Crises come when they’re least expected, which is why a crisis communication plan is a necessity for every company.
Although life would be so much easier if emergencies arrived with fair warning, you will be better off having a plan that can help you avoid catastrophe.
In this post, we will discuss:
What is a crisis communication?
Crisis communication refers to the dissemination of information by an organization to address a crisis that impacts customers and/or the organization’s reputation.
The idea is that a company’s reputation is perceived by everyone aware of your company whether you manage your reputation or not. So, it’s in a company’s best interest to have some input about the narrative. Not only that, but customer satisfaction increases when expectations are transparent.
Now, you might be wondering, “What constitutes a crisis?” Let’s dive into some examples below.
Crisis Scenario Examples
Just about any scenario could manifest as a business crisis that warrants communication from your organization. Some of the most common types of crises include:
- Financial– Financial loss such as announcing a bankruptcy or store closures.
- Personnel– Changes to staff that may affect operations or reputation such as employee furloughs, layoffs, or controversial behavior.
- Organizational– Misconduct or wrongdoing as a result of organizational practices.
- Technological– Technological failure that results in outages causing reduced functionality or functionality loss.
- Natural– Natural crisis that necessitates an announcement or change of procedure. For example, defining safety precautions amid a health crisis.
- Confrontation – Discontent individuals confront an organization as a result of unmet needs or demands.
- Workplace Violence – Violence is committed by a current or former employee against other employees.
- Crisis of Malevolence – A business uses criminal or illegal means to destabilize, harm, extort, or destroy a competitor.
In addition, anything else you can think of that could stall or halt business continuity is a good example of a crisis that warrants communication with customers and/or the public.
While crisis communication can be fairly reactive, it helps to have a crisis communication plan in place before you need to use it to make the process easier for your team members.
What is a crisis management plan?
A crisis management plan — also known as a crisis communication plan — is a set of guidelines used to prepare a business for an emergency or unexpected event. These plans include steps to take when a crisis first emerges, how to communicate with the public, and how to prevent the issue from occurring again.
Crisis management plans focus on the company’s response and how it will communicate a crisis to its stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches employees, partners, customers, media, the general public, and any other valuable stakeholders.
Most importantly, a crisis communication plan helps guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message on all company platforms during a time of crisis. That message depends largely on what the crisis involves and how all parties are affected by it.
Featured Resource: Crisis Communication Plan Template
Use HubSpot’s Crisis Communication Plan Template to build out your company’s plan. Included are charts, sections, and prompts to help you document your company’s strategy when a crisis hits.
Crisis Communication Plan Examples
- University of Washington
- Southwest Airlines
- Virginia Department of Education
- Burger King
- Hollywood Foreign Press Association
- Cracker Barrel
1. University of Washington
In a university crisis communication plan, it’s essential to focus on crises that may affect normal school and administrative functions. For instance, my college always emails students if a dangerous incident occurs on or near campus and gives us a list of tips to remain safe. Universities also plan for crises such as marches or protests, injuries or deaths of community members, and bad press relating to the school.
The University of Washington has an extensive crisis communication plan geared toward preserving the safety and security of community members. As a university, the main audiences for communication include students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, as well as visitors, temporary residents, the general public, and media.
2. Southwest Airlines
Southwest has consistently been one of the safest airlines in the world. However, that doesn’t mean the company doesn’t experience accidents.
On Flight 1380, an engine malfunction resulted in the death of a passenger and was recorded as the company’s first in-flight fatality. The company’s CEO, Gary Kelly, immediately responded to the situation by offering a sincere, heartfelt apology to the victim’s family. He then pulled all advertising from their social media channels and made personal phone calls to passengers offering support and counseling resources.
While it’s hard to consider grim crises like these, they do occur and impact businesses. Even though Southwest had never encountered an accident like this before, the CEO was prepared for this situation and demonstrated genuine remorse both through his words and his company’s actions.
3. Boeing 737 Max
Boeing experienced a major crisis when two of its 737 Max airplanes fatally crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia just 5 months apart in 2018 and 2019. The crashes killed a combined 346 people and the manufacturer is still suffering the fallout from the events.
