What To Do When a Crisis Strikes

© Copyright 2000, Wilson Group Communications, Inc

When a crisis or major emergency strikes, how you respond can be as important in the public eye as the crisis itself. And it doesn't take a major crisis to create a major headache. If the public is endangered - or the perception exists that they could be - it can create major problems for you, particularly with the news media. Today, what used to be a "local" story can be broadcast nationwide within a few minutes via CNN and other news networks. If you're not prepared, the results can be devastating. And don't think it won't happen. For most of us, it's not a matter of if, but when.

Pre-Crisis - Be Prepared

The best way to manage a crisis is to anticipate it and be prepared to deal with it before it happens. What's the worst thing that could happen? There's almost no end to the kinds of potential disasters that you could ultimately confront. Remember, some potential crises could be unique to your particular business and/or location. Your crisis plan should not only try to foresee the various types of crises that could impact your organization, but try to anticipate what steps would be necessary to manage them. All crisis team members should have written checklists ahead of time detailing their responsibilities and the necessary steps they should take in an emergency. You should never take for granted that even minor tasks will be remembered in the heat of a real crisis. When every second is important, you can't afford to take chances.

Selecting A Crisis Team

No matter how well written your crisis plan is, it can never take the place of an experienced and welltrained crisis team. Remember that during a crisis, it will be the crisis team's responsibility to do whatever is necessary to control the situation and minimize loss.

It's the team's job to:

  • Investigate the crisis
  • Assure all proper individuals/agencies are notified
  • Propose a response to resolve the situation
  • Respond to all inquiries, including regulatory officials, customers and the news media

Selecting the right people for your crisis team is crucial. They should be chosen for their expertise and their experience. Think about job functions and not job titles of particular personnel. Most importantly, think of what they bring to the team.

Notification Procedures

No crisis team can do its job unless it knows a crisis exists. An integral part of your crisis plan is to assure that team members will be notified immediately when a potential crisis takes place. Employees at each location should have instructions of what to do and who to call in the event of a crisis situation.

What To Do When A Crisis Strikes

Once notified that a crisis is taking place, your first steps should be to make sure the crisis team is assembled, determine what has happened and what you need to do to deal with it.

Each member should go over his or her pre-written checklist to avoid missing important steps.

Assess the situation and get out in front of it as soon as possible. Don't simply react to events. Take the lead and take control!

Essentially, the team needs to find out:

  • What happened? In as much detail as possible.
  • What caused it?
  • What is your organization doing about it?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where did it happen? Are other sites affected?
  • In product tampering/contamination: Product involved, restaurants involved, current status, can product be obtained, possible lawsuits.
  • Are regulatory officials, law enforcement, emergency workers on scene?
  • Are the news media there?
  • Should others be contacted? (FDA, EPA, OSHA, Health Department, etc.)

Determine Your Message And Strategy

If the media is involved, you might have just a few minutes to determine what you can tell them. In the beginning, you can buy precious time by issuing a simple statement acknowledging the obvious, letting them know of your concern for the public safety and that you'll keep reporters posted as the situation develops.

Brief the media as often as warranted. Remember that if you help create a news vacuum by not talking to reporters, that vacuum will be filled by someone else who does not share your agenda.

Be as honest as possible. Stick with the facts. Never speculate.

If at all possible, let reporters know you're on top of the situation, that you're taking positive actions and you're in control. The health and safety of your employees and your customers should always be your top concern.

Do whatever you can to work with public officials. Don't fight them. Working together, you can be a team looking out for the welfare of your customers and/or employees.

Praise your employees. They are the best public relations team you'll ever have. Make sure they're on your side and let them know you appreciate it. If appropriate, praise emergency workers.

Thank the public for their understanding when necessary and don't be afraid to apologize for inconveniences your organization might have caused.

Your spokesperson's credibility will be his or her top asset in dealing with the news media. It needs to be someone who is knowledgeable about the situation and knows the territory. Don't assume your spokesperson should be the top-ranking officer in the company. It seldom is.

It is essential that the spokesperson believes what they say. They need to use their own words and their own style. This is not a time for actors.

Remember the media deal in sound bites, not long-winded essays, so package your message so the media can use it. Don't get caught up in details which may breed additional questions and fuel controversy.

Above all, they need to stick with their message.

In Dealing With The News Media During A Crisis:


  • Know your message and stick to it
  • Speak with one voice, your designated spokesperson
  • Be as frank and honest as possible
  • Keep it as simple, get to your point quickly
  • Package your message so the media can use it
  • Treat all reporters fairly
  • Align yourself with the public
  • Make sure you understand questions before answering them
  • Correct wrong assumptions or misinformation


  • Speculate
  • Go off the record
  • Get mad or become defensive
  • Say "no comment"
  • Minimize the situation
  • Respond to hypothetical questions
  • Use technical jargon
  • Assign blame or state cause until all the facts are known
  • Repeat questions or inflammatory words
  • Mislead or exaggerate

NOTE: This article is copyrighted by Wilson Group Communications, Inc., and may not be published without the express permission of The Wilson Group. For information on this article, contact The Wilson Group via email: info@wilson-group.com or call 614-461-1333.