This post is a crash course in crisis communications.  If you are a small business owner or a nonprofit CEO, you probably wear a lot of hats for your business.  Also, you probably were never told much about the hats.  The crisis communications hat is a tough one, because when it is time to wear it you have the least time to learn about it.  So, today let’s talk about the basics of crisis communications for small businesses and nonprofits.  This is a longer-than-average “how to” post.  Feel free to bookmark it if you think it could be relevant in the future!

First, I believe it is a smart idea to look at the world with a public relations lens all the time.  It allows you to foresee potential problems and get in front of them.  In some cases, the first step of crisis communications is preventing the crisis to begin with.  If bad news is ahead for your audience, get in front of it.  I will keep saying this.  Get in front of it.  Control the information, give a timeline, give a few points about why the thing is really a good thing.  Tell your audience what to expect.  In the lead-up, the controlled release of information is key.

If bad news is ahead for your audience, get in front of it. #smallbiz #nonprofit Click To Tweet

Once a crisis happens, the situation is anything but controlled.  You are dealing with a crisis, after all.  This is an event that you may or may not have been able to predict.  One that causes concern, emotion, or speculation among your audience.  This could be an external audience – such as customers and your larger community.  It could even be an internal audience – perhaps employees or stakeholders.  Regardless, you did not have time or opportunity to get in front of this, and the impact to your audience is going to be negative.

Crisis communications applies to any event that creates a threat to your business or brand, especially in terms of safety, reputation, or finances.  I would even encourage you to extend this definition to anything controversial.  Controversy should trigger you to put your crisis communications hat on.

Controversy should trigger you to put your crisis communications hat on. #smallbiz #nonprofit Click To Tweet

So, what do you do?  Actually, crisis communications is fairly formulaic.  Once you have a sense of the steps, it becomes much easier to make good decisions.

Step 1

Hopefully you have already designated a spokesperson for your team.  If the team is just you, this is easy.  If you have multiple people on your team, this is a role that needs to be clear.  That said, you may find that the particular crisis in question calls for someone else to be the spokesperson on record.  If so, make sure that person is up to speed and is fully supported.  This is not just public speaking/social media.  This could be public speaking under duress.  Spokespeople need to be prepared for that.

Step 2

If there are people on your team or other constituents who need to be part of the message-crafting process, involve them immediately.  Anyone who provides valuable insight into how the problem would need to be solved should be called into the discussion right away.

Step 3

Put out a statement to show your audience that you are aware of the situation at hand.  You may have different levels of information that need to be shared with different stakeholder groups.  In this case, prepare multiple messages and know exactly who is getting each one.  Here are some basic ways to structure your information:

Type 1: An incident befell your company and was contrary to what you believe in

In this case: 1) Acknowledge the situation.  If you can do this without naming and shaming, try to.  2) Point out that you don’t agree with the situation.  If you can, do so by stating positively what you do believe in.

Type 2: An incident befell you, was unfortunate or even devastating, but was not caused by your business

In this case, 1) Acknowledge the situation.  2) Express concern or sympathy for anyone affected by the incident. 3) Share any steps you may be taking to improve the situation or help the people affected.  Also share where that information might be found.

You may want to have some holding statements crafted in advance that would work for your business.  Messaging such as “our thoughts are with those who are affected” is a friend of yours in the early days when you want to establish concern but not place the fault squarely on your shoulders (which leaves you more exposed to legal action).

Type 3: An incident took place, was unfortunate or even devastating, and was caused in whole or in part by your business or a representative that could be connected with it

In this case, 1) Acknowledge the situation.  2) Express concern or sympathy for anyone affected by the incident. 3) Outline the action you are taking to resolve the situation in however much detail you are prepared to disclose at this point, even if that is just that you are assembling a committee to assess it.  4) Close by acknowledging again your concern or sympathy for anyone affected.

For Type 3, you will eventually want to position your statement to show some sort of root cause for why the situation happened.  If you don’t know the reason at first, just start by acknowledging the results and use holding statements that show that you are actively working to find out what happened.  When you do know what happened, be thoughtful about how you frame it.  Was it human error?  Was it a problem with the procedure?  Quality control problem?  When you disclose the problem, be prepared to disclose a remedy to that problem at the same time.

And a tip, when doing part three and outlining the steps you are taking for resolution, try to avoid dealing in absolutes.  This is not a good time to promise that you are “making sure it will never happen again.”  You don’t know the cause yet, and you need to leave room for the information you get in the coming hours or days to impact your decision and process.

Step 4

Make sure that any representatives who will be spokespeople are aware of the approved messaging.  That is what they should say.

Step 5

Release this information internally and to stakeholders who are itching to know what is going on.  Then release it more widely to customers, patrons, the community, media, or whatever is relevant for the size and scope of your business.  If follow-up questions are permitted, no matter how many different times or ways the questions are asked, this response you crafted is still the response.  If the broken record starts to feel ridiculous, spokespeople can always say, “I’ve answered this a few times.  I will answer it one more time….” and repeat the same messaging.

Step 6

Work behind the scenes with the key representatives of your business to find answers and solutions.

Step 7

Repeat steps 3 through 6 as many times as required until you have definitive-enough conclusions to share.  This will logically coincide with a lessening of questions and concern.

Step 8

Evaluate and assess.  This is a good time to circle back with your core team to sort out what happened, the results, and how to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

These steps may seem extreme for smaller businesses.  You might feel like this type of messaging is too cold and impersonal for what your business is.  Remember, you can always be a human about how you deliver these messages!  It should come out in a way that is comfortable to you, but the content is planned out the way it is for a reason: to assuage the concerns of your audience, show them that you are being responsible to address the situation, and still leave yourself some protection from legal action or further reputation damage.

If all of this is overkill for a business of your business’ size, just go with a simplified version of this strategy.  In fact, these principles may work even for individuals in day-to-day life.  It never hurts to have a plan for how to respond instead of just reacting.  Hopefully this helps to arm you with a crisis communications strategy…and that you will never need it!


For those interested to learn more about how to help prevent controversy and reputation damage in your business, check out this blog: Mixing Business and Personal in Your Marketing.