At first, Boeing blamed pilot error for the crashes until information surfaced later that it was a flight control software issue. In response, all Boeing 737 Max planes were grounded for 20 months by the FAA and other global regulators until they could figure out what software glitch was causing the fatal crashes.
As a result, Boeing’s stock price plummeted and was forced to halt production of the Boeing 737 Max — costing the company billions in losses. Once the pandemic hit in 2020 and air travel slowed, Boeing faced another crisis as orders for the model were canceled, which led to more financial losses.
To make matters worse, when 737 Max planes were finally cleared to fly in November of 2020, they were grounded again in early 2021 after electrical issues were discovered. In 2021, Boeing was ordered to pay $2.5 billion to settle charges that the company hid issues with the plane from safety officials.
At first, Boeing deflected blame for the crashes to “inexperienced pilots,” but an investigation later showed that it was Boeing’s flight control software that was the main contributor to the crash. Moreover, the US Justice Department found that Boeing knew about the software issue and tried to conceal the faulty software from investigators.
“Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 Max airplane and engaging in an effort to cover up their deception,” stated a DOJ press release regarding Boeing’s fraud charges.
While nothing would have made up for the loss of life, Boeing would have been better off coming clean about the existing software glitch. Its efforts to conceal the issue meant that pilot training manuals lacked information about the faulty system, which forced planes to nosedive after it overrode pilot commands.
Had Boeing been transparent about its automated flight control system, including it in its manual and informing customers of the aircraft software, tragedy could have been prevented.
4. Virginia Department of Education
Similar to universities, schools need to deal with crises efficiently, especially if they impact the normal class schedule. Since schools deal with children, parents and guardians must be made aware of any situations that could affect the education, safety, or health of their kids.
The Virginia Department of Education has created a lengthy management plan including crisis communications. The plan highlights various crises that would require communication with parents — such as a school bus accident —and gives letter templates that can be quickly sent out.
In 2018, restaurant chain, KFC, got into an awkward situation when it ran out of chicken to serve its customers. Having built its brand on its 11-spice fried chicken recipe, this was a crisis that the company probably didn’t plan for.
But, KFC’s marketing team quickly got to work and was able to put a positive spin on the situation. They released videos and tweets like the one below that light-heartedly apologized for the shortage and showed off the brand’s humility.
This is why a crisis communication plan is essential for restaurants. Some scenarios you’ll want to plan for are the spread of foodborne illness, unsanitary working conditions, and, of course, delivery issues affecting food supply.
Amazon faced criticism in December 2021 after a tornado ravaged one of its warehouses in Edwardsville, Illinois. Six people died in the warehouse collapse in Illinois as a series of tornadoes ripped through parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas.
Amazon’s first misstep was a delayed public response. CEO Jeff Bezos took nearly 24 hours to respond to the warehouse collapse.
“The news from Edwardsville is tragic. We’re heartbroken over the loss of our teammates there, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones,” Bezos tweeted. “All of Edwardsville should know that the Amazon team is committed to supporting them and will be by their side through this crisis. We extend our fullest gratitude to all the incredible first responders who have worked so tirelessly at the site.”
Bezos was quickly lambasted across social media, with many suggesting that his statement was insincere.
When such a tragic loss of life happens, it’s best to come out with a statement that expresses empathy sooner rather than later. Bezos’ reply came across as insincere in part because it was delayed. The CEO had been steadily tweeting and posting about the landing of Blue Origin throughout the day, so by the time he commented on the tornado tragedy, it seemed like an afterthought.
7. Burger King
In the fall of 2019, a man who follows a vegan lifestyle filed a lawsuit against popular fast food chain Burger King on the basis that the company misled other vegan customers regarding the newly introduced Impossible Burger. Upon realizing the meatless patties were prepared on the same grill as the 100% beef burgers, the plaintiff alleged that the ads weren’t clear that the burger was not completely meat-free.
