Center for Creative Leadership

  • Published December 14, 2020
  • 7 Minute Read

Communicating in a Crisis: What, When, and How

Center for Creative Leadership

A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19

This article is part of a series Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges . It draws together McKinsey’s collective thinking and expertise on five behaviors to help leaders navigate the pandemic and recovery. Separate articles describe organizing via a network of teams ; displaying deliberate calm and bounded optimism ; making decisions amid uncertainty ; and demonstrating empathy .

Crises come in different intensities. As a “landscape scale” event, 1 Herman B. Leonard, “Against desperate peril: High performance in emergency preparation and response,” in Communicable Crises: Prevention, Response, and Recovery in the Global Arena , Deborah E. Gibbons, ed., Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007. the coronavirus has created great uncertainty, elevated stress and anxiety, and prompted tunnel vision, in which people focus only on the present rather than toward the future. During such a crisis, when information is unavailable or inconsistent, and when people feel unsure about what they know (or anyone knows), behavioral science points to an increased human desire for transparency, guidance, and making sense out of what has happened.

At such times, a leader’s words and actions can help keep people safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally, and finally, help them put their experience into context—and draw meaning from it. But as this crisis leaps from life-and-death direction on public health and workplace safety to existential matters of business continuity, job loss, and radically different ways of working, an end point may not be apparent. While some may already be seeking meaning from the crisis and moving into the “ next normal ,” others, feeling rising uncertainty and worried about the future, may not yet be ready for hope.

COVID-19’s parallel unfolding crises present leaders with infinitely complicated challenges and no easy answers. Tough trade-offs abound, and with them, tough decisions about communicating complex issues to diverse audiences. Never have executives been put under such an intense spotlight by a skeptical public gauging the care, authenticity, and purpose  that companies demonstrate. Leaders lack a clear playbook to quickly connect with rattled employees and communities about immediate matters of great importance, much less reassure them as they ponder the future.

Against this frenzied backdrop, it would be easy for leaders to reflexively plunge into the maelstrom of social-media misinformation, copy what others are doing, or seek big, one-off, bold gestures. It is also true that crises can produce great leaders and communicators, those whose words and actions comfort in the present, restore faith in the long term, and are remembered long after the crisis has been quelled.

So we counsel this: pause, take a breath. The good news is that the fundamental tools of effective communication still work. Define and point to long-term goals, listen to and understand your stakeholders, and create openings for dialogue. Be proactive. But don’t stop there. In this crisis leaders can draw on a wealth of research, precedent, and experience to build organizational resilience through an extended period of uncertainty, and even turn a crisis into a catalyst for positive change. Superior crisis communicators tend to do five things well:

  • Give people what they need, when they need it. People’s information needs evolve in a crisis. So should a good communicator’s messaging. Different forms of information can help listeners to stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.
  • Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. A crisis limits people’s capacity to absorb information in the early days. Focus on keeping listeners safe and healthy. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
  • Choose candor over charisma. Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.
  • Revitalize resilience. As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive and strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence.
  • Distill meaning from chaos. The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge.

Give people what they need, when they need it

Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages. In a recent article, our colleagues framed the COVID-19 crisis in five stages : resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. These stages span the crisis of today to the next normal that will emerge after COVID-19 has been controlled. The duration of each stage may vary based on geographic and industry context, and organizations may find themselves operating in more than one stage simultaneously (exhibit).

With such variation in mind, communicators should be thoughtful about what matters most in the given moment.

Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages.
  • In a crisis’s early stages, communicators must provide instructing information to encourage calm; how to stay safe is fundamental. In COVID-19, governments and major media outlets first focused on clear, simple instructions about physical distancing and “lockdown” guidelines. Companies focused on new operational rules regarding time off, overtime, and operational changes.
  • As people begin to follow safety instructions, communication can shift to a focus on adjusting to change and uncertainty. Asia, where COVID-19 struck early, offers some helpful insights. One survey in China, for example, showed that a marked decline in people’s energy during the early stages of the epidemic reversed as they acclimated to increased anxiety and the blurring of work- and home-life boundaries. 2 McKinsey surveyed senior executives of large Chinese companies, along with employees from those organizations, in eight industries, from March 12–18, 2020; 1,300 people responded to the survey. Savvy communications directors responded by evolving their messaging from health basics to business recovery.
  • Finally, as the crisis’s end comes into view, ramp up internalizing information to help people make sense of the crisis and its impact. For the current public-health crisis, it’s still too early to glean the shape of this broader perspective, although “silver lining” articles about families drawing closer together and other topics have been making their way into the media.

Want to know what people need? Ask them.

Standard tools and serendipitous conversations and moments of connection can help leaders check in on their people:

Schedule unstructured time. Add 15 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting to tap into what’s on employees’ minds.

Run a quick pulse survey. Ask one simple question: How are you feeling? Include a comments box for elaborating.

Invite input on big decisions. When possible, include people in the process of choosing paths forward. Offer options. Community dialogue can shape the right decision.

Use digital and analytics tools. Two-way listening solutions enable employees to share concerns over email or text. Natural-language software then produces major themes for managers to review, act on, and monitor.

Host “well-being check-ins.” Schedule time for people to come together. These sessions can host up to 150 people at a time. Breakout features in some apps can create smaller groups for more in-depth conversation.

Solicit questions. When preparing town halls, give employees a chance to submit questions in advance (anonymously is ideal). Or offer the community the option to “vote up” the questions they most want answered. Use chat functionality to allow questions.

Engage change agents. If you’ve identified influencers or change agents, deploy them. Provide forums for them to hear from peers. Adjust your communications to reflect this new input.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a complex crisis made up of multiple trigger points—health, policy, the economy—and leaders should tailor their communications to the stage of the crisis their stakeholders are experiencing, and to what people need most in the moment (see sidebar, “Want to know what people need? Ask them”). 3 Adapted from David L Sturges’s seminal 1994 work on crisis communication, “Communicating through crisis: A strategy for organizational survival,” Management Communication Quarterly , February 1, 1994, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp. 297–316. Scenario planning  becomes important to help anticipate where employees and communities may be in dealing with the crisis, and the appropriate messaging that can help them as the crisis unfolds.

Communicate clearly, simply, frequently

At a crisis’s onset, audience attention is finite; new, disruptive inputs overwhelm a person’s ability to process information. High levels of uncertainty, perceived threats, and fear can even lead to “cognitive freezing.” 4 A body of research shows that people generally suffer from information overload; for more, see Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “The concept of information overload: A review of literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines,” Information Society , 2004, Volume 20, Number 5. Put simply: the more complicated, abstract, or extraneous information is right now, the more difficult it will be for people to process it.

Leaders may be inclined to defer to governments and media outlets for clear and simple safety instructions. Don’t. Employers often underestimate how much their employees depend on them as trusted sources. When public-relations firm Edelman asked workers in ten countries what they considered the most credible source of information about the coronavirus, 63 percent of respondents said that they would believe information about the virus from their employer, versus 58 percent that trusted government websites or 51 percent that trusted the traditional media. 5 Edelman trust barometer 2020 special report: Trust and the coronavirus , Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, 2020, edelman.com.

To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point, and actionable. Walmart published its 6-20-100 guidance: stand six feet away to maintain a safe physical distance, take 20 seconds for good hand washing, consider a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit the signal to stay home from public activity. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield focused on personal care in reassuring employees stressed over work. “We got this,” he said. “Take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner.” 6 Catherine Clifford, “CEO of multibillion-dollar company Slack to employees amid coronavirus: ‘Don’t stress about work,’” CNBC, March 26, 2020, cnbc.com.

When communicating clear, simple messages, framing and frequency matter:

Dos, not don’ts. People tend to pay more attention to positively framed information; negative information can erode trust. Frame instructions as “dos” (best practices and benefits) rather than “don’ts” (what people shouldn’t do, or debunking myths). 7 Building on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s seminal 1979 prospect theory, more recent research has examined the impact of highlighting gains and benefits when communicating health information. In previous epidemic outbreaks, such as Zika, yellow fever, and West Nile virus, research shows that interventions highlighting best practices were more effective than those focused on countering misinformation or conspiracies.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Communicators regularly underestimate how frequently messages must be repeated and reinforced. In a health crisis, repetition becomes even more critical: one study showed that an audience needs to hear a health-risk-related message nine to 21 times to maximize its perception of that risk. 8 Lu Liu, Xi Lu, and Xiaofei Xie, “Inverted U-shaped model: How frequent repetition affects perceived risk,” Judgment and Decision Making , 2015, Volume 10, Number 3. Fortunately, employee appetite for regular, trusted information from employers during COVID-19 is high. In one study, some 63 percent asked for daily updates and 20 percent wanted communications several times a day. 9 Edelman trust barometer 2020 special report: Trust and the coronavirus , Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, 2020, edelman.com. So, establish a steady cadence, repeat the same messages frequently, and try mantras, rhyming, and alliteration to improve message “stickiness.”

The CEO doesn’t have to be the chief delivery officer. During a crisis, it’s best if the message comes from the person viewed as an authority on the subject. For business continuity, that person may well be the CEO. But for other topics, people may prefer to hear from a health expert, the leader of the organization’s crisis-response team, or even their own manager. Provide common talking points for all leaders and empower communication—via town halls, through email, text messaging or internal social media platforms.

Choose candor over charisma

After establishing baseline safety requirements, leaders must help individuals cope emotionally with the trauma of sudden change and adjustment to a new, postcrisis normal. (COVID-19 threats to health and safety are likely to linger for some time, so new messages should be layered atop regular safety reminders.)

