Crisis Communication

Crisis communication definition

Crisis communication is the strategic practice of effectively managing and disseminating information during times of emergencies or critical events in order to minimize damage, maintain public trust, and guide appropriate actions and responses.

Basic introduction to crisis communication

In a crisis situation, businesses need to communicate quickly with both employees and external stakeholders. Crisis management teams need ways to disseminate key information to protect employees, reassure the public, and minimize negative impacts as much as possible. 

To be prepared, businesses create crisis management plans that can launch a quick response to many types of crises. The nature of the potential crisis might not be known in advance, but an office of crisis management can designate a crisis communications team with clear responsibilities, create a general action plan, and organize communication channels—preparing to put the crisis plan into effect.

What is a crisis communications plan?

A crisis communications plan is a strategic framework and set of procedures that an organization develops to effectively and efficiently handle and address communication challenges and issues during a crisis. The plan outlines necessary steps and protocols for the crisis communication team to ensure timely and accurate communication with stakeholders, media, and the public. The goal of the plan is to mitigate potential damage to the organization’s reputation while maintaining trust and transparency with both employees and the public.

Crisis communication examples

1. Johnson & Johnson’s response to the TYLENOL crisis

In 1982, Johnson & Johnson faced a major crisis communication challenge when seven people died after consuming Extra Strength TYLENOL capsules that had been laced with cyanide. Although the incident seemed to be limited to Chicago pharmacies, the company immediately pulled 31 million bottles off the shelves and launched a nationwide campaign to inform the public about the tampering incident, working closely with law enforcement throughout the investigation.

The incident led the company to introduce new, industry-leading tamper-evident packaging. By being transparent and taking swift action, Johnson & Johnson was able to regain consumer trust and maintain their market share.

2. BP’s crisis communication during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to a massive crisis communication challenge. It took three months to fully cap the resulting oil leak, spilling some 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. The repercussions were severe for both the natural environment and BP’s reputation, but the company’s crisis communication strategy played a crucial role in managing the fallout.

BP took responsibility for the spill, mobilized resources for containment and cleanup efforts, provided regular updates to the public, and ultimately spent billions of dollars toward Gulf restoration projects. The company also established a claims process to compensate individuals and businesses affected by the spill. By taking ownership of the crisis and actively working toward resolution, BP was able to regain public trust and mitigate the long-term damage to its reputation.

3. Chipotle’s crisis management response to food safety issues

In December of 2015, a Chipotle restaurant in Boston was responsible for 141 cases of norovirus when an apprentice manager vomited while at work—and was ordered to keep working, in direct violation of company policy. This incident posed a significant crisis communication challenge for Chipotle. The fast-food chain responded by temporarily closing local restaurants, implementing (and retraining) food safety protocols, and launching a comprehensive marketing campaign to rebuild trust.

Chipotle also hired food safety consultants and conducted audits to ensure compliance. Their commitment to transparency and food safety measures—along with their use of external experts to prove that commitment—helped them recover from the crisis and regain customer loyalty.

4. United Airlines’ crisis response to the passenger removal incident

In 2017, United Airlines faced a major crisis when a 69-year-old doctor was chosen at random from the passenger roster and forcefully removed from an overbooked flight, injuring him in the process. Other passengers filmed the incident on their phones, and the videos went viral. The incident sparked widespread outrage, but the airline’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially issued a tone-deaf response, essentially blaming the doctor, which only made matters worse.

When the crisis communication team stepped in, the CEO released a heartfelt apology and announced policy changes to prevent similar incidents. The airline also reviewed and revised its compensation policies for overbooked flights. While the incident had a lasting impact on United Airlines’ reputation—especially due to the time delay in taking public sentiment seriously—their subsequent actions and commitment to improvement helped them begin the process of rebuilding trust.

5. Procter & Gamble’s response to the Tide Pod challenge crisis

It isn’t clear exactly when the infamous Tide Pod challenge started, but in 2017, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 220 cases of toxic exposure to the laundry detergent pods—many of which were eaten voluntarily by teenagers thanks to a social media “challenge.” It was a crisis communication team’s worst nightmare, proving that some crises can be impossible to predict, and can happen through no fault of the company.

Rob Gronkowski Tide Pods Laundry Not Candy Crisis Communication

Fortunately, Proctor & Gamble’s team responded quickly and effectively, taking a multi-pronged approach to the crisis. They responded on the social media channels with messaging that was designed to change the conversation—so that eating Tide Pods became a mark of stupidity rather than bravery or entertainment. And they also hired effective influencers, including New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, to make the message stick. Notably, the company did not apologize—having done nothing wrong—and the fast response was successful in ending the trend.

6. Southwest Airlines’ response to Flight 1380 emergency landing

In 2018, Southwest Airlines faced a crisis when the left engine of one of their planes exploded, leading to a passenger’s death and twenty harrowing minutes of terror for the 144 passengers and five crew on board. Fortunately, the pilot, Tammie Jo Shults, was able to land the plane safely, with no additional loss of life.