Other popular fast-food chains like Subway and Wendy’s experienced similar crises in the past regarding issues with food preparation. Although both were unfounded claims, they caused a significant crisis for both brands. It’s not a surprise that Burger King experienced similar, unfounded claims.
Although Burger King had a strong rebuttal against the lawsuit, the company awaited the decision of the judge who dismissed the case a year later due to a lack of evidence from the plaintiffs.
Burger King was successful in this crisis communication because it allowed the crisis to run its course without intervening more than necessary. At the announcement of the case dismissal, Burger King responded, “This claim has no basis.”
8. United Airlines
No list of crisis communication examples would be complete without mentioning United Airlines . Already under pressure for less-than-stellar customer service, the 2017 video of Dr. David Dao being dragged out of his seat when the airline overbooked put United into a tailspin.
Their first response? Not great. United’s CEO tried to blame Dao, calling him “belligerent” and “disruptive.”
Not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the public, and #boycottUnited hashtags began trending. The company then did an about-face, took full responsibility, and pointed to changes being made. While their image did stabilize over time, the changed tactics strategy is a good example of what not to do when a crisis comes up.
9. Hollywood Foreign Press Association
In 2021, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association was under fire for lack of diversity and inclusion. Over 100 PR firms — and their celebrity clients — threatened to boycott the Golden Globes unless the HFPA committed to “transformational change” within the organization.
“We call on the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to swiftly manifest profound and lasting change to eradicate the longstanding exclusionary ethos and pervasive practice of discriminatory behavior, unprofessionalism, ethical impropriety and alleged financial corruption endemic to the HFPA, funded by Dick Clark Productions, MRC, NBCUniversal and Comcast,” the publicists said in a statement.
“To reflect how urgent and necessary we feel this work is, we cannot advocate for our clients to participate in HFPA events or interviews as we await your explicit plans and timeline for transformational change.”
In response to the outcry, the HFPA pledged to increase its membership to a minimum of 100 people and require at least 13% of its members to be Black journalists.
While the HFPA has since implemented several changes, including increasing membership to 105 members, the organization still has a lot of work to do in order to regain the trust of the entertainment industry. Not only was the Golden Globes ceremony telecast canceled in 2022, but many publicists maintain their position on having their clients boycott the organization. Had the HFPA listened to concerns and implemented change sooner, it might have been met with less scrutiny.
10. Cracker Barrel
In 2017, a man named Bradley Reid asked a question on Cracker Barrel’s corporate website: He wanted to know why his wife had been let go from her 11-year manager position at one of the company’s Indiana locations.
The social media firestorm came quickly, with #JusticeForBradsWife trending and other brands posting signs that they would be happy to hire Brad’s wife.
Cracker Barrel’s response? Silence. The public never learned the circumstances of Brad’s wife’s job loss, and after a few months the crisis blew over. In this case, weathering the storm worked for Cracker Barrel, in part because the issue revolved around a single person and their specific circumstances. Speaking up — even if the job loss was benign — could have resulted in questions about personal privacy and also put the company on the defensive. Instead, they chose to wait out the storm.
While your communication plan will differ depending on the crisis you’re dealing with, below are some common strategies that businesses use to deliver an effective response.
Crisis Management Strategies
1. Spokesperson Response
When your company makes a mistake, the best thing you can do is apologize and be human. The most effective way to do that is to assign a spokesperson to speak on your brand’s behalf. After all, it’s a lot easier to relate to one person than a group of lawyers.
This person could be your CEO, a company executive, or someone you feel is best suited to represent your company. It’s important to choose a good communicator as their actions will influence how your key stakeholders will react to the situation. If they can make your company look human and your mistakes appear manageable, that will play a major role in maintaining stakeholder support.
2. Proactive Damage Control
No matter if things are going well now, you should always prepare for a crisis to occur. Don’t worry, this doesn’t make you a pessimist. Instead, it makes you proactive.
Proactive damage control is what you do to reduce or prevent the effects of a crisis before it occurs. For example, adding security software that records and backs up company data will help you avoid a malware crisis. Additionally, you can train your employees to watch out for suspicious or harmful emails that might reach their inboxes.