Leaders trying to help employees adjust after trauma need a reservoir of trust. Those who fail to build trust quickly in crises lose their employees’ confidence. People expect credible and relevant information; when stakeholders believe they are being misled or that risks are being downplayed, they lose confidence. To build trust, leaders should do the following:

Focus on facts—without sugar coating. Differentiate clearly between what is known and unknown, and don’t minimize or speculate. In crises like the one we’re facing now, “the facts” may include bad news about the state of the organization or changes that will be painful for people. Research shows that some leaders, used to feeling highly effective and in control, avoid acknowledging uncertainty and bad news because they find it stressful or guilt inducing, or they fear negative reactions from an audience. 10 Research shows that leaders are often uncomfortable giving bad news; for more, see Robert J. Bies, “The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis, Journal of Management , 2013, Volume 39, Number 1, pp. 136–62. But unfounded optimism can backfire. In 1990, during the United Kingdom’s mad-cow-disease crisis, a government minister fed his daughter a hamburger in front of TV cameras and declared that British beef had never been safer, despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than boost morale, this effort only further eroded public trust in the government’s response. 11 David Robson, “Covid-19: What makes a good leader during a crisis?,” BBC, March 27, 2020, bbc.com.

When you are not able to communicate with certainty—for example, about when physical distancing and travel restrictions will be lifted—avoid hard and fast estimates (for example, “There’s a 60 percent chance that we’ll be back to normal by September.”). Instead, be explicit that you’re sharing an opinion, acknowledge uncertainty, and give the criteria you will use to determine a course of action (“It’s my hope that we are back online in the fall; however, that is far from certain. We will be following government guidance when making decisions for our business.”)

Be transparent. Transparency builds trust. Research shows that transparent operations improve perceptions of trust and that communicators perceived to have good intentions are more likely to be trusted, even if their decisions ultimately turn out to be wrong. Give people a behind-the-scenes view of the different options you are considering. For example, many governments, including Canada and the Netherlands, have begun publishing extended timelines during which protective measures will be in place. Whether or not those timelines hold true, such difficult messages to deliver ultimately serve to build greater trust among listeners.

Involve your audience in decision making. When making operational decisions, involve stakeholders. For example, many universities have informed students that commencement this year will not take place as planned. Rather than canceling commencement outright, several universities have instead used short, simple communication to elicit students’ ideas for staging commencement differently, preserving some of commencement’s positive energy.

Demonstrate vulnerability. Judiciously share your own feelings and acknowledge the personal effects of emotional turmoil. Research shows that demonstrating vulnerability, such as grief over shared losses or authentic feelings about the impact of changes on employees, can help build trust.

Mind what you model. What you do matters as much as what you say in building trust, and scrutiny of leaders’ actions is magnified during a crisis. Recently, some leaders have been called out for setting “do as I say, not as I do” examples. Scotland’s chief medical officer resigned after public uproar when she was caught visiting her second home during lockdown. Hosting a videoconference from the office might seem like a good way to project normalcy—but won’t for those attending who are locked down at home.

Build resilience

As the COVID-19 health crisis turns into a lingering financial and economic crisis, uncertainty and doubt will challenge efforts to restore business confidence. Leaders will face a critical period in which they will need to instill resilience in people and tap sources of hope, trust, and optimism in order to unlock creativity and build momentum for the future. Channeling positive sentiments and encouraging a sense of broader community will be critical elements in building that momentum. 12 For more on positive psychology in the workplace, see Fred Luthan and Carolyn M. Youssef, “Positive organizational behavior in the workplace: The impact of hope, optimism, and resilience, Journal of Management , 2007, Volume 33, Number 5, pp. 774–800.

Celebrate the positives. Sharing positive stories and creating uplifting moments are important building blocks in reigniting resilient spirits. It may seem counterintuitive, but often this approach begins by acknowledging loss. Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis. However, it is possible to counterbalance the negative effects of stress and loss by channeling positive emotions.

Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis.

Highlight how your organization is responding to the crisis with stories about how people are adapting to new ways of working. Or recount how your organization is contributing to the global COVID-19 response. Show appreciation for the challenges people face. For example, the “Clap for our carers” movement in the United Kingdom is a public display of appreciation for the National Health Service (NHS), which is now being replicated every night at 7 p.m. in New York City. Many companies have posted videos on social media thanking their employees. Especially important is expressing gratitude to those in the organization who are leading frontline responses or who face threats to their safety. In addition to acknowledging them publicly, having one-on-one conversations with them or sending personal thank-you notes can go a long way toward making people feel part of something important and meaningful, which in turn helps build resilience.

Help people to help. Helping others is a great way to improve well-being and reduce stress. 13 Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success , New York: Viking, 2013. Amid crisis, people look for ways to contribute. For example, following the 9/11 attacks, Dell connected with employees by channeling their desire to offer help. Service and response teams worked around the clock, drawing on Dell’s customer purchase records, to offer customers immediate assistance in replacing lost computers and equipment. Such steps helped employees struggling with grief and anger to focus on others, give back, and link the customer’s experience to everyday work.

Build community. It’s important to rebuild a common social identity and a sense of belonging based on shared values, norms, and habits. 14 For more on leadership and shared identity, see S. Alexander Haslam, Michael J. Platow, and Stephen D. Reicher, “ The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power ,” Routledge, 2010. Research suggests that social bonds grow stronger during times of great uncertainty. Leaders encourage people to come together under common values of mutual support and achievement. Queen Elizabeth II has called upon all Britons to unify and identify—in discipline, resolve, and fellowship—in the face of COVID-19. “The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future,” she said. 15 “The Queen’s coronavirus speech transcript: ‘We will succeed and better days will come,’” Telegraph , April 5, 2020, telegraph.co.uk.

Any effort to create a shared social identity must be grounded in a sense of support for others. Practical ways to encourage this when people are working remotely include book clubs, pub quizzes, happy hours, exercise classes, chat groups, competitions, and so on. Complement this kind of broad outreach with one-to-one communication via phone, email, or video to individuals or small teams. Arrange a virtual breakfast, an end-of-week celebration, or even video “tours” of each other’s workspaces.

Out of chaos, meaning

As people adapt, effective leaders increasingly focus on helping people to make sense of events. 16 For more on sensemaking, including the importance of leadership, see Marlys Christianson and Sally Maitlis, “Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward,” Academy of Management Annals, 2014, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp. 57–125. The search for meaning is intrinsic to recovery from trauma and crisis. For many, the workplace is a powerful source of identity and meaning. Research has shown that meaning and associated well-being can explain up to 25 percent of performance. 17 Thomas A. Wright, “More than meets the eye: The role of employee well-being in organizational research,” Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work , Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 143–54, oxfordhandbooks.com. Leaders can shape a meaningful story for the organization and help people build their own stories, invoking common culture and values as touchstones for healing and strength. In their messaging, they underscore a shared sense of purpose, point to how the organization can rally at a generation-defining moment, and indicate new paths to the future.

Leaders can take the following steps to help people move from making sense of events to deriving meaning from them:

Set clear goals and ‘walk the talk.’ Early on, be clear about what your organization will achieve during this crisis. Set a memorable “mantra”—the two or three simple goals around which people should rally. Then take actions to realize those goals, because you communicate by what you do as much as by what you say. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, Best Buy has defined a dual goal to protect employees while serving customers who rely on the company for increasingly vital technology. The company has made clear that employees should only work when healthy, and that those who feel sick should stay at home, with pay. US stores have instituted “contactless” curbside service or free doorstep delivery. 18 “Best Buy committed to providing products people need,” Business Wire, March 21, 2020, businesswire.com.

Connect to a deeper sense of purpose. Explore ways to connect the disruption employees face to something bigger. For some organizations, this may dovetail with the goals of an ongoing transformation, such as serving customers in new ways. For others, meaning can be found in a deeper, more collective sense of purpose or mission. For example, the chief surgeon at one New York hospital closed an all-staff memo by reminding people that “[patients] survive because we don’t give up.” 19 Craig Smith, “COVID-19 Update from Dr. Smith,” Columbia University Irving Medical Center, March 27, 2020, columbiasurgery.org. In the United Kingdom, the government appeals to strong national sentiments with the simple message: “Stay home, protect the NHS [National Health Service], save lives.”

Foster organizational dialogue. While it’s important to shape a story of meaning for your organization, it’s equally important to create a space where others can do the same for themselves. Ask people what conclusions they are drawing from this crisis and listen deeply. Some possible questions: Have there been unexpected positive outcomes of this crisis for you? What changes have you made that you would like to keep once the crisis has ended?

The immediacy and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis tempts leaders to “shoot from the hip” in communicating with anxious stakeholders or making strategic moves. Effective communicators will take a deep breath and remember the basics while acknowledging what is unique about this moment. Relying on these practices will help team members stay safe and infuse understanding and meaning in communities, helping to carry the organization through the pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose and trust.

Ana Mendy is a partner in McKinsey’s Southern California office, Mary Lass Stewart is an expert in the Chicago office, and Kate VanAkin is an expert in the London office.

The authors wish to thank Aaron De Smet, Wojciech Kurda, Carlos Miranda, Mihir Mysore, Joe Spratt, Mrinalini Reddy, and Andrew Samo for their contributions to this article.

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6 Effective Strategies for Communication in a Crisis

author image

Table of Contents

In today’s ever-changing, fast-paced, social media-hungry world, a crisis is inevitable. During one, it’s vital that you provide your stakeholders, employees and customers with a clear, heartfelt message. The speed and sincerity of your response can be the difference between your company moving forward or dangerously backward.

By preplanning your crisis communication, you can increase your chances of success in overcoming public relations nightmares . Proactively preparing your leadership and employees for a downturn can decrease anxiety and foster confidence.

Whether your crisis is caused by natural, financial, personnel, organizational or technological issues, we have provided our top six effective crisis communication strategies.

Effective strategies for crisis communication

1. prepare a crisis communication plan..

Although crises often come unexpectedly, you can prepare by creating a crisis communication plan and a crisis management team. Generally, the plan should include the following information:

  • Members of your crisis management team
  • Who your target audiences are
  • Numbered steps to take when a crisis emerges
  • How to communicate with the public, such as on your social media channels and in your published content or official statements
  • How to prevent the issues from happening or (in the case of natural crises) at least from hurting your company 

You can draft your organization’s unique crisis communication plan or download templates from online resources. Even if you use a sample template, you’ll need to customize your plan based on your business’ needs and crisis type. 

For example, how you communicate with customers during a natural disaster , such as a global health crisis like COVID-19, will differ from how you publicly address an organizational crisis like issues with your products or services.

It’s also vital to define who will be on your crisis management team. These people will work together to analyze the situation, identify possible solutions and communicate with the key audiences.

