How To Create an Effective Crisis Communication Strategy

crisis communication text

In a crisis situation when someone’s clothes catch on fire, their first instinct is to run around and take off the garment—but running only adds fuel to the flames by exposing them to oxygen, and throwing the item off risks spreading the fire. Enter stop (stay calm), drop (drop to the ground), and roll (roll around to extinguish the flames)—a set of clear crisis response guidelines that gave generations of people a safer way to navigate fire emergencies.

When it comes to crisis scenarios at work, businesses need a sort-of stop, drop, and roll plan too. Your company's approach to crisis management and communication could be the difference between extinguishing the “fire” or burning down the business. In other words, crisis management isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is a strategic approach to sharing information during a company’s challenging times, unexpected events, and emergencies. Effective crisis communication involves creating a plan to respond to a crisis in order to protect the organization’s reputation, as well as customers, employees, shareholders, and other key stakeholders.

How do you know if you’re in a business crisis? You’re experiencing a crisis if the situation comes as a shock and poses an imminent threat to your business continuity. In today’s digital world, businesses of every size and every industry face a growing number of potential crises: cybersecurity threats, negative customer experiences going viral on social media, and natural disasters interrupting critical supply chains. While there’s an entire field of public relations professionals who specialize in crisis communications, understanding the basics of effective crisis communication is helpful for every business owner.

The benefits of effective crisis communication for ecommerce businesses

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the benefits of strong crisis communication skills, especially for online businesses whose customers can quickly click away. As seen during this recent crisis, effective crisis communication can help you:

  • Reduce panic and remain calm, knowing you have a plan in place.
  • Act quickly on that plan, rather than scrambling to figure out what to do.
  • Build trust with key stakeholders by communicating clearly and efficiently.
  • Maintain consistent messaging across your internal and external audiences.

5 common types of business crises

A business crisis can take many forms, some of which may pose a greater threat to your company than others. A few common types of crises companies may encounter include:

1. Technical issues

From servers crashing during product launches to website bugs to order fulfillment errors, technical issues frustrate customers and could lead to profit loss. As soon as you’re aware of a technical issue, communicate the scope of the problem to the public, and work to confirm you’re taking steps to prevent the issue from happening in the future. For example, in February 2022, tech company Slack responded to a three-hour widespread outage of its app with regular updates.

2. Product recalls

Defective or unsafe products are fodder for reputation crises. If you have to recall a product, it may be beneficial to strive to go above and beyond regulatory communication guidelines in order to reestablish customer trust. In October 2019, for example, Johnson & Johnson recalled over 30,000 bottles of baby powder after the Federal Drug Administration found small amounts of asbestos in the product; they have since decided to end talc-based baby powder sales.

3. Negative customer feedback

An unhappy customer might take their complaints straight to their social media channels before coming to your customer service team. By investing in a robust social media strategy around customer feedback, you can establish yourself as responsive and responsible. Be transparent and respond to all kinds of comments—even the negative ones—in a friendly and helpful way. A poor example of crisis communications was the fashion brand Balenciaga’s response to online criticism of an ad campaign. The company eventually took the campaign down, but they were initially slow to respond, refused to take responsibility, and filed a lawsuit against the photographer of the campaign instead.

4. Natural disasters

Natural disasters, such as extreme weather events or the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupt supply chains, put people at physical risk, and impact entire communities. Crisis communications about disasters should be compassionate and, if possible, outline specific actions your business is taking to help. For example, during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, thousands of brands had to engage in crisis response for the first time.

5. Cyber attacks

Cyber attacks are common potential crises for ecommerce companies. In fact, during the 2020 pandemic, they increased by 600%, due to the growth of online transactions. Crisis communications about cyber attacks should notify those affected and explain the scope of the breach, so people can take immediate steps to protect themselves—unlike the parent company of fashion brand SHEIN, which was recently fined $1.9 million for failing to disclose a data breach that affected 39 million customers.

6 tips for creating a crisis communication plan

A crisis communication plan, or crisis management plan, is a comprehensive set of guiding principles, tools, and protocols that a company uses during a crisis event. While it’s impossible to fully prepare for a crisis, creating a plan ahead of time can help your team stay calm under pressure during the event itself. Here’s how to create a crisis communication plan:

1. Identify the goal of the plan and any potential risks

Organizations often create different plans for different potential crises—such as a cyberattack, natural disaster, or product recall. Start by outlining the type of crisis and the potential risks your company would experience if the crisis happened today without a plan.

2. Designate a crisis communication team

Just as every workplace needs a fire marshal, every crisis needs a crisis communication team. Identify who will be in charge of creating and following through on the different plans in place.

3. Create a list of key stakeholders

Certain crises may require different key stakeholders. For example, a cyberattack will likely involve the security team, while a product recall might involve the product management team.

4. Determine appropriate channels for communication

Define how and where you will communicate with internal and external audiences, and make backup plans in case the crisis impacts one of your main communication channels (i.e., your website crashed or social media channels are inaccessible).

5. Create templates for messaging

Having templates for your crisis communications can save you critical time and energy during an emergency response. For guidelines on how to craft a response, consider the industry standard outline of the five Cs:

  • Certainty. Start by stating the details of the crisis situation that you know are absolutely true.
  • Compassion. Express compassion and empathy for those who have been affected by the event.
  • Concern. Emphasize that your company is taking the crisis event seriously by outlining your company's strategy.
  • Collaboration. Explain that you are cooperating with relevant key stakeholders.
  • Control. End your crisis response with a description of what you’re doing to establish safety and reduce harm.

6. Practice, test, and improve the plan

It’s important to do a test run of your plan before an actual crisis occurs. Make sure everyone on your team is familiar with your crisis communication strategy, so you can act quickly when the time comes. Finally, evaluate the results of your test and make any changes as needed.

Crisis communication FAQ

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is a strategic approach to sharing information during a major threat. For businesses, crisis communication most often refers to protocols and guidelines for addressing the threat in order to protect the organization and its reputation.

What are the five Cs of crisis communication?

The five Cs of crisis communication are certainty, compassion, concern, collaboration, and control. These five words can guide you as you prepare a crisis response statement: share the certain information you have about the crisis and express what you don’t know yet, demonstrate compassion, express concern for key stakeholders, name who you are collaborating with to resolve the crisis, and establish that you are taking control of the situation.

What is an example of crisis communication?

An example of effective crisis communication is how Slack responded to a widespread outage in February 2022. It posted regular updates throughout the five-hour event, acknowledged its missteps throughout the process until the issue was fully resolved, and expressed gratitude for customers’ patience.

How do you identify a crisis situation?

You are experiencing a business crisis if the situation suddenly puts the stability of your business at risk. Crisis scenarios often come as a shock and pose an imminent threat. If you don’t address the crisis, it could permanently damage your reputation or threaten business continuity.