At HubSpot, our security team sends out routine training videos to educate employees about different security protocols. The videos are short and the multiple-choice quizzes are so light-hearted that they act as additional learning tools in case you didn’t pay close attention to the video. This makes the training easily consumed, and, more importantly, successful in teaching employees how to protect company data.
3. Case Escalation
Sometimes crises can be resolved on the individual level before they reach a viral tipping point. For these cases, it helps to create an escalation system within your customer service team that can diffuse the issue before it gets out of hand.
At HubSpot, we have specialists who work on complex or time-sensitive cases. When customers have needs that require additional attention, our experts intervene to assist. This helps the service rep manage a tricky situation and ensures a more delightful experience for our customers.
4. Social Media Response
Social media is a wonderful marketing tool that allows companies to reach audiences across the globe. But, this reach works both ways, as customers can share stories, post pictures, and upload videos for the world to see. One viral video painting your company in the wrong light can lead to millions of people developing a negative perception of your brand.
Crises are battled both in-person and online. So, your company needs a social media plan that can manage the digital buzz around your business. This may include assigning more reps to monitor your social channels or updating followers with new information. But, regardless of how you use it, social media can’t be ignored when your company is working through a crisis.
5. Customer Feedback Collection and Analysis
Sometimes you may have a crisis occurring, but it isn’t on the front page of the news or going viral on social media. Instead, it’s silently affecting your customers and causing churn, but you’re unaware of it because you’re not gathering enough feedback from your customers.
Gathering feedback is an excellent way to prevent a crisis. That’s because it provides insight into how customers are feeling about your business. This allows you to spot major roadblocks before they escalate into a crisis. And, it allows customers to share negative criticism that you can use to improve other customers’ experiences.
When faced with an unhappy or escalated customer, our success team recognizes this as a chance to collect customer feedback. They begin interactions by asking customers to review their experience and discuss any unsatisfactory elements. This helps our team create actionable steps that they can use to align themselves with the customer’s needs.
Rachel Grewe, a HubSpot Customer Success rep, explains this strategy in the quote below.
“I open with asking for the opportunity to hear their feedback on their experience, then I make sure to close with actionable next steps for myself and the customer. An escalated customer isn’t always a sign of failure but an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our customer’s success.” – Rachel Grewe, HubSpot Customer Success
For some businesses, writing a crisis communication plan can be difficult, so let’s follow the steps below to get started.
How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan
1. Identify the goal of the plan.
Before you begin, your team should determine what the objective of the plan is. It can be as simple as: “This plan creates a structure for communicating with internal and external stakeholders, in the event of a crisis that affects the reputation or normal business functions of the organization.” This ensures every aspect of your plan aligns with this common goal.
2. Identify stakeholders.
When writing the plan, it’s important to know who the plan is designed for. Outline a list of all stakeholders you’d want to keep informed about the crisis.
This list probably includes employees, customers and users, partners, investors, media outlets, the government, and the general public. The latter likely includes social media followers or people located nearby in the event of a location-based crisis. You should also add all necessary contact information for each of these groups in your plan.
3. Create a hierarchy for sharing information on the crisis.
The person or team that reports a crisis doesn’t always handle crisis communications. So, a part of the plan should be dedicated to forming a hierarchy outlining how information should be shared within the company. That way, no matter who notices the crisis emerging, they’ll know whom to go to first.
This order depends on the structure of your team. The first step may be to notify the CEO or president of the organization, followed by the head of communications or public relations. The plan should also constitute what information should immediately be disclosed to these parties. This might include known details about the crisis, the source of the incident, and any existing backlash
4. Assign people to create fact sheets.
Your plan should detail which people on the team are in charge of creating fact sheets about the crisis. Fact sheets are lists of known facts about the crisis. They prevent rumors or misinterpretations from spreading to media outlets.
Additionally, you should set a deadline for when these fact sheets will be prepared. Depending on the crisis, you may need them within 24 hours, six hours, or even 30 minutes.