2. Put the customer first.

A crisis usually brings up strong negative emotions. If your company makes mistakes, your unhappy customers may write negative comments on review sites like Yelp, Google or on social media. 

When this happens, don’t play the blame game. Try to foster a supportive and collaborative attitude rather than a defensive communication climate on your social media, including your company blog. 

There are productive ways to respond to unhappy customers if you see negative comments on your social media pages. These are some possible responses:

  • Offer discounts for a future purchase of your products or services.
  • Contact the customer directly to apologize.
  • Change the policy that caused the issue.
  • Offer a refund.

The research findings suggest that changing corporate policy is the response most customers prefer. Try to find a solution by communicating with your customers. This open communication will help you solve the problems, reduce the negative impact and restore your brand image.

3. Communicate with the public quickly and accurately.

Inaccurate information can cause more harm and make your target audience panic in a crisis. Ensure all information and supporting materials you post on your website, social media or provide to journalists as public responses are accurate. 

Provide updates constantly to reduce uncertainty, anxiety and rumors. If possible, designate a single spokesperson for your company. All the information you send out via different channels ― mass media, social media and your company website ― must be honest, open, transparent and consistent. [Read related article: 7 Essential Components of Excellent Customer Service ]

4. Take advantage of all communication channels.

Communicate with your audience via multiple channels, such as email, text, a toll-free customer service phone number, voicemail, your website and social media. 

Provide updates not only online but also via traditional channels. For instance, update your voicemail message and put a sign on the door of the store if you need to close or change your hours.

Some companies are still operating using a different model, such as selling products online or telemedicine for medical appointments. Notify your customers about any changes or new options in your service. 

Your office or store may be closed, but you should still check its voicemail and return your customers’ calls. For example, a customer may have ordered a product from you before the crisis but can’t pick it up because your store is closed. In this case, they may call, email or text you, so keep an eye on all these channels and respond to them.

5. Use social media as a crisis communication tool.

Social media is widely used as a crisis communication tool. For example, many organizations use Twitter to communicate with their customers during a crisis. You can post company updates and notifications on Twitter as often as necessary. Your audience can retweet and respond to you and other Twitter users.

In addition to social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, you can use your company blog as a crisis communication tool. While it’s an essential trend for organizations to use social media as a crisis communication tool, each crisis is different. Consider the nature of the crisis and situation to choose the appropriate communication channels and messages.

6. Conduct post-crisis evaluation and follow-up communication.

Usually, the intensity of a crisis diminishes over time. When a crisis is over, you can evaluate how your company handled it. These are some questions you could ask yourself and your team:

  • What strengths did we show during this time?
  • What weaknesses were exposed?
  • How are we doing now?
  • What could we do differently next time we’re in a crisis?

If you evaluate your performance and responses during the crisis, you can learn from the experience and better prepare for the future. You may also need to do some reputation repair and follow-up communication. [Read related article: Online Reputation Management, and Why It Is Important ]

If you promised customers or the media to provide continuous updates on the recovery of your business, deliver on your promise. You can use social media and other channels, such as emails and your website, to keep your audience updated during the recovery stage.

Crisis communication can be challenging. It’s essential to be prepared , honest and responsive. Provide constant updates to your audience via multiple channels, effectively using social media as a communication tool. After the crisis settles, evaluate your crisis-time performance and follow up with your audience.

Crisis communication mistakes to avoid

Don’t skimp on leader education..

All critical business decisions require a strong leader . Leaders must reflect the company’s values and have vital emotional intelligence. Excelling in both can help them connect with their key audience in times of crisis.

By providing leaders with training from communication experts, you can minimize slow response times and misinformation, emote confidence and increase your chances of success after a crisis.

Don’t discount feedback.

Listening to company feedback from stakeholders, employees and customers allows you to understand your audience from a more profound emotional perspective. Sending out occasional surveys and polls through email and social media channels provides a baseline of what your followers value and expect from your company.

When a crisis hits, you can use this baseline data to understand how your target audience feels and what kind of solutions they expect. Such data is essential for resonating with your audience in everyday interactions and crises.

Don’t lose sight of your employees’ needs.

It’s common for companies to focus on external communication during a crisis. Businesses must quickly address stakeholders and their customer base to avoid a breakdown of loyalty and revenue.

However, do not forget to be transparent with your employees during the process. Uninformed employees can take the brunt of the stress and get overwhelmed quickly.

Take frequent assessments of your employees’ mental health and acknowledge their hard work and dedication to their role during this difficult time. Caring about your workforce encourages a positive company culture and helps propel your business forward.

Don’t be inconsistent.

Depending on the size of your business, you may have multiple leaders on damage control. All spokespeople must deliver the same message to prevent confusion and prolong the crisis. 

Your target audience should be able to identify who’s in control. Consistent messaging should be transparent and genuine.

Don’t leave your audience hanging.

During a crisis, it can be difficult to inform everyone promptly. You should always provide a contact person, a responsible department or an online link to post information and updates. 

However, don’t lean solely on one-stop-shop messaging. A crisis can be complex, and companies should be sensitive to stakeholders, employees and customers that have specific questions. Offer the resources and experts that are necessary to put everyone’s tensions at ease.

Ming-Yi Wu contributed to this article.

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Article • 9 min read

Communicating in a Crisis

Don’t shut down communication.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

business communication skills enable crisis

When a crisis or some other adverse situation occurs, the natural instinct is to close ranks, work furiously to contain the damage, and set the situation back to normal.

We go into protection mode – for both our organization and ourselves. However, this approach can go badly wrong.

We've all seen major companies terribly wounded when the press senses a "cover up." And we may also have seen situations where gossip has spiraled out of control with damaging results.

When official communication channels are shut down, communication does not stop. In fact, it can often increase. The problem is that this communication can be full of rumor, innuendo, inconsistencies, half truths, and exaggerations. More than this, the trust and confidence of employees and clients can be undermined, with often-damaging long term consequences.

This is where the best thing to do in a crisis can be to communicate the facts and issues surrounding them clearly, quickly, and consistently.

On one hand, life is full of ups and downs, and you'll look silly and out of control if you are often conducting crisis communication. Also, you need to be careful about communicating information that can itself damage you.

On the other hand, trust is essential in business. If people feel that you, your brand or your company can no longer be trusted, this can be fatal for your business. Customers may prefer to go to a more trustworthy competitor. Teamwork may break down. Employees may move jobs. And people will be more cautious in dealing with you, raising the costs of doing business.

Staying in Control

What's important in a crisis is to stay in control of communication. These five Cs of communication that can help when communicating bad news:

  • Concerns: focus attention on the needs and concerns of the audience. Don't make the message focused on you or on damage control. Where appropriate, acknowledge the concerns of the people and deal with them directly.
  • Clarity: where possible, leave no room for improper assumptions or best guesses. The clearer your message is, the more people will believe you are disclosing everything they need to know. When communication is vague it implies that you are hiding something or only revealing partial truths.
  • Control: remain in control of what is being said. When you lose control of the message there is no stopping the flow of inaccurate information. Your whole communication plan needs to center on remaining in control.
  • Confidence: your message and delivery must assure your listeners that the actions you are taking are in everyone's best interests. It's one thing to deliver bad news openly, and it's another to effectively convey that you are doing everything you can to minimize the negative impact. Speak with confidence but don't lose sight of your humanity – acknowledge that you can't make everything ok, but make sure people know you're doing your best.
  • Competence: convey the notion that you are able to handle the situation and that you have the advice and support of many people (and, of course, make sure that you do). When you use the 5 Cs you assure people that you are competent to handle the situation and that you are not being deceitful in any way. This reinforces people's belief in your ability to manage the situation the best way you know how.

By using the 5 Cs you contain the message of what you want said. If people are getting adequate, honest, and open information from you then they are less inclined to go searching for their own version of the truth.

Practicing Crisis Communication

These guidelines can help when communicating in the midst of a crisis or when anticipating a crisis will happen.

Develop a Crisis Communication Plan

As a matter of routine, identify risks, prepare for worst case scenarios, run "what if" analyzes, and choose the set of actions that address your stakeholders' needs most effectively. If you've done this contingency planning in advance, when a crisis does occur, you'll have well thought-through responses already in place.

Use a Crisis Communication Team

Establish a crisis communication team if risks are serious or communication needs are significant. This team should consist of high-level officials in the organization. Their role is to assess the nature and scope of the situation by consulting with others as required.

Appoint a Spokesperson

This person should be chosen from those who have the most direct knowledge of the situation – typically the highest-ranking person of the group. The more direct involvement the spokesperson has, the higher his or her credibility, which enhances the confidence and competence factors for effective bad-news communication.

If your spokesperson is likely to face the media , make sure, if you can, that the spokesman has had interview training well in advance, and that he or she has rehearsed key messages and answers to likely questions (see below).

Create a Sheet of Facts

Draft a summary statement that includes all the appropriate details. Balance the information with respect to the stakeholders' right to know and the company's needs for privacy. This sheet is used to ensure the messages you give are consistently accurate.

Establish Your Key Message

Decide the most important message you want to convey. Tailor the rest of your communication around this message. Make sure that the key message has the right tone and provides the right context for delivering the message.

Anticipate Questions

Before you finalize your key message try to think of all the questions you will get and address as many of them as you can in your communication package.

Determine the Communication Channels

Decide how you are going to convey your message:

  • What needs to be told in person – either live or through a media channel?
  • If you choose to use the media, how will this be coordinated?
  • Do you want to use a press conference?
  • Do you need a crisis hotline?
  • Consider using your website as well as email and social media channels to deliver messages quickly and efficiently.
  • Advise your switchboard on how to handle inquiries.
  • Determine how/if phones and faxes will be used.
  • Establish other communication channels as required – meetings, advertisements, and so on.

Coordinate Your Internal and External Communication

A good communications plan will release information to the media, employees, and other stakeholders at the same time. If that is not possible, ensure that your employees and other prime stakeholders find out directly from you first.

Don't Withhold Information That You Intend to Share

If you can, tell all the bad news, all at once. If you give it in spurts it can look like you're hiding things and not being totally honest. This doesn't mean you have to reveal everything: It means you have to reveal all that you need to reveal right from the start.

