Crisis Communications: How to Arm Your Spokespeople to Navigate the Storm

By Tom Vogel

From internal challenges like the unexpected departure of a key executive, layoffs or a product recall to external events like natural disasters or market turmoil, every organization is vulnerable to crises. While it’s easy to believe that it won’t happen to your organization, the question is not if a crisis will happen, but when.

Spokespeople give your organization both a face and a voice, which helps build trust with your audiences on your behalf. However, problems will arise if your spokespeople aren’t ready, especially in the midst of a crisis situation. A poorly handled PR crisis can have long-lasting implications that may include strained customer relationships, legal or regulatory action, declining stock prices, and damaged brand reputation.

Well-prepared spokespeople are an essential part of any crisis communications strategy.

But how do you ensure your spokespeople are prepared and have all the tools they need to succeed?  Here are some important questions to consider:

1. Do you have a crisis communications plan in place?

A crisis will be a surprise. Your response can’t be. The worse time to put a crisis communications plan in place is when a crisis hits, which is too late. While you can’t know what’s going to happen or when, you should have a plan that includes guidance for your spokespeople when crises arise.

A crisis communications plan is a reference tool for organizations and their spokespeople to use during an emergency. It establishes guidelines for how to communicate with the public, employees, and other stakeholders, and puts resources in place to help spokespeople succeed. It identifies the crisis management team, chain of command, messaging, tools to be used to distribute information, and more.

You need to identify the weaknesses in your organization that may cause a crisis by conducting a vulnerability audit to identify potential exposures, including inspections of operations and office sites, infrastructure systems, processes, networks and so on. Look at past events, review industry peers and identify the specific things about your organization that could go wrong. You will also want to conduct crisis simulations to see how events might unfold.

2. How severe is the crisis?

Not every crisis is the same. Some are one-off incidents that can be quickly addressed in a few days and, if properly managed, pose no major threat to your organization’s operations or reputation. Others can draw critical attention from clients, employees, shareholders, regulators and the media and pose a serious challenge to your operations and business over a more extended time period. The most serious crises threaten your core reputation and can cause long-term damage to your operations.

Establishing clear definitions for the severity of a crisis — say Risk Level I, II, and III — will help to provide a roadmap for how to address each and which of your spokespeople would be the best choice to respond.

A Level I crisis, for example, could be a one-day event with limited impact on clients or employees that spurs some interest from local media. In this case, it may make sense for your chief communications officer or your head of human resources to be the spokespeople. Having the CEO or another high-ranked officer respond to a Risk Level I crisis could have the unhelpful effect of magnifying the importance or severity of a Risk Level I crisis and alarming your stakeholders rather than calming them.

On the other hand, a Risk Level III crisis would have more severe impacts over many days, or months, upon clients, employees and the general public while also drawing the attention of regulators and the national media. In this case, it would make sense to have a high-ranking senior executive, such as the CEO, be the spokesperson, depending on the nature of the crisis, to demonstrate that your organization takes the crisis very seriously.

3. Who is the right spokesperson in a crisis?

The spokesperson you choose to represent your organization plays a crucial role in crisis communications. It’s essential that the person you select has characteristics that will help them excel in the role and convey your message effectively. Traits like strong communication skills, charisma, authenticity, and relatability are all vital.

These personal qualities are important, but the spokesperson should also hold a position of authority in your organization that correlates with risk level of the crisis, as audiences place more trust on high-ranking members like senior executives.

On another note, it’s generally regarded as bad practice to appoint an organization’s attorney as a spokesperson, except possibly regarding litigation issues.

4. Do your spokespeople know how to communicate with the news media?

Once you’re confident in your choice of spokespeople, they’ll need training to ensure they can be successful in media interviews. Professional training will orient them to the role the media play in a crisis, the best practices for interviews and other communications.

Your spokespeople should know the type of information that is most important to convey, how to handle difficult questions and how to stay on message, among other key skills. They should also be familiar with best practices for different types of communications with the media.