Southwest Airlines’ crisis communication team responded to the event quickly, expressing their condolences to the family of the lost passenger and offering full support to everyone who had been on the flight. They also grounded their fleet to conduct thorough inspections and communicate the safety measures to the public. By prioritizing transparency and passenger safety—through both words and actions—Southwest Airlines was able to handle the crisis effectively and maintain its reputation as a reliable airline.

7. Aldi’s Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake war with M&S

Can a chocolate cake really spark a communication crisis? In 2021, Aldi proved that it can, releasing a Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake in direct competition with British retailer M&S’s famous Colin the Caterpillar cake. M&S filed a lawsuit, and Aldi fought back with humor—in an effective communication strategy that played out on social media.

Aldi Stores UK Twitter #FreeCuthbert Crisis Communication

Aldi poked fun at the rival supermarket in posts featuring the hashtag #FreeCuthbert, proving that a good communication strategy should always be tailored to the underlying incident. If it’s about a new cake, for example, have some fun with it. Aldi applied effective social listening to monitor public opinion and build support for Cuthbert the Caterpillar, turning a potential crisis into massive, free publicity.

10 steps to a successful crisis communication strategy

An effective crisis management strategy hinges on being prepared. As the previous examples prove, some companies are better prepared than others to weather any storm. The ten factors below can make or break a company when facing a crisis scenario.

  1. Prepare in advance: It’s important to have a plan in place before any crisis occurs. Identify potential risks, create messaging templates, and establish a designated crisis communication team.
  2. Assess the situation: When a crisis arises, gather all the necessary information to understand the situation. Determine the severity, impact, and potential consequences.
  3. Act quickly: Time is of the essence in crisis communication. Respond promptly to the crisis, acknowledging the issue and providing initial information to concerned parties.
  4. Establish a central spokesperson: Designate a knowledgeable and trusted individual to be the official spokesperson for the organization. This person should be trained in crisis communication and able to effectively deliver accurate and consistent messaging.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders: Keep all relevant stakeholders, such as employees, customers, and the media, informed throughout the crisis. Provide regular updates, be transparent, and address concerns and questions promptly.
  6. Tailor the messaging: Adapt the communication style and tone to suit different audiences and channels. Use clear and concise language, avoiding technical jargon or confusing terminology.
  7. Monitor and address social media: Actively monitor social media platforms for mentions and discussions related to the crisis. Respond appropriately and directly to questions, comments, and concerns shared on these channels.
  8. Correct misinformation: Inaccurate information can quickly spread during a crisis, which can further escalate the situation. Counter false information with accurate facts and address any misunderstandings promptly.
  9. Show empathy and compassion: During a crisis, it’s essential to demonstrate empathy and understanding toward those affected. Be sure to express concern and offer support.
  10. Learn from the crisis: Once the immediate crisis is resolved, conduct a thorough review and analysis. Identify areas for improvement in your crisis communication plan and make any necessary adjustments to be better prepared in the future.

Crisis communication plan steps

Although every crisis communication plan is unique, the following ten steps provide a general outline that can help organizations prepare and implement a crisis communication plan.

  1. Establish a crisis management team: Identify key stakeholders, and designate roles and responsibilities within the team.
  2. Conduct a risk assessment: Identify potential crises that could affect the organization, evaluating the likelihood and potential impact of each one.
  3. Develop a crisis communication plan: Create a comprehensive document that outlines the communication strategies, protocols, and tools to be used during a crisis.
  4. Establish communication channels: Identify and prepare multiple communication channels to reach employees, customers, media, and other relevant stakeholders.
  5. Create key messages: For each identified potential crisis, prepare pre-approved messages to convey accurate and consistent information.
  6. Designate spokespersons: Identify people who will serve as official spokespersons for the organization during a crisis, and provide media training if necessary.
  7. Establish monitoring and alert systems: Set up systems to monitor social media, news outlets, and other sources to stay informed and respond promptly to emerging crises.
  8. Establish protocols for internal communication: Define procedures for communicating with employees, ensuring they receive accurate and timely information.
  9. Coordinate with external agencies: Establish relationships with relevant agencies, such as emergency services or regulatory bodies, to coordinate efforts during a crisis.
  10. Test and update the plan: Conduct regular drills and exercises to test the crisis communication plan, making updates and improvements based on feedback and lessons learned.

The importance of a crisis communications plan

In the case of an emergency that affects employee safety—such as a hurricane or significant earthquake—crisis response communication needs to reach employees in real time. In the case of an external crisis, organizations need to make sure employees are informed along with the public.

Calm, collected leadership that reaches employees through multiple communication channels can help to keep employees aligned on appropriate messaging. Modern intranet software simplifies employee communication, connecting and aligning distributed workforces even in enterprise-level organizations.

Companies use these systems to create company newsrooms and virtual headquarters, giving every employee a single source of truth for critical information. They also leverage the power of AI in analyzing internal social networks for trends in employee sentiment—a critical employee listening tool in a time of crisis.

Discover how Simpplr’s intranet platform can help implement a crisis communication plan across even the most complex enterprises—simply, easily, and in real time.