about you. Put the victims first, whether your company caused the problem or not, and acknowledge their pain, suffering, and frustration.

“The fact is that crises harm others,” Powers says. “The starting point for the response has to be about the people and what they’re experiencing.”

The next step is to apologize, but only if it’s genuine. An insincere apology or your refusal to take responsibility can damage your brand and breed mistrust with the public.

Multinational oil and gas company BP came under harsh criticism in 2010 after 11 people died following a drilling explosion off the Gulf of Mexico. An investigation into the incident revealed that a BP pipe caused “the worst oil spill in U.S. history,” leaking an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. BP’s handling of the situation is still highly criticized—first for how the company downplayed the damage and repeatedly said “this was not our accident” to the insensitive remark made by CEO Tony Hayward that, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” For the 11 victims who lost their lives, that wasn’t an option.

Victims want, and deserve, acknowledgement. When you’re issuing an apology, put your audience first.

4) Don’t Play the Blame Game

BP was quick to blame others for the oil spill, which, in itself, caused a PR problem.

When a crisis occurs, don’t play the blame game, even if you weren’t the one at fault. By focusing first on who the culprit was, you put yourself before the victims. Although others will want to place blame, wait until the crisis calms down before you start pointing fingers. Again, above all else, prioritize your audience and their feelings.

5) Be Transparent

What would you want to know if you were the victim of a crisis? Think through that question as you’re crafting your message to the public. Your audience will want answers, even if it’s simply, “I don’t know.”

When a crisis occurs, you’re under a microscope; every move you make is going to be judged by the public. It’s better to be upfront and transparent than plead ignorance or stonewall. If there’s additional, related information that could paint the company in a negative light, Powers recommends sharing it. The news will leak eventually, and you have a better chance of controlling the message. The more information you hide, the guiltier the company will look. 

6) Perform “What If?” Work

To avoid or more effectively manage crises, Powers suggests undergoing a “What if?” exercise. Rather, “What if something went wrong? What might that look like?”

Although it’s near impossible to anticipate everything that could happen, brainstorm potential scenarios with your team and map out how you would react, so if the situation does occur, you’ll be better equipped to handle it. Focus on situations that align with your organization’s product, services, and industry—particularly on areas where the likelihood and impact of something going wrong are high. For example, what if you were Samsung and needed to recall your latest product? What if you were facing a lawsuit or an onslaught of negative press?

“Most executives will say, ‘We need to take care of today’s needs,’” Powers says. “But when crisis hits, organizations are usually happy that the communications group has talked through this.”

Professionally, taking the initiative will show you’re proactive, and position you as an asset to your company.

7) Make Sure Your Message Is Consistent Company-Wide

Messaging no longer goes out from one department. Depending on the organization’s size, the marketing, sales, corporate communication, and investor relations teams could be just a small sample of the departments talking to customers. When a crisis occurs, you want to make sure teams company-wide are addressing the issue in a cohesive manner. Remember, your employees are your ambassadors when a crisis hits.

Consider creating a one-page sheet you can share across the organization that outlines the actions each department should take if a crisis occurs.

Preparation Is Key

The more prepared you are, the better. Crises can have a negative effect on your company’s reputation, and you want to minimize the impact. If you have a good reputation, the issue might cause less damage, but if you haven’t focused on fostering community, it’s likely the criticism will be harsher if a situation strikes.

If a crisis does occur, you have the opportunity to spotlight your values and actually enhance how you’re seen by the public. It all starts with putting the needs of the victims ahead of the organization.

“A crisis provides a rare but stressful opportunity to demonstrate to stakeholders that you care about them in a very public way,” Powers says. “As such, it adds positive value to the reputation of the company that is seen to have taken the right steps in response to the crisis.”

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