Be Up-Front at All Times

If you can't go into detail on something, be honest and say that you can't discuss that information at this time. If you don't know something, be honest about that too.

Be Empathic

Try to see the situation from the audience's point of view. Deliver the message with the same sensitivity you would appreciate if you were in their position. Use humble, personal language and acknowledge the emotional elements involved in the situation. Try to emphasize the positive without minimizing the negative.

This is the hardest rule to follow. For the sake of everyone hearing the message, keep as calm as possible. You need to convey control, confidence, and competence.

Our Expert Interview with Kathy McKee on Leading People Through Disasters has further tips and advice on communicating effectively in a crisis.

Communicating during a crisis often requires candid and timely communication. Failure to communicate can severely damage trust, and can lead to rumors running out of control.

In order to remain in control, you need to deliver accurate and comprehensive messages to your stakeholders. Be prepared with a communications plan and deliver your messages calmly and confidently – your audience will appreciate your honesty and the situation will be handled much more smoothly because of it.

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Under Pressure: How to Communicate During a Crisis

In this episode, we discuss how leaders can communicate effectively when their organization, brand, or reputation is under attack.

October 22, 2020

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart , host and Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Matt Abrahams interviews David Demarest , lecturer and Stanford University’s former Vice President of Public Affairs, on why knowing your values and the concerns of your stakeholders will lay the foundation for any communication during a time of crisis.

“Knowing your values gives you a beacon, or a lamppost, that can inform how you’re going to prioritize your actions,” Demarest says.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams : Whenever you listen to the radio, watch TV, or browse the Internet, you are bombarded with crises of all types. While these crises – political, health, social – play out on a global stage, many of us struggle with crisis situations of our own. Today, I look forward to our discussion of crisis communication. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I am so excited to be joined by David Demarest, who is a lecturer of management at the GSB.

Prior to the GSB, David served as White House Communications Director for President George H. W. Bush and was a member of the White House senior staff. Next, David served as Executive Vice President and Director of Corporate Communications at Bank of America and then as Executive Vice President for Corporate Relations and Brand Management at Visa International. Later, he became Stanford’s Vice President for Public Affairs and oversaw communications and government relations and events. Beyond teaching at the GSB, David is finishing his book about life is like working in the White House. Welcome, David. Thanks for joining me.

David Demarest : Hey, thanks, Matt. It’s great to be with you, and this is going to be fun.

Matt Abrahams : I agree. There’s so much for us to discuss. Should we get started?

David Demarest : You bet.

Matt Abrahams : Question one. When it comes to crises, you’ve had to deal with a few, for sure. Can you highlight one or two that you’ve dealt with and any learnings that have come from those experiences?

David Demarest : Well, sure. You mentioned I worked at Bank of America. One day, I came into the office, and one of my staff told me that due to a data processing center foul-up, we had lost 1.2 million automatic credits and automatic deposits. That’s a lot of transactions to lose, and they were all in California. And it meant that people’s mortgage payments weren’t going to happen. It meant that their paycheck didn’t get deposited – things like that. It meant that a lot of insufficient funds checks might be going out. And it was an incredible mess. This was a formula for a whole lot of very angry customers.

Well, what we were able to do was to disaggregate what were the accounts that might have been more easily remediated by virtue of if somebody had a Bank of America account for their payroll deposit and a Bank of America account for their mortgage payment, we could intercept that transaction in-between and fix it. And what it meant was that we could get those transactions down to a manageable level of the ones that we really couldn’t address in the short term. So by the end of the day, we had narrowed it down to about 69,000 insufficient funds notices that were going to go out.

So that meant that our focus could be what are we going to do about those people and come up with a remedy for them that made sense and get our apology notes out to them and so forth. It told me that you need to be able to disaggregate a problem into its component parts and deal with the parts that are most critical. The second crisis I would put out there was that at Stanford, we had a laptop that was stolen. And it contained a lot of employee personal data – like thousands of employees’ personal data. We didn’t know if it was stolen for the data or if it was just stolen because it was a laptop.

That didn’t really matter. By the time we figured out what was on the computer, we knew that we had to do a public announcement as a notification. But it was already late in the day on Friday – not the time when you want to do a public announcement. People think you’re trying to hide the information. So our choice really was to do it then or do it Monday. Also, on Monday, we’d have all the systems in place – the toll-free number, what we were going to do about identity theft, and things like that. We made the choice to go on Friday at 6:00 P.M.

And we did that because we felt that people’s trust in us trumped the efficiency of waiting until Monday – that if anyone had their identity stolen over the weekend and they found out that we knew about this breach, but we didn’t talk to them about it when we knew about it, that would be a violation of the trust. And it came down to trust beats efficiency.

And in our communication, we told people that we won’t have the toll-free number set up until Monday. We won’t have the identity theft remediation set up until Monday. But we felt it was important to get this information out as soon as we knew what the circumstance was because we didn’t want to risk someone not being able to take an action on their own to try to protect themselves.

Matt Abrahams : Thank you for sharing those two. I hear two lessons that you learned. One is in a big, complicated crisis, it’s to your advantage to break it down into its constituent parts. And it sounds like having a platform and technology that can help you doesn’t hurt in that situation. And then the other piece is to know your values that you as an organization have and really challenge yourself to live by those values and that must help be a guiding light.

David Demarest : Yeah. I think too many organizations haven’t spent enough time really thinking about what would they do in a circumstance that called upon them to act without knowing all of the details of the situation. The pressure to act can be intense, and that’s why knowing your values is so important. Because it gives you a beacon or a lamppost that can inform how you’re going to prioritize your actions.

Matt Abrahams : Let me ask you the second question. When communicating about a crisis, what are some best practices to keep in mind when you’re actually sending the message out?

David Demarest : I think the key here is that a) you’ve got to know what you don’t know. And so you have to have kind of a catalog of information that you would like to know but maybe you don’t know and how important is that information, which leads to don’t speculate. People speculate as to what might be the case, not necessarily what is the case. And then — you mentioned it earlier – know your organization’s values and be guided by them. Companies and organizations that have a solid sense of who they are and what they stand for, they will be able to navigate a crisis much more effectively than those companies or organizations that don’t.

And I even tell my students this, Matt, that if you know as a person what your values are, in this crazy, turbulent world that we live in, you’ll be able to navigate it a lot better than to always be situational. Finally, if there’s a necessity for apology, and often there is, that apology has to be timely. It’s got to show true regret. The organization has to take real responsibility – in other words, ownership – and if possible, provide a remedy. And that’s what we did in the case of the stolen laptop. We did provide a remedy to people, which was identity theft protection. And we did that quickly.

Matt Abrahams : Thank you. I know you have some very specific ways of thinking about audience engagement. Can you share what this looks like from your perspective?

David Demarest : I think that if we take Stanford as an example – but it applies to pretty much any organization – all organizations have multiple constituencies. So in Stanford’s case, as you well know, we have students. We have faculty. We have donors. We have alumni. We have the federal government, who supplies us with a billion dollars of research funding every year. We have the local community and so forth. And so every organization has multiple constituencies that care about how the organization interacts with them, some more than others.

So part of effective crisis management is to have your finger on the pulse of each one of those constituencies and what elements of the crisis are going to be germane to which constituency to a greater or lesser degree. So you start to have a stakeholder map in a sense. And then that allows you to know what their concerns, what their fears are, what their anger quotient might be if something has affected them very directly.

And then the next step is to go where they are. You can’t sit back and wait for them to come to you. You have to go to them and basically listen to them, ask for their guidance as to what it is that is of concern to them and how can they help you meet their concerns. So it’s a much more proactive engagement with stakeholders than to simply tell people what you’re doing and then hope for the best.

Matt Abrahams : Right. So your audience engagement approach is similar to what we’ve talked about prior on this podcast, which is really know your audiences and understand what it is that’s important to them. You’re doing this very proactively. In case something bad happens, you know, and you’re engaged with them prior. And I also heard you say be very mindful of the different methodologies, tools, and modalities with which you can connect to them and leverage those so you can get your messages out quickly and proactively.

I need to figure out how I can affect the anger quotient of some of the people that I live with in my house. I’d like to reduce that a little bit, so you’ve got me thinking about that for sure. We’ve talked about knowing your values, knowing your corporate values. We’ve talked about knowing your audience and engaging them. What are other things people can do proactively to prepare for a crisis that might arise?

David Demarest : Well, I’d say two things. One, there are certain crises that happen that are impossible to foresee in very concrete terms. People aren’t going to blame Stanford if there’s an earthquake. What they will blame Stanford for is if we’re not prepared, knowing that we’re in an earthquake zone. And when I think about how people think about crises, I would suggest that they do an inventory of what are the worst things that can happen, and are we prepared for those things. That’s part one. Part two is don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

A lot of people in organizations, particularly leadership in organizations, fall into the trap of having an organizational bias in favor of their organization – “Oh, we would never do that.” And that is a dangerous trap because it is one of those things that when a leader really doesn’t embrace, “Oh, we have to really get to the facts of this case, not just what our preconceived notions are about how good our organization is.” So you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might have an alternative view of your organization. And that takes a little bit of hard thinking because – I love working for Stanford. I’ve been there 16 years.

And it would be easy to think, “Oh, well, Stanford would never do this or never do that.” Well, you’ve got to be able to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who might not think the way I do about the university or about my organization. Sometimes you’ve got to think like an adversary or you have to think like a reporter and get yourself out of your comfort zone and think in ways that a critic would think.

Matt Abrahams : Very useful ideas. And in fact, the last idea about seeing the situation from somebody else’s perspective echoes something Bob Sutton shared on our podcast in terms of team meetings and group decision making. It can always benefit to have that other perspective and, as you’ve said, to make sure that we’re not drinking the Kool-Aid. And I think reflecting on what could go wrong, while maybe depressing and concerning, is a great thing to do, again, in the name of being proactive in preparation. I’d like to change the topic a little bit.

You’ve spent a lot of your life in the political world, and you even teach a course on political communication. Looking at our current political landscape, what advice do you have for people who are trying to push a political agenda that is important to them, such as equity, energy, employment? What advice might you have?