Management of a phone interview with a reporter is different from a Zoom interview. For example, will the interview audio or video be taped and on-the-record? Will the interview be on background with the reporter agreeing to use the information but not source it?  Would the reporter be amenable to your fact-checking paraphrased or direct quotes they want to use to ensure they are provided with correct context? Some reporters won’t do this but many will, especially with high-profile or complex stories, so they can be sure they are getting everything right and haven’t missed anything important.

Television and radio interviews are usually live with everything on-the-record but sometimes they are taped for future broadcast, which may give the organization time to supply additional supporting materials that they may not have already provided before the interview.

Proper training must include extensive practice and simulated interviews, including on-camera sessions. Conveying calm, sincerity, control and contrition are all key in the context of a crisis and hitting the right tone requires practice.

5. Who are your audiences and stakeholders besides the media?

The media are just one of your potential audiences when a crisis hits. In fact, these other audiences are often just as important, and sometimes even more important, than the media.

Depending on the crisis, your spokespeople should also be prepared to communicate with employees,  investors, shareholders, creditors, vendors, business and strategic partners, landlords, local and national regulators, local and national political leaders, as well as members of the communities in which you work or  serve.

While the messaging and information shared should be the same, the approach for doing so is different for each of these other groups of stakeholders. For example, an email to employees may suffice for a Level I crisis but a “town hall” may be needed for a Level III crisis that causes employees to worry about losing their jobs and may spur key employees to start seeking employment elsewhere.

6. How should your spokespeople prepare to speak with the media and other stakeholders?

We suggest starting with a Q&A that covers all of the likely questions that your stakeholders might have, with sections covering each stakeholder group from the media and employees to clients, investors, regulators, local leaders, vendors and so on.

The Q&A should include references to other relevant supporting materials including, for example, earnings reports, business updates and strategy, investor decks, analyst research, legal filings, comparisons with similar past crises at your organization and the broader industry and how they were successfully addressed.

The Q&A, which should be updated as the situation evolves, can be used reactively to respond to queries from the media and other stakeholders. Portions of the Q&A can also be used pro-actively with relevant audiences, depending on the nature and evolution of the crisis.

Then, to maintain control over the optics of the situation, the Q&A should be used to craft key messages before your spokesperson engages with the media and other stakeholders. As part of your crisis communications strategy, you should also develop a list of talking points and messages that you want to relay to the public and all of your stakeholders.

You may not know the outcome of the situation, but it is likely that you know what narrative you want to emphasize in regards to the crisis and your organization. In these key messages, you should:

  • Share the facts about the situation
  • Explain how the crisis is being handled
  • Target stakeholders of the organization
  • Help to regain trust
  • Highlight your organization’s actions during the crisis

Before communications with each stakeholder group, we also suggest asking key members of each stakeholder group, wherever possible, to share their questions and concerns with you in advance, if they haven’t done so already. This can be particularly helpful with the media.

If a reporter has asked for an interview about the crisis but hasn’t provide any questions, you should ask in advance for the questions they most need the answers for so that you can be as prepared as possible for the interview.

By the way, this doesn’t mean you will be able or want to answer all of the questions, but you will have a roadmap for the interview and a clearer idea of what the reporter plans to write. Depending on the questions, timing, status of the crisis and the reporter’s deadline, you may also use this information to decide if it makes sense to reply by email instead.

Armed with your Q&A, key messages, and talking points, your spokespeople can incorporate these points into their responses in order to control the dialogue and gain a better handle on the story.

7. How proactive should your spokespeople be?

Being proactive by communicating to the media first establishes an initial response, which can help you begin to regain trust with the public and other stakeholders. It shows empathy, highlights an effort to shed light on the situation, and provides assurance that you’re taking action. It’s far better than allowing another source or media outlet to speak out about the situation before you can, which could paint your organization in a bad light or start rumors. Crises can breed an especially critical audience, so you should take every opportunity to redeem yourself, as the longer you wait, the more damage that can be done.

