Don’t Panic! Plan Your Crisis Communication Before the Crisis Hits

Almost every business must deal with a public relations crisis at some point, whether it’s a data breach, an unscrupulous employee, a problem with the product or service, or a miscommunication. For almost every business, you can usually predict the types of crises you’ll face, so you might as well prepare now.

Let’s imagine you work in a hospital. A “Code Black” situation means the hospital is overrun with patients–maybe there’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or a nurses’ strike leading to an employee shortage. Whatever the cause, you’ll need to communicate with frightened members of the public, desperate to find loved ones. You’ll need to communicate with organizational partners to set up shelters and/or alternative medical care options, and you’ll need to communicate with the media about what’s happening. And that’s only the first hour.

Before any crisis hits, you can write the press release (mostly).

The press release’s lede (first paragraph) should provide the who, what, where, and when of the situation. Then you can reinforce your organization’s mission and values, since those are the foundations upon which decisions will be made to guide your organization through the crisis.

The press release you write to prepare for any Code Black situation could start with something like this:

At (time of day) on (date), (number of patients) patients arrived at Hometown Hospital (HH) as a result of (description of disaster). The influx of patients quickly filled the 12-bed emergency department, but patients could not be sent to neighboring hospitals because they, too, were overwhelmed with disaster victims. 

HH President Joe Goodguy said, “We’re triaging patients as quickly as we can, putting patients on gurneys and lining the hallways where our dedicated physicians and hospital staff have worked through the night to stabilize them.

As always, our mission is to provide excellent health care for everyone in our community, and we’ll continue to do all we can to make this happen.” 

People concerned about loved ones can visit or call (1-800 Crisis Line) for more information. 

Clearly, you won’t know every detail ahead of time, but you know you’ll want to 1. Explain what happened, 2. Give kudos to the people in your organization going above and beyond, and 3. Provide answers to people’s most pressing question(s). In this case, people will want to know how to reunite with loved ones, or at least find out whether they’re safe.

You can go through each crisis scenario your organization is likely to face and brainstorm probable questions and issues; then prepare a press release for each. You can also set up a dark page on your website (one that remains unpublished until it’s needed) with key facts and contact information to keep people informed in the event of a crisis.

Best Practices for Crisis Communication

  1. Plan ahead. Identify likely crises and create a communication plan for each.
  2. Identify a spokesperson and be sure employees know they should refer all media inquiries to that person.
  3. Be open and honest about the crisis as quickly as possible; then provide accurate, timely updates so people continue to come to you for information.
  4. Use many pathways for communication: social media, traditional news outlets, community partners, and other networks. Use radio, print, broadcast, and web resources.
  5. Be accountable and make things right. If your crisis involves a mistake, admit the mistake and explain the measures your organization is taking to prevent this type of mistake in the future. If appropriate and if possible, make those who are affected by the organization’s actions whole again, to the degree that you can.