Discover more from Flack
Flack's crisis communications playbook
The comms before the storm
My crisis comms approach is inspired by advice from Urijah Faber, a Hall of Fame UFC fighter and a very wise person. I once asked how his team prepares for fights, and he repeated a mantra, “Don’t get ready, stay ready.” Because a big fight can come when you don’t expect it — and when it does, there won’t be enough time to prepare.
A crisis is similar. When crisis is upon you, it’s too late to craft a good plan. By then, time is short, noise is high, trust is low, and anger is building — all while you’re squinting through the fog of war.
Don’t wait until the shit is flying fanward to make a crisis comms plan.
Below is a crisis comms playbook to keep on hand just in case. Save this email or bookmark this link — and here’s hoping you’ll never need it.
If this was forwarded to you by a friend, you can join Flack for free to receive practical comms and PR advice.
The “Flack” Crisis Comms Playbook
1. Assembling the team
People in the war room
Keep an updated list of cell numbers and locations for the following people — and save it locally on your devices in case you can’t access your cloud during the crisis.
This is who you need to assemble when a crisis unfolds:
President/chief operating officer
Chief financial officer
Chief technology officer
Chief people officer
Chief communications officer
Head of product
Head of investor relations
Head of compliance
Other relevant execs depending on the organization
Roles & responsibilities
Establish clear roles and responsibilities for key execs ahead of time. Examples:
War room leader and primary voice of the company
[Name], usually COO/President/CEO
Direct and approve all substantive decisions
Approve and have final say on communications to employees, board, investors, writers
Acts as primary spokesperson for the company
Approve requests for outside resources (legal, forensics, etc.)
[Name] leading comms overall
Assemble crisis team
Designate internal and external spokespeople
Recommend proactive and reactive messaging
Cascade information to key audiences
Manage media and social media
Questions about comms team roles to answer in advance if possible:
Who will be the air traffic controller for incoming media inquiries?
Who will need to chase down approvals for messaging?
Who will be the spokesperson for various issues?
Who will prep the spokesperson?
[Name], usually in legal
Legal review and approval of all messaging and procedures, recommends modifications as needed
Supervise outside counsel as needed
Liaison to law enforcement or regulators as needed
Ensure compliance with any regulatory reporting requirements
[Name], usually HR
Check in with employees and ensures that internal operations are minimally disrupted; provide information about employees’ wellbeing and state of mind to the crisis team
Provide timely information to employees and their families about the situation and relevant resources
Other roles might include:
IT & forensics
Real estate & facilities
2. Assessing the situation
Is it a crisis?
Align ahead of time on what you consider a true crisis, e.g., something that:
Disrupts the ability to continue normal business operations
Seriously jeopardizes trust with customers
Materially affects finances and valuation
It’s probably time to activate the crisis team if any of these conditions appear to be met:
Have there been/could there be serious injuries or fatalities?
Is there a serious issue related to illegal behavior?
Has an important company promise been broken or trust been destroyed on a wide scale?
Could it harm the company’s reputation over the long term?
Is it visible to the public/will it become visible to the public?
Is the issue of special concern to employees, customers, or investors?
Are government agencies involved?
Is it related to a high profile current event, like an election?
Finance & operations
Is there a significant negative financial impact?
Is there major financial misconduct?
Does it disrupt your ability to do business?
3. Principles for engaging
In a crisis, you have to be ruthless about choosing what to prioritize. When setting priorities, consider the following:
People — keep the team safe and informed. Protect both employees and customers. Their welfare is at the center of all operational and communications decisions.
Know your most important audiences, e.g., employees, customers, board, investors, regulators.
Accuracy — you must be the single source for accurate and timely information. Never exaggerate or speculate; calmly share the facts.
Transparency — share what you can, but only information you’re absolutely sure of.
Speed — move quickly and provide regular updates to the people who matter most, using the mediums they use. Be agile in knocking down falsehoods before they become accepted as facts.
Focus — any crisis is chaotic and mired in the fog of war. Focus on the most important facts, delivered to the most important people.
Legal compliance — everything you do should involve legal counsel. Find the balance between being being careful and being transparent (this is hard). Keep communications privileged when it makes sense.
Rules of thumb
Follow these practices at all times when approaching crisis communications:
Speak decisively, using clear and simple messaging. No jargony obfuscation or fumbling around.
Speak using the most relevant mediums, e.g., email, social, print, broadcast, website.
Be aggressive about correcting the record. Rumor ossifies into fact quickly in the age of social media.
Constantly monitor what people are saying and asking.
Guard your relationships (and you should have built up important relationships before you need them in a crisis).
4. Immediate actions
Assemble the war room. Notify the crisis team (call on the phone).
Agree which communication channels to use, how often to check in, and subject line protocol to avoid chaotic email chains. Agree on what needs to be documented. Include legal counsel on all relevant communications.
Confirm all available information and determine the severity and scope of the situation (see “Fact-gathering questions” below).
Get real-time monitoring of media and social media.
