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What a year for crisis communications, with the latest coming from Ashley Madison. The online dating service that helps people cheat on their spouses, boasting the tagline “Life is Short, Have An Affair”, has built their reputation on being a discreet service with a focus on protecting users’ identities. Hackers breached the site and have begun to expose the identities of the members. Does this mean the brand is marred beyond repair? It’s an interesting study in crisis communications management.

The consequences of a crisis come in many forms: financial impact, legal filings, reputation damage, customer and business relationships ruined and more. This year, we’ve seen many companies, like Target, Malaysia Airlines and Sony, handle the consequences of a crisis with mixed results. Recently, I read an article in Fortune outlining the details of the Sony hack. It is a lesson in how not to handle crisis communications. In the article, you can see how Sony made many missteps in communicating with their employees, talent and business partners. Ashley Madison is now facing a very serious threat to their initial public offering planned for this year. When your business model is based on confidential customer data, a security breach is disastrous to your stakeholders and investors.

Companies define crisis in many different ways, depending on their products, services and brand perspective. Two things hold true: if it can harm your reputation or finances, it can be a crisis. Our job as PR practitioners is to anticipate. It’s our job to expect the unexpected and prepare our clients as well as we can in advance for the worst. Our experience indicates very few companies have a crisis plan, or if they do, it’s untested and not proven to be effective. News flash: You will at some point have a crisis. No organization is immune; it is simply a matter of when and what.

qgJb7mj__400x400 2In the Ashley Madison crisis, many communicators have weighed in with advice in a recent PR Week Interview:

  • Rename: George Regan, chairman of Regan Communications Group, advises the company should repackage the company under a different name, rather than rehabilitating the present brand.
  • Say Nothing: Regan also advises sometimes it is better to say nothing.
  • Apologize: Ashley Madison has hired Levik Communications to help them manage media outreach. It appears their approach is to apologize and identify the hackers through cooperation with law enforcement agencies.
  • Rebuild Trust: John Hellerman of Hellerman Baretz Communications is recommending Ashley Madison take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild trust by establishing thought leadership in privacy management and security integration.

No two crises are ever the same, but we have worked with clients and developed some best practices for skillfully navigating the treacherous waters of a potentially disastrous situation.


Building a crisis communications plan should begin well in advance of a crisis actually occurring. A crisis can happen anywhere, at any time and often when it is least expected. When a crisis does occur, events usually unfold rapidly, leaving little time for planning or strategizing. That’s why advance crisis communications preparation is essential.

When we engage with a client, our approach is to start with a workshop designed to anticipate all of the different ways your company can face a crisis. From the workshop, we develop a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) so we are ready and able to deliver rapid mobilization. Once we have completed that activity, we have the information we need to create integrated plans: crisis response, communications, business continuity and recovery.

Even if the specific issue that arises was not anticipated in advance, there are a number of things that can be done ahead of time to mitigate its effects.

  • Prepare a Rapid Response Document – Provide instructions upfront to any staff members who may field a call from the media. Outline protocol and contact information for routing the call to the appropriate team members and identify approved company spokespeople.
  • Develop a Crisis Communications Plan – Spend some time thinking about specific crisis scenarios your company could face. What types of situations have come up in the past? Could they happen again? What sorts of crises have your competitors faced? What situation would be your company’s worst nightmare? Once you have identified potential crises, develop targeted response protocols and messaging to specifically address each scenario.
  • Strategize across all media types. Your plan should be a comprehensive tool that incorporates mainstream media strategies and also includes social media and stakeholder (suppliers, customers, regulatory, investors, partners) strategies.
  • Manage internal communication. Work with internal communications to develop internal talk points and FAQs. This will heighten internal communication across the organization and make sure everyone is on the same page.


The way a crisis is managed can either be commendable or deplorable, thus either lessening or worsening the negative effects on a brand. In the event of a crisis, here are some tips for helping to ensure your communications efforts don’t do more harm than good:

  • Set reasonable objectives – Identify the goals of your crisis communication strategy and how they will be measured.
  • Analyze the situation – Don’t make the common mistake of responding to the media or public too quickly, before having all the facts.
  • Designate one spokesperson – Avoid conflicting messages in the marketplace by limiting the external communication to one approved company spokesperson.
  • Be transparent – Provide all current and factual information available. Don’t pretend to have all the answers.
  • Tailor your messaging – Craft appropriate and individual responses for each of your audiences, including your employees, customers, the media, general public and any other key company stakeholders.
  • Nothing is off the record – Enough said.
  • Use social media wisely – Don’t get caught up in the spontaneity of real time responses. Stay on your message, even on social.
  • Be consistent. The importance of consistent messages across all communication channels cannot be overstated.


After all the dust has settled and the crisis has been resolved, it’s imperative to evaluate the results against your objectives.

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  • Measure the impact. Consider how effectively your messages were received, the attitudes of your key audiences and sentiment of any resulting media coverage. Use the lessons learned from identifying what was done well and what could’ve been done differently, to refine your crisis communications plan.
  • Reassess your crisis plan. Reevaluate your organization’s crisis plan every six months. Take time to add any new capabilities, remove outdated protection systems, update communications tactics and incorporate lessons learned from other organizations’ crisis.
  • Test and retest. Building and testing crisis plans helps to keep them current and relevant to the risks to which the company is most vulnerable.

In this day of the 24-hour news cycle and the broad reach of social media, an issue can go public in a matter of minutes and escalate into a full-blown crisis in hours. In the digital age, when news of a crisis spreads in minutes and creates a long-lasting negative impact, never before has corporate reputation been more of an asset. Investing in a comprehensive crisis plan is one of the most important aspects of managing risk and protecting your brand assets.