5. Identify and assess example crisis scenarios.
When a crisis does happen, you will likely feel overwhelmed. Your mind will race and you will feel pressured to respond to phone calls, social media mentions, and media inquiries.
This is why it’s best to outline common scenarios in advance. Some types of crises that may affect your organization are natural disasters, disruptions in normal business functions, customer or employee injuries, and product tampering.
6. Identify and answer common questions.
During any crisis — no matter how big or small — people are going to ask questions. Whether they are customer advocates or reporters, the public will want to uncover the truth. After all, in most cases, companies are seen as guilty until proven innocent.
Crisis communication plans can help you identify and answer questions that you can expect to be asked during your crisis scenarios. For instance, if a natural disaster strikes your headquarters, some questions you may get asked are, “Was anyone injured in the incident?” and “How long will it take for the business to return to normal functionality?”
7. Identify potential risks.
No matter how well-thought-out your crisis communication plan is, there are always going to be pros and cons. Naturally, you’ll stick with the plan that maximizes benefits while minimizing costs. However, the costs are still important to consider.
Under each plan, you should list out the potential risks you’ll face. That way, if the plan does backfire, you won’t be caught off guard. You will have prepared yourself and laid out steps for recuperating from these additional losses.
8. Create guidelines specific to social media.
Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. To offer as much transparency as possible, teams should focus on preparing press materials and sharing information about the crisis. The more information you retain, the more the public will want to know what you’re hiding.
Reactive communication is just as important. Team members must be focused on social monitoring during a time of crisis. Any negative social media mentions should be dealt with immediately and with consistency. There should be sections of your plan dedicated solely to social media crisis management.
Now that you know how to craft your crisis communication plan, check out the following template to get some added inspiration for your process.
The Crisis Management and Communication Plan Template
It can be difficult to get your crisis communication plan started from scratch. That’s why we’ve created a three-part Crisis Communication Plan Template to help you navigate the process.
1. Create an incident response team.
First up? Create a core incident response team and broadly define their responsibilities when a communications crisis occurs. Create a list of everyone on this team along with their email and phone number in addition to a group email or chat that can be used to activate the entire team at once. Then, build a greater response team to help support the core group. This may include departments such as customer support, legal, social media, C-suite executives, and security.
Regularly reevaluate these lists to keep them current and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
2. Identify roles and responsibilities.
Next, identify the roles and responsibilities of each team member in the core group and those in greater departmental response teams. For example, you might assign one member of your core team the job of managing social media communications, while another may be tasked with drafting a public statement.
Departments such as social media, meanwhile, should each have their own crisis contact with their own set of responsibilities — such as creating a larger-scale campaign to minimize public fallout.
3. Implement an escalation framework.
Crisis response comes with substantive stress: Companies must act quickly to resolve issues without making things worse. As a result, it’s worth implementing an escalation framework to help guide your response:
Step 1: Alert
Ensure that all relevant team members are notified ASAP. Define specific communication channels for this process.
Step 2: Assess
Assess the severity of the incident and your potential response. Key questions to ask include: What happened? Where and when? Who was affected and involved? How much do we know?
Step 3: Activate
With the initial assessment complete, activate the relevant team members and their department contacts to help begin the crisis management process. The first steps might include calling an all-hands meeting, responding to immediate media inquiries, and drafting communications to customers and other affected stakeholders.
Step 4: Administer
Crisis communication persists over a few weeks or months. As a result, it’s critical to continually monitor what’s happening and what’s changing to ensure communication is administered effectively.
Step 5: Adjourn
When the worst of the crisis has passed, regroup your team to debrief how the crisis was handled, what outcomes occurred, and what changes could be made to improve overall response. It’s also worth having at least one staff member regularly monitor the situation in case another response is required.
Talking the Talk — and Walking the Walk
When a crisis occurs, communication is the first step. Companies need to create response plans that prioritize clear and transparent communication that is sincere and direct but still respects staff and customer privacy.
But talk isn’t enough in isolation. Businesses need dedicated teams to help them walk the walk by taking ownership for actions, making amends where possible, and creating customer confidence in companies’ commitment to change.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.