Establish a war room, likely virtual, where the crisis team can hold check-ins and discuss decision-making and media inquiries. Schedule regular meetings (e.g., 3 times a day or every morning).
Communicate with employees as soon as possible, and make sure they find out facts from us directly. Remind the team about the protocol for incoming press inquiries (don’t respond to inquiries, forward all inquiries to X) — because reporters will start hitting up random employees on LinkedIn, etc.
Take an inventory of key audiences/stakeholders; confirm who’s reaching out to which important people and develop messaging materials for them. Divide and conquer to get to everyone quickly.
Develop public messaging materials (e.g., holding statements, Q&A and talking points, website update, social media responses, etc.) and disseminate as needed; there should already be generic holding statements for the most likely scenarios that you can tailor (see the “Scenario planning” section below).
Identify and brief third-party allies, e.g., influential organizations or individuals that might be asked about the situation or are likely to opine on it publicly.
To the extent possible, plan for the next day, week, and month in terms of post-crisis recovery and understand how future plans are being affected.
Communicate answers to these in person or over phone whenever possible.
1. What happened?
What is the nature of the situation?
When and where did it occur?
What was the cause?
How certain is the information? What is the source of the information?
What is still unclear or in doubt? What is being done to find out?
When will new information be available?
2. What is the scope of the situation?
Is there a threat to people? Threat to finances, sensitive data, or physical assets?
How many people are affected? Who? Are there others indirectly affected?
Who knows about this situation internally? Externally?
Is the issue local, regional, national, or global in scope?
Are any political, NGO, or activist groups attaching themselves to this situation?
3. Who needs to be involved to address the issue?
Do any subject matter experts or point people outside the crisis team need to be involved?
Do you need to bring in external help, like PR or legal support?
Are law enforcement, emergency responders, regulatory bodies or local government officials involved?
Are there regulatory obligations to disclose information or cooperate with government entities?
4. How is the company being perceived?
Will this situation be viewed as having been preventable? Is this a recurring situation?
Have you been alerted to this previously?
Are the media involved? Social media? What are people saying?
Are your ongoing communications initiatives appropriate in this environment, or do you need to cancel or retract messages to avoid being tone-deaf? For example, you might pause an ad campaign or cancel a planned event
Are there activities that should be put on hold or suspended indefinitely?
5. Can you shape the outcome?
What’s the full range of options you can take, and what are the pros/cons of each?
What eventual recovery/compensation plans need to be set in motion now?
Do you need any outreach to others who might decide your fate, e.g, lobbying regulators for intervention?
5. Messaging guidelines
In any crisis, people need to hear from you as quickly as possible about:
What happened and why/how
What the company is doing about it now
Where people can go to get more information
If there's something they need to do
What the path forward is
For any specific messaging, think through these things.
Goal: what do you need the audience to understand, feel, or do?
Context: what do they need to know about the background or what’s at stake?
Facts: what hard facts can you point to?
Actions: what specific actions are you taking now, and what can people expect next?
Guidelines for spokespeople in a crisis
Never lie, fudge, or speculate on hypotheticals.
Exhibit calmness and confidence, with voice, tone, and body language.
Never become annoyed or defensive, even if a reporter is combative.
Stick to clear, declarative language. Avoid jargon and passive tense.
Know the facts cold. Be comfortable with the summary of what’s happening and what you’re doing about it. No fumbling or stuttering.
Be consistent; don’t contradict yourself.
Never say, “no comment.” If you don’t know, admit it and say what you’re doing to find out.
Assume everything is on the record at all times unless explicitly agreed otherwise.
Don’t use humor or sarcasm.
Don’t bank on uncertain early information that could evolve as you learn more; avoid needing to backtrack or revise later.
Handling negative or unfair questions
In a crisis, everyone is mad at you. When everyone is mad at you, the questions will be aggressive, even rude. That doesn’t mean you should hide from questions, but here’s how you can handle them effectively:
Be aware of how your emotions are being perceived (angry? defensive? evasive? etc.).
If a reporter says something inaccurate, address the premise or framing of their question.
Give crisp answers in full sentences that are harder to take out of context.
If the question doesn’t make sense or isn’t something you can answer, zoom out and identify the key points that really matter.
Again: sarcasm and humor don’t translate well in a crisis.
If someone ambushes you in person with a camera, don’t throw your hand in front of it; just calmly let them know you’re not able to talk right now or to contact email@example.com if they’re trying to get an interview.
6. Tactical execution
Before a crisis happens, be prepared with basic plans for the most likely scenarios.
Identify your top risks and draft a basic plan for each scenario so you’re not caught flat-footed if one of them materializes.
Examples include data breach, financial collapse, natural disaster, catastrophic product failure.
Include holding statements for employees, customers, investors, and the public — with blanks to be filled in when needed.
Include plans for social media and influencer relations.
Get ready to move quickly; tempo is key!
Thanks for reading. Join the free list to get future posts about crisis comms, using PR agencies, and how to pitch your startup.