8. Does every question need to be answered?

When communicating in a crisis, it’s important that your spokespeople only speak to the facts of the situation. A crisis is not a time for assumptions, so they should only focus on what they truly know at that moment, not what they think they know. Straying from the facts can lead to speculation, misinterpretation, and a lack of trust in the public eye, not to mention the loss of credibility if you need to publicly walk back any of your statements. Good reputations are built upon truthfulness.

Once the situation has unfolded and the facts have been revealed, your spokesperson and crisis communications team can refine your response to provide the public with the full story. This can help you prevent public perception from spinning out of control.

9. What is public sentiment?

Even if you are proactive with your response, you still need to keep your finger on the pulse of public sentiment. That means monitoring mainstream media, social media, and any other relevant channels to understand how people are reacting, what they are saying, how they think it should be handled, and beyond. This can help your spokespeople better understand which questions to prepare for, how to answer them, and what to expect when they speak to the media. It can also help you develop strategies for responding to negative social media posts and news reports before they go viral and cause irreparable damage to the organization.

10. Should your spokesperson say “no comment” to the media?

When the public reads “no comment,” the natural assumption is that the spokesperson has something to hide and may imply that they aren’t being forthcoming. Even if you aren’t prepared to provide a thorough response, try to have a holding statement ready. If you give the media nothing, they will likely work harder to get around you for the story, which could increase the chance of them getting it wrong.

On the other hand, be careful about what your spokespeople say to the media. An agreement to keep something “off the record” isn’t legally binding. Don’t tell journalists anything you don’t want to see published, broadcast or shared on social media.

11. Should your spokesperson take breaks during a crisis?

In intense news cycles and high-pressure media environments, spokespeople can easily become absorbed and exhausted, which can hinder their ability to communicate your message. If the situation allows, plan for spokespeople to take breaks and step back from the spotlight every hour or two.

Alternatively, your spokespeople can also delegate others to respond in their name using materials from the Q&A, key messages and talking points. This will allow your spokespeople to compare notes with the crisis communications team, discuss new developments, and recalibrate priority messages as needed.

12. What should you do after a crisis ends?

Once the crisis has subsided, there are still steps you should be taking to begin rebuilding trust of your stakeholders, including the public. It’s important for your spokespeople to follow up on the situation by emphasizing your organization’s response to the crisis, the steps that will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and the changes your organization has undergone as a result of the crisis.

As part of your ongoing crisis communications strategy, you should also conduct an internal post-crisis review to assess whether your plan and response were effective. You should be asking questions like:

  • What went right?
  • What went wrong?
  • Was the spokesperson successful?
  • Where do you need to make adjustments?
  • What do employees think?
  • What do customers think?
  • Were all team members confident in their roles? Do any roles need to be clarified or adjusted?
  • Were all key decision makers available and involved? Does anyone need to be added to the crisis communications team?
  • How strong was your prepared messaging? Does it need any adjustments?
  • Was the chain of communication effective?
  • Was the organization’s speed of response satisfactory?

It’s a good idea to analyze the fallout while it’s still fresh so that you can begin optimizing your crisis communication plan long before the next crisis occurs.

Final thoughts

In the world of crisis communications, being prepared for a crisis before it happens will determine how quickly your organization can bounce back. While you may not be able to control the crisis itself, you can control your response, and therefore, the fallout.

These tips may seem obvious when you’re not in the middle of a crisis, but being proactive with each of them could be the difference between preventing a crisis or making it worse.

Spokespeople are an essential element of crisis communications. ICR helps companies create plans, processes, materials, tools, and coaching for companies and their spokespeople.

Learn more about how to be prepared for a crisis. Download our Guide to Crisis Communications Planning and contact us today to ensure your organization is crisis-ready.

Editor’s note: This content was originally published on August 25, 2021 and has been updated to maintain its relevance.