David Demarest : We live in a remarkably polarized environment politically. And it is very difficult to have conversations, metaphorically, across the aisle. And people seem to be entrenched in their own world view. It’s a tough arena to navigate within, but I think if you’re going to be successful in trying to expand support for your cause or your agenda, you have to refrain from the temptation of being too judgmental about those who might not buy into what you’re trying to sell. And try to understand why, at a deeper level, what’s their concern about it, and then make your case on their terms, not yours.

You’ve got to be thoughtful about what avenue you can take to try to break through some of, perhaps, a rigidity of view on the other side. But coming at it from a different angle might be a little bit more persuasive than simply jumping up and down and saying, “You’re the devil incarnate.” The second half of that is for your supporters, it’s really about moving them from just being supportive to action. And that means communicating urgency. And how you communicate urgency is to make sure that they see the present-day merits of dealing with a particular problem.

Matt Abrahams : I really like how you separate those two points. The thing that really resonated with me was the notion, initially, of framing your point in the language and the approach that the people you’re trying to convince are taking, rather than, “It’s my idea, and you should see the world the way I do.” Try to appreciate the way the other people see the world and put your communication in that perspective.

And then the second part, there – this notion of urgency and driving action. A lot of us feel that, “Hey, if I just share the information, that it’s inherent and intuitive that action should follow.” But building that sense of urgency – providing a pathway to action – becomes very important.

David Demarest : I remember back at my Bank of America days, the CFO was the person that I ultimately reported to. And when I would talk to him about reputation management, he’d kind of glaze over. Because I wasn’t talking in a language that he could really relate to. So I changed my language to be one about risk management. That was a concept that he was very familiar with. And that enabled me to have more fruitful conversations with him about the steps that we needed to take when we had to deal with reputational risk, business risk, financial risk, and so forth.

Matt Abrahams : That last point you made about the linguistics of it leads me to my next question, which I know you and I share as something that we are passionate about and concerned with and teach about, and that is the language you use and the rhetoric involved in communication. What thoughts do you have of the importance of our words? And does anything change as a result of our communicating virtually rather than in person?

David Demarest : Yeah. Those are really two great questions. I love language. One of the modules in my class is about language and rhetoric. And when you think about language and you look at some – I don’t mean to get too esoteric here, but the word strategy, for example, comes from the Greek word strategos, which means a general. And the word tactics comes from the Greek tactos, which means arranged in order. The difference between strategy and tactics, then, you kind of can bring to life by talking about their derivation.

So language is really what we use to provide information, to make an argument, to motivate behavior, paint a picture, tell a story. All of those things are essential to bringing your issue to life – in other words, first building and understanding of one’s agenda. I think generally speaking, those principles are applicable to the virtual world. Crisis management is indeed much more complicated with the advent of social media. We all know that. Speed is essential because social media creates a narrative so quickly that people can mobilize faster. Bad news travels faster than it used to. Misinformation can spread like wildfire.

So you have to understand the platforms that we are all living with, and you’ve got to communicate to people in those spheres. It used to be a communications rule – never repeat the accusation that’s made against you because that just reinforces the accusation. Well, in the virtual world, if you have an answer to an accusation, and you don’t put the accusation in your talking points or your FAQs or whatever, somebody searching for that issue will never find your answer.

So just using the right words so that they are optimized for search, we have to be sophisticated and know that people are going to go to the web to find out information about a particular issue or crisis. And you’ve got to use the language that they would likely use in their search. It’s little things like that that I think can help us deal with crisis management in the virtual world.

Matt Abrahams : Absolutely. And the notion of really thinking about wording and the exact language you use is so powerful. Most people focus on, “Here’s what I want to get across,” but if you spend just a little extra time of thinking about how do you use certain words to help you get that information across, it can be incredibly powerful. I joke with people. I have a 17-year-old son. He’s just gotten his driver’s license. He wants a car. You cannot today, David, buy a used car. You can buy a certified previously-owned vehicle, but you can’t buy a used car. It’s the same car.

But calling it a certified previously-owned makes it sound different and better, and they can charge more for it. So this notion of choosing language wisely to help you further your goal, I think, is really important. And I know you and I both share that. And I hadn’t thought about how detailed you have to get in your thinking when it comes to the virtual world and how people actually search for the things that you’re putting out there. It makes a lot of sense to me. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

David Demarest : I’m ready.

Matt Abrahams : All right. Question number one. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five-to-seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

David Demarest : I’m not sure I can keep it to five to seven words, but I think I can get close. Worry about being right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting.

Matt Abrahams : Tell me more, but I like that a lot. I’ll let you have the extra words.

David Demarest : Well, I think when it comes to leadership, listening is more important than talking. And when you’re leading a group of people or when you’re meeting with a group of stakeholders, before you articulate your view, it’s probably better to listen to other people’s views. If you’re leading a team of people and you’re in an authority role, if you lead with what you think, you can bet your bottom dollar that people will echo that.

I used to watch the first President Bush in cabinet meetings. He never showed his cards when he was talking about a policy issue. He would always make the cabinet talk about what their views were, and then he would go back to the oval office and he’d make a decision. If he had said, “Well, I don’t think this policy should be this or that,” every one of those people would be saying, “Oh, Mr. President. You’re so smart. You’re so brilliant.” That’s just the nature of things. But I think the point of it is listen first, talk next.

Matt Abrahams : Yes. Words to live by, for sure. Let me ask you question two. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

David Demarest : I’ll give you two – Gandhi and Lincoln.

Matt Abrahams : Okay. And share why.

David Demarest : Gandhi because he was able to inspire a movement of hundreds of millions of people against colonialism in India, and he did it in large ways through communicating through his book about seeking independence and then speaking and writing essays.

And Lincoln, who I think — had he been able to serve out his second term, I think we would live in a different country today. All you have to do is read his second inaugural address about, “With malice towards none and charity for all.” It’s a beautiful address. And he did it in so few words, just like the Gettysburg Address, that it was so powerful that he was able to capture what I think was a hopeful vision of what this country could be.

Matt Abrahams : Absolutely. Two wonderful communicators who did amazing things for this world. Last question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

David Demarest : Okay. I’ll be too cute by half here. Context, context, context. Knowing the contextual environment of your circumstance, whether it’s a crisis, whether it’s your reputation, whether it’s your brand – having a really rigorous understanding of the contextual environment is the foundation of coming up with effective strategies and achieving your organization’s goals.

Matt Abrahams : Context is absolutely critical, as were the topics that we discussed today, David. I can think of no one better to help us understand how to communicate in the times we live in than someone like yourself who has experience in both crisis management and crisis communication as well as political communication. Thank you so much for your time, for your insight, and for your advice.

Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom .

Explore More

Power, culture, persuasion, and the self: communication insights from stanford gsb faculty, lose yourself: the secret to finding flow and being fully present, speak your truth: why authenticity leads to better communication, editor’s picks.

business communication skills enable crisis

April 06, 2020 The Crisis Leadership Playbook Don’t just tell your constituents how you’re responding to the pandemic, a Stanford expert says. Ask them what they want, listen to them, and then engage.

September 11, 2020 Showing Your Smile From Behind a Mask: How Culture and Emotion Impact Communication In this episode, we discuss how cultural values play an important role in how you communicate and how you perceive others’ communication.

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5 Tips for Communicating with Employees During a Crisis

  • Brooks Holtom,
  • Amy C. Edmondson,

business communication skills enable crisis

Based on a survey of more than 800 employees across 10 organizations.

To understand how leaders can communicate effectively during a crisis like the current one, the authors sent a 12-question assessment to employees in 10 for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations. Based on the 830 responses they received, they found five practices drive employee satisfaction with the organization’s overall interactions with them during the Covid-19 crisis. They include: communicate frequently, provide safe channels for giving feedback, help employees work at home effectively, address concerns about job security, and provide a plan for the future.

In these difficult times, we’ve made a number of our coronavirus articles free for all readers. To get all of HBR’s content delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Alert newsletter.

Every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical. When leaders communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy , it helps people adjust to the constantly changing conditions crises bring. A tone of urgency encourages people to make quick decisions to mitigate harm. Transparency builds trust in leaders and conveys respect for employees by implicitly recognizing them as capable of coping with what is being shared. And showing empathy and conveying a compelling message of hope can foster resilience in facing the challenges that lie ahead.

business communication skills enable crisis

  • Brooks Holtom is professor of management and senior associate dean at Georgetown University.
  • Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Her latest book is Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well (Atria Books, 2023).
  • David Niu is the CEO of TINYpulse.

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The Complete Guide to Crisis Management and Communication

February 11, 2018 - Sophie Thompson

Crisis management is an essential organisational function. Most businesses, at some point, will face a crisis and failure to respond can cause serious harm to the company’s bottom line, stakeholders and public image.

In the age of social media and the internet, news goes viral almost instantly. Organisations need to respond to PR crises quickly and effectively in order to minimise damage. In this article, we’ve outlined a set of best practices, useful resources and case studies for those in public relations and crisis management.

Best Practices for Crisis Management and Communication  webinar , with John Bailey, Senior Vice President of GoCrisis.

What is crisis management?

“The actions that are taken to deal with an emergency or difficult situation in an organized way” –  Cambridge Dictionary

A crisis is defined here as a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly. In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organisation, its stakeholders and reputation. A crisis can create three related threats:

  • Public safety
  • Financial loss
  • Reputation loss

Severe crisis, such as industrial accidents, can result in injuries and even loss of lives. Crises often create a financial loss by reducing purchase intentions, disrupting operations (such as closing a factory while an investigation into the accident takes place) and possible lawsuits or pay outs. All crises threaten to tarnish an organisation’s reputation.

VW emissions scandal and investor reactions

Financial impact of the emissions crisis on the Volkswagen share price. Image from Stacy Jones, Fortune.

Effective crisis management handles the three threats successively. The primary concern in a crisis has to be public safety as a failure to address this intensifies the damage from a crisis. Reputation and financial concerns are considered after public safety has been remedied.

Ultimately, crisis management is designed to protect an organisation and its stakeholders from threats and reduce the impact felt by threats.

Crisis management is a process designed to prevent or lessen the damage a crisis can inflict on an organisation and its stakeholders.

Crisis management can be divided into three phases:

  • Pre-crisis : prevention, preparation and training
  • Crisis response : management responds to a crisis
  • Post-crisis : looks for ways to better prepare for the next crisis and fulfils commitments made during the crisis phase

The role of social media

The biggest change for crisis management is the revolution of social media. During a crisis, it’s a threat to organisations as it allows the public to spread information much faster and to a wider audience. The public can voice their opinions, propagate rumours and experiences in a highly visible manner.

All stories are now global

There’s no such thing as a local crisis if you’re an international brand. Thanks to the internet and social media, a crisis in one market will become news at some point in others.

  • Be prepared to address the crisis in all markets. Crises cover all borders.
  • A single approach to social media won’t work. Media, customs and cultures vary in different markets. What works in one, may intensify the problem in another.

Pre-crisis phase

Prevention involves seeking to reduce known risks that could lead to a crisis. This is part of an organisation’s risk management program. Preparation involves:

Understanding your key stakeholders

  • Creating a crisis management plan and updating it at least annually
  • Selecting and training a crisis management team
  • Conducting exercises to test the crisis management plan and team at least annually
  • Drafting crises management messages and templates for crises statements

The importance of preparation and planning

Communication is crucial during a crisis. If you don’t  prepare for different crises  and how to communicate during them, you’ll likely incur more damage to the business. In the absence of adequate internal and external communications:

  • Operational response will break down
  • Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry and react negatively
  • The organisation will be perceived as inept and possibly criminally negligent
  • The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended
  • The impact to the financial and reputational bottom line will be more severe

Crisis management team planning for a crisis event

The crisis management team need to plan and train for possible crisis situations within the business.

Understanding the audiences that a business needs to reach during an emergency is one of the first steps in the development of a crisis communications plan. There are many potential audiences that will want information during and following an incident, and each has its own needs for information.

The following is a list of potential stakeholders you need to communicate with during a crisis. This list will vary depending on the industry you are in:

  • Customers and clients
  • Survivors impacted by the incident and their families
  • Employees and their families
  • Community, especially neighbours living near a damaged facility
  • Company management and directors
  • Investors and shareholders
  • Board members
  • Government organisations, regulators and other authorities
  • General public

Once you have your groups listed out, you’ll want to identify the owners of each of these relationships. Map these out with your team and form a  central communications office , which is in charge of managing the information flow.

The central communications office takes inquiries from customers, suppliers, the news media and others. The contact centre should be properly equipped and staffed by people ready to answer requests for information.

Crisis management plan

A crisis management plan (CMP) is a reference tool, not a blueprint. A CMP provides lists of key contact information, reminders of what typically should be done in a crisis, and forms to be used to document the crisis response. A CMP is not a step-by-step guide for managing a crisis.

A CMP saves time during a crisis by:

  • Pre-assigning some tasks
  • Pre-collecting some information
  • Serving as a reference source

Crisis management team

The common members of the crisis team are:

  • Public relations
  • Human resources

However, the composition will vary based on the nature of the crisis. For instance, information technology would be required if the crisis involved a hack of the database.

Training is needed so that team members can practice making decisions in a crisis situation. Each crisis is unique demanding that crisis teams make decisions. Practice improves a crisis team’s decision making and related task performance.

When training for a crisis, consider the following:

  • Managing the public relations aspect of a potential crisis situation
  • Planning, developing and implementing PR strategies
  • Organising events including press conferences, family briefing sessions and press tours
  • Researching, writing and distributing press releases to targeted media
  • Preparing and delivering speeches to further public relations objectives
  • Establishing and maintaining co-operative relationships with representatives of community, consumer, employee, and public interest groups
  • Preparing or editing organisational publications for internal and external audiences, including the employee intranet and stockholder reports

Spokesperson training

Ideally, potential spokespersons are trained and practice media relations skills prior to any crisis. The focus during a crisis then should be on the key information to be delivered rather than how to handle the media. Preparation makes sure all spokespersons have the proper media relations training and skills.

Here are some tips for talking to the media:

  • Avoid the phrase “no comment” because people think it means the organisation is guilty and trying to hide something.
  • Present information clearly by avoiding jargon or technical terms. Lack of clarity makes people think the organisation is purposefully being confusing in order to hide something.
  • Appear pleasant on camera by avoiding nervous habits that people interpret as deception. A spokesperson needs to have strong eye contact, few hesitation words, and avoid distracting nervous gestures.
  • Brief all potential spokespersons on the latest crisis information and the key message points the organisation is trying to convey to stakeholders.

Learn more about  media training in virtual reality  for a spokesperson.

Elected spokespersons must have the following:

  • The right skills  for communicating internally and externally, including with the media, including face-to-face interviews, radio interviews and talking at townhall events.
  • The right position  and high up enough in the organisation to carry weight when they talk and to show that the organisation is taking the crisis seriously.
  • The right training  which might include personal media training or coaching.

Pre-draft messages

Finally, crisis managers can pre-draft messages that will be used during a crisis. More accurately, crisis managers create templates for crisis messages. Templates include statements by top management, news releases, and intranet sites. The templates leave blank spots where key information is inserted once it is known.

Time is saved during a crisis as specific information is simply inserted into the messages before distributing to the communication channels.

Templates will differ depending on the type of organisation and possible incidents, including:

  • Accidents that injure employees or others
  • Property damage to company facilities
  • Liability associated injury to or damage sustained by others
  • Production or service interruptions
  • Chemical spills or releases with potential off-site consequences, including environmental
  • Product quality issues

Communication channels

An organisation may create a separate website for the crisis or designate a section of its current website for the crisis. Different websites should be designed prior to the crisis, requiring the crisis team to anticipate the type of crisis and information needed for the website.

The website is another means for an organisation to present its side of the story (along with social media and other channels) and not using it creates a risk of losing how the crisis story is told.

Malaysia airlines dark site for crisis

The Malaysia Airlines dark site with information about the incident and contact information.

What is a dark site?

When bad news or an emergency suddenly strikes an organization, its website is ordinarily the first place the outside world turns to for information. Given the extreme time pressure inherent in crisis management today, there is just no time to construct a new crisis site from scratch. Instead, a prebuilt dark site can be quickly “turned on” as needed during a crisis management situation.

Read more about dark sites for a crisis here:  Dark Websites for Crisis Response

Intranet sites can also be used during a crisis, which are typically accessible only to employees. Intranet sites provide direct access to specific stakeholders so long as those stakeholders have access to the Intranet.

The communication value of an Intranet site is increased when used in conjunction with mass notification systems designed to reach employees and other key stakeholders. With a mass notification system, contact information (phones numbers, e-mail, etc.) are programmed in prior to a crisis.

Popular crisis communication channels include:

  • Social media (particularly Facebook and Twitter)
  • Company website (either as a separate domain or part of the main company site)
  • Intranet (useful for keeping the employees up to date with information)
  • Mass notification systems (mass emails, texts etc.)
  • Conference calls (shareholders might dial-in to a call to be updated)
  • Press releases and media interaction (gives the organisation an opportunity to tell their side of the story)

Social media vs. more traditional means of communication

People tend to think about social media when it comes to crisis communications. However, although  social media is an important channel  for crisis communication, only sharing to social media is not enough. The goal is to communicate and connect with your stakeholders in a way that is personal, human and authentic.

Social media is a strong crisis communications tool when:

  • You need to reach a large group of people quickly
  • You want to position your organisation as the narrator of the crisis
  • You have key stakeholders who actively engage with your organisation on dedicated social media platforms (e.g. on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)

How to identify the appropriate communications channels

Sit down with leadership and the heads of each department and answer the following questions:

  • Which of your key stakeholders do you need to communicate with directly?
  • What is the best way to communicate with them directly (phone, email, etc.)?
  • Do you have legal obligations to notify any stakeholders in a particular way? If so, in what types of crisis scenarios? For example, do you have certain key stakeholders that require you to provide them with written notice in a certain type of crisis scenario?
  • Which channels do you engage your stakeholders on regularly (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Slack, an intranet, etc.)?
  • What apps, platforms and technology do your stakeholders use in their daily lives that may present a unique means of communicating with them directly?

Crisis response

The crisis response is what management does and says after the crisis occurs. Public relations plays a critical role in the crisis response by helping to develop the messages that are sent to various people and organisations.

Initial response to the crisis

The initial crisis response should focus on three points:

  • Be accurate
  • Be consistent

Provide an early response

Aim to provide a response in the first hour after the crisis occurs. That puts a great deal of pressure on crisis managers to have a message ready in a short period of time. The rationale behind being quick is the need for the organisation to tell its side of the story.

The news media will attempt to fill the information vacuum and be a key source of initial crisis information. If the organisation having the crisis does not speak to the news media, other people will be happy to talk to the media. These people may have inaccurate information or may try to use the crisis as an opportunity to attack the organisation. As a result, crisis managers must have a quick response.

An early response may not have much new information but the organisation positions itself as a source and begins to present its side of the story. A quick response is active and shows an organisation is in control.

Germanwings tweet as crisis was emerging

Germanwings responded quickly to reports of a plane crash even though it could not provide much new information.

Accurate information is important

Accuracy is important anytime an organisation communicates with the public. People want accurate information about what happened and how that event might affect them. Because of the time pressure in a crisis, there is a risk of inaccurate information. If mistakes are made, they must be corrected.

The news media want to ask questions of experts so they may need to talk to a person in operations or one from security. The crisis team needs to share information so that different people can still convey a consistent message. The spokespersons should be briefed on the same information and the key points the organisation is trying to convey in the messages. The public relations department should be instrumental in preparing the spokespersons.

Be consistent across different communication platforms

Websites, intranet sites, and mass notification systems add to the news media coverage and help to provide a quick response. It’s important to remain consistent across the different communication platforms, as confusion will only make the situation worse.

Crisis management interview with the media

Expressing sympathy and counselling

Crisis managers should also express sympathy for any victims of the crisis. Victims might have lost money, become ill, had to evacuate, or suffered property damage. Expressions of concern help to lessen reputational damage and to reduce financial losses.

When the crisis results in serious injuries or deaths, crisis management must include stress and trauma counselling for employees and other victims. One illustration is the trauma teams dispatched by airlines following a plane crash. The trauma teams address the needs of employees as well as victims’ families.

Reputation repair strategies

Reputation repair strategies vary in terms of how much they accommodate victims of the crisis. Accommodate means that the response focuses more on helping the victims than on addressing organisational concerns.

The following list arranges the reputation repair strategies from the least to the most accommodative reputation repair strategies.

  • Attack the accuser : crisis manager confronts the person or group claiming something is wrong with the organisation.
  • Denial : crisis manager asserts that there is no crisis.
  • Scapegoat : crisis manager blames some person or group outside of the organisation for the crisis.
  • Provocation : crisis was a result of response to someone else’s actions.
  • Defeasibility : lack of information about events leading to the crisis situation.
  • Accidental : lack of control over events leading to the crisis situation.
  • Good intentions : organisation meant to do well
  • Justification : crisis manager minimizes the perceived damage caused by the crisis.
  • Reminder : crisis managers tell stakeholders about the past good works of the organisation.
  • Ingratiation : crisis manager praises stakeholders for their actions.
  • Compensation : crisis manager offers money or other gifts to victims.
  • Apology : crisis manager indicates the organisation takes full responsibility for the crisis and asks stakeholders for forgiveness.

It should be noted that reputation repair can be used in the crisis response phase, post-crisis phase, or both. Not all crises need reputation repair efforts. Frequently the instructing information and expressions of concern are enough to protect the reputation.

People either blame the organisation in crisis or the situation. If people blame the organisation, anger is created and people react negatively toward the organisation. Three negative reactions to attributing crisis responsibility to an organisation have been documented:

  • Increased damage to an organisation’s reputation
  • Reduced purchase intentions
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in negative word-of-mouth

Crisis managers need to assess the reputational threat of a crisis and determine the basic crisis type. Here is a list of basic crisis types and their reputational threat:

Victim Crises: Minimal Crisis Responsibility

  • Natural disasters: acts of nature such as tornadoes or earthquakes.
  • Rumours: false and damaging information being circulated about you organisation.
  • Workplace violence: attack by former or current employee on current employees on-site.
  • Product Tampering: external agent causes damage to the organisation.

Accident Crises: Low Crisis Responsibility

  • Challenges: stakeholder claim that the organisation is operating in an inappropriate manner.
  • Technical error accidents: equipment or technology failure that cause an industrial accident.
  • Technical error product harm: equipment or technology failure that cause a product to be defective or potentially harmful.

Preventable Crises: Strong Crisis Responsibility

  • Human-error accidents: industrial accident caused by human error.
  • Human-error product harm: product is defective or potentially harmful because of human error.
  • Organisational misdeed: management actions that put stakeholders at risk and/or violate the law.

The tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was a minimum crisis responsibility scenario.

The tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster was a minimum crisis responsibility scenario.

Post-crisis phase

In the post-crisis phase, the organisation is returning to business as usual. The crisis is no longer the focal point of management’s attention but still requires some attention.

Important follow-up communication is required:

  • Crisis managers often promise to provide additional information during the crisis phase. The crisis managers must deliver on those informational promises or risk losing the trust of publics wanting the information.
  • The organisation needs to release updates on the recovery process, corrective actions, and/or investigations of the crisis. The amount of follow-up communication required depends on the amount of information promised during the crisis and the length of time it takes to complete the recovery process. Intranets are an excellent way to keep employees updated, if the employees have ways to access the site.

Acting on the lessons learnt

Crisis managers agree that a crisis should be a learning experience. The crisis management effort needs to be evaluated to see what is working and what needs improvement. The same holds true for exercises. The organisation should seek ways to improve prevention, preparation, and/or the response.

Case studies and examples

Pepsico’s can tampering rumours (1993).

A famous case study when it comes to crisis PR, Pepsi was involved in a strange backlash where a syringe was allegedly found in a drink in Washington. The following week there were over 50 reports of Diet Pepsi tampering, which all turned out to be a hoax.

Negative press is not ideal, no matter what the truth is. Pepsi managed to work with the FDA, which was satisfied that the story was fabricated, staunchly denying any accusations.

In response, Pepsi produced four videos throughout the crisis to gain people’s trust of the canning process and CEO Craig Weatherup appeared on news channels armed with evidence of bogus reports.

Sales did fall by two per cent, but Pepsi’s aggressive defence was vital and proved a much better tactic for the company rather than staying silent on their innocence.

  • How the Pepsi Syringe Hoax Fizzled

German wings disaster (2015)

The story of a German Wings plane crashing into the French Alps was everywhere in 2015, particularly due to the human tragedy that it prevailed. The event was not caused by corporate negligence, but a deliberate crash by pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had been suffering from depression.

A media spotlight was cast onto the airline and people demanded answers. CEO of Lufthansa, Carsten Sphor, was an immediate and compelling spokesperson, vowing to ensure pilots are fully checked in all aspects of health and delivered his sentiments to all families involved.

Sphor was quoted as saying ‘Safety in aviation is no given’, but no business should ever have to pick themselves up from such a tragic event, although done amicably by German Wings.

  • PR experts applaud Lufthansa’s crisis communications approach

Toyota’s recall fiasco (2010)

Toyota recalled a total of 8.8 million vehicles for safety defects, including a problem where the car’s accelerator would jam, which caused multiple deaths.

Toyota initially couldn’t figure out the exact problem, but it sent out PR teams to try and stop the media backlash anyway. The upper management was invisible in the early stages of the crisis, skewing public perception further against the company.

Toyota’s response was slow, with devastating results. But it served as a wake-up call for the company, which somehow turned it around in the months following the debacle. The company offered extended warranties and pumped up marketing, leveraging its long-term track record and reassuring consumers about safety.

  • Accelerating towards crisis: a PR view of Toyota’s recall

Johnson & Johnson’s cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules (1982)

Seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide, a deadly poison.

The company put customer safety first. It quickly pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol ($100 million worth) off the shelves and stopped all production and advertising of the product. It also got involved with the Chicago Police, FBI, and FDA in the search for the killer, and offered up a $100,000 reward.

Post-crisis, the company reintroduced Tylenol with new tamper-resistant packaging and $2.50-off coupons. Tylenol’s response to the tragic 1982 Chicago murders is regarded as one of the most successful sequences of crisis management in history.

  • Tylenol made a hero of Johnson & Johnson: The recall that started them all

Crisis management checklist

Forbes provide a list of useful  rules for crisis management , with a select few described below.

1. Take responsibility

Don’t try to cover up the PR crisis, it will only worsen the damage. Instead, manage the situation by taking responsibility, reacting immediately, and responding to feedback. Write a press release and post on social media to control the situation and get the message visible.

2. Be proactive, transparent and accountable

In today’s real-time world of social media, and with critics everywhere, reputation management matters more than ever and it can be lost in an instant. The company needs to acknowledge the incident, accept responsibility, and apologize.

3. Be ready for social media backlash

The worst thing companies can do is ignore the possibility of social media backlash. Just because a company is not marketing on social does not mean their customers won’t vent their anger on those platforms when something goes wrong.

4. Remember to be human

Saying “you’ll look into it” doesn’t make anyone feel better. Saying you’re deeply saddened by what went down and will work on making things better is important. Then, immediately share how policies will be put in place so it doesn’t happen again.

5. First apologize, then take action

Extending a heartfelt apology is key to moving forward. Not doing so adds fuel to the fire and delays changing the narrative. Following a public apology, the company must offer a call to action to show that they are changing their ways moving forward.

6. Monitor, plan and communicate

Have your social team on high alert, with monitoring at the forefront. If they start noticing spikes of negativity or increased activity, utilise the crisis plan to proactively respond on social with prepared materials.

7. Seek first to understand the situation

Communicate all relevant details to key stakeholders. When asked to comment never reply with “no comment.” Even if you’re still assessing a situation, simply say that. If you don’t have a voice in the matter, people immediately assume guilt or make their own suppositions.

8. Be prepared

No one wants to be at the centre of a scandal, but scrambling around because you’re not prepared to handle it takes things from bad to worse. Anticipate potentials crisis scenarios and establish internal protocols for handling them.

We’ve identified best practices, case studies and useful resources for crisis management teams. While crises begin as a threat, effective crisis management can minimise the damage and in some case allow an organisation to emerge stronger than before the crisis.

No organisation is immune from a crisis so all must do their best to prepare for one. This article provides a number of ideas that can be incorporated into an effective crisis management plan.

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17.3 Crisis Communication Plan

Learning objective.

  • Understand how to prepare a crisis communication plan.

A rumor that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents on several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address these many risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen nevertheless. In addition, people make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear a response from a company’s standpoint. In this chapter we address the basics of a crisis communication plan.

Figure 17.2

George Bush on the news with the headline

Crisis communication requires efficiency and accuracy.

Danny Howard – Bush: Worst Disaster – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Focus on key types of information during an emergency: (Mallet, L., Vaught, C., and Brinch, M., 1999)

  • What is happening?
  • Is anyone in danger?
  • How big is the problem?
  • Who reported the problem?
  • Where is the problem?
  • Has a response started?
  • What resources are on-scene?
  • Who is responding so far?
  • Is everyone’s location known?

You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.

Developing Your Crisis Communication Plan

A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. With a plan in place, if an emergency arises, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response.

The plan should include four elements:

  • Crisis communication team members with contact information
  • Designated spokesperson
  • Meeting place/location
  • Media plan with procedures

A crisis communication team includes people who can

  • decide what actions to take,
  • carry out those actions,
  • offer expertise or education in the relevant areas.

By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumors, which can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.

Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communicate and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and the type of facilities where you do business, the company may develop an emergency plan with exit routes, hazardous materials procedures, and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety, of course, is the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are and where information is coming from.

Whether or not evacuation is necessary, when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. He or she will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to know information and reliable information is preferable to speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal, and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak “off the record.”

Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow that professional to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts, even if they are unpleasant or even tragic.

Key Takeaway

Because crises are bound to happen despite the best planning, every organization should have a crisis communication plan, which includes designating a crisis communication team and spokesperson.

  • Locate the crisis communication plan where you go to school or work, or find one online. Briefly describe the overall plan and please note at least one part, element, or point of emphasis we have not discussed. Post and compare with classmates.
  • When people don’t know what to do in a crisis situation, what happens? How can you address probable challenges before the crisis occurs? Discuss your ideas with classmates.
  • As a case study, research one crisis that involves your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? Compare your results with classmates.
  • Locate a crisis communication online and review it. Share and compare with classmates.
  • Do you always have to be on guard with members of the media? Why or why not? Explain your answer to the class as if they were members of the media.

Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Saftey and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.

Business Communication for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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What Is Crisis Communication? A Guide for Beginners

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Industries and businesses of all types and sizes are increasingly embracing issues and crisis communication planning.

In fact, an estimated 84 percent of organizations have an emergency communication plan in place, according to the Business Continuity Institute. Fifty-five percent use three or more emergency communication processes.

And yet, nearly two-thirds say they are not confident about their preparedness for a crisis event. So, while organizations recognize the importance of issues and crisis communication, and are investing heavily in related processes, they feel as unprepared as ever.

To understand the disconnect, let us take a closer look at the basics of issues and crisis communication.

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication refers to the technologies, systems and protocols that enable an organization to effectively communicate during a major threat to its business or reputation.

Organizations must be prepared for a wide range of potential crises, including extreme weather, crime, cyber-attacks, product recalls, corporate malfeasance, reputation crises, and PR incidents.

Preparing ahead of time for a crisis ensures that relevant personnel can quickly and effectively communicate with each other during moments of threat, sharing information that allows the organization to quickly rectify the situation, protect customers, employees and assets, and ensure business continuity.

Buyers Guide for Issue and Crisis Management Platforms

Who needs crisis communication?

Companies of all sizes, in all industries, face a growing number of threats. Due to the instantaneous nature of the online news media, it is more important than ever for organizations to be able to respond quickly and confidently instantly when a crisis emerges.

Crisis communication is designed to connect a variety of audiences to each another, such as:

  • Crisis management team
  •  PR team
  • Department heads
  • Security personnel
  • Local police & first responders
  • Government officials

How is crisis communication done well?

Although the ideal approach to crisis communication is slightly different for each organization, several best practices have emerged that can be helpful in establishing your program:

Communication should be in real time.

This ensures that employees and other stakeholders have access to the most up-to-date information as the emergency unfolds.

  • Communication Should Be In Real Time: This ensures that employees and other stakeholders have access to the most up-to-date information as the emergency unfolds.
  • Information Should Be Accessible Anywhere: Emails and manual phone trees are ineffective for crisis communications when employees may be away from their desks. Both are ineffective during a power failure. It is more effective to communicate using mobile technology, which goes where the user goes.
  • Messages Should Be Relevant To The Individual: Not every employee should receive every message during an emergency. Response time will slow down if team members are flooded with irrelevant information. Ideally, your system should be able to target specific individuals and departments to ensure the most pertinent information gets to those who need it most.

Thanks to the mass adoption of smartphones, mobile crisis management apps enable employees to receive emergency notifications in real-time communication in any location and at any time of day.

The crisis management team can instantaneously update relevant information throughout the duration of the situation.

As a result, people at every level of your organization are equipped with the right information, at precisely the moment they need it most. This streamlines emergency response, helps protect people, keep physical and digital assets safe and minimizes lost productivity.

Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Strategies in Manufacturing

Crisis Management Pillars: Building Alignment With Stakeholders

Five Most Common Gaps in Crisis Management

Five Most Common Gaps in Crisis Management

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Why Institutional Discrimination is Keeping Crisis Managers Awake at Night

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8.7 Crisis Communications

A rumour that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents in several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address such risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen anyway. Employees also make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear response from a company’s standpoint. In this section we address the basics of a crisis communication plan, focusing on key types of information during an emergency:

  • What is happening?
  • Is anyone in danger?
  • How big is the problem?
  • Who reported the problem?
  • Where is the problem?
  • Has a response started?
  • What resources are on-scene?
  • Who is responding so far?
  • Is everyone’s location known? (Mallet, Vaught, & Brinch, 1999)

You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.

A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. If an emergency arises when you already have a plan in place, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response. The plan should include four elements:

  • Crisis communication team members with contact information
  • Designated spokesperson
  • Meeting place/location
  • Media plan with procedures

A crisis communication team includes people who can decide what actions to take, carry out those actions, and offer expertise or education in the relevant areas. By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumours that can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.

Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communication and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and its facilities, the emergency plan may include exit routes, hazardous materials procedures (WHMIS), and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety is of course the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are, where they need to be, and where information is coming from.

Whether or not evacuation is necessary when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. They will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to get reliable information, which is preferable to mere spin or speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak anonymously or “off the record.”

Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow them to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts even if they are unpleasant or even tragic.

Fundamentals of Business Communication Revised (2022) Copyright © 2022 by Venecia Williams & Nia Sonja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Chapter 10: Negative News and Crisis Communication

10.3 crisis communication plan, learning objective.

  • Understand how to prepare a crisis communication plan.

A rumor that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents on several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address these many risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen nevertheless. In addition, people make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear response from a company’s standpoint. In this chapter, we address the basics of a crisis communication plan.

Figure 10.4

George Bush on the news with the headline

Crisis communication requires efficiency and accuracy.

Danny Howard – Bush: Worst Disaster – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Focus on key types of information during an emergency: (Mallet et al., 1999)

  • What is happening?
  • Is anyone in danger?
  • How big is the problem?
  • Who reported the problem?
  • Where is the problem?
  • Has a response started?
  • What resources are on-scene?
  • Who is responding so far?
  • Is everyone’s location known?

You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.

Developing Your Crisis Communication Plan

A crisis communication plan  is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. With a plan in place, if an emergency arises, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response.

The plan should include four elements:

  • Crisis communication team members with contact information
  • Designated spokesperson
  • Meeting place/location
  • Media plan with procedures

A crisis communication team includes people who can

  • decide what actions to take,
  • carry out those actions,
  • offer expertise or education in the relevant areas.

By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumors, which can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.

Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communicate and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and the type of facilities where you do business, the company may develop an emergency plan with exit routes, hazardous materials procedures, and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety, of course, is the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are and where information is coming from.

Whether or not evacuation is necessary, when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. He or she will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to know information and reliable information is preferable to speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal, and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak “off the record.”

Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow that professional to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts, even if they are unpleasant or even tragic.

  • Locate the crisis communication plan where you go to school or work, or find one online. Briefly describe the overall plan and please note at least one part, element, or point of emphasis we have not discussed. Post and compare with classmates.
  • When people don’t know what to do in a crisis situation, what happens? How can you address probable challenges before the crisis occurs? Discuss your ideas with classmates.
  • As a case study, research one crisis that involves your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? Compare your results with classmates.
  • Locate a crisis communication online and review it. Share and compare with classmates.
  • Do you always have to be on guard with members of the media? Why or why not? Explain your answer to the class as if they were members of the media.

Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.

  • Business Communication for Success. Authored by : University of Minnesota. Located at : https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/ . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

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Tim Johnson is president of UPRAISE Marketing + Public Relations and has over 40 years of experience supporting clients' brands.

Most organizations at some point will go through a crisis; a senior executive launders money, a hurricane destroys a facility or workers are injured in a manufacturing plant where safety standards were allowed to lag.

An effective crisis communication strategy involves much more than having a spokesperson stand at a podium and deliver sanitized messages. You must carefully analyze the situation, the people involved, the potential impact of the event and many other factors.

Let’s dive into the importance of effective planning and strategizing for a crisis so you can ensure a minor event doesn’t become a major one.

Why Crisis Communication Is Important

The importance of handling crises effectively goes beyond the potential to lose customers. Adept strategy and execution can not only minimize the potential damage of a crisis but also actually improve the organization’s reputation. Some ways include:

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• Improving the credibility of the entire organization and the people who work there and lead it.

• Avoiding negative perceptions of your organization that can last years.

• Proactively communicating your position to ensure another organization can’t brand you in a negative light.

• Minimizing the potential for the media to write negative news about your organization.

Defining Crises

Crises tend to fall into two categories: sudden and sizzle. A sudden crisis is a one-time event that creates initial chaos with the potential for later aftershocks. If handled well, they will fade from people’s memories in a matter of days. They are somewhat predictable, and therefore you have the opportunity to prepare. A sizzle crisis begins with a negative event that creates chaos, but then is followed by additional news that prolongs the crisis and/or creates new crises. These are much more difficult to handle since it can be unclear what the follow-on crisis or crises will be.

Not all negative events are crises. An emergency is a serious, unexpected, threatening event that requires immediate attention. Someone having a heart attack at a restaurant is an emergency. A disaster, such as a hurricane, is a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes significant damage and/or loss of life. A true crisis is a time of intense disruption caused by an event outside of social norms. The fentanyl epidemic is a crisis.

However, an emergency or disaster can become a crisis if the people involved fail to respond correctly or in a timely manner. If the restaurant where the patron has a heart attack is required to have a defibrillator but doesn’t and the customer dies, that emergency can rapidly become a crisis.

Developing A Crisis Strategy

There are multiple elements to effectively addressing a crisis. Not surprisingly, the majority of work needs to happen before the crisis takes place. Here is a very brief synopsis of the three most important elements involved in creating a crisis strategy.

Determine Your Operational Goals

Beyond the obvious goal of ending the crisis quickly to avoid building negative sentiment among employees, customers and stakeholders, several additional goals to consider include:

• Avoiding a negative impact on revenues and income, employee attrition and customer base shrinkage.

• Enabling key audiences to remember your organization handled the crisis well.

• Enhancing your reputation by handling the crisis effectively.

• Precluding competitors from poaching your customers.

• Encouraging healing among affected audiences.

Identify Key Audiences

One easy way to think of the audiences involved in crisis communications is to divide them into collaborators, allies and customers/constituents. Collaborators are people or organizations that will support your organization during a crisis. They may be other companies in your industry, trade associations, employees’ trade unions or other entities. Allies are third-party experts not involved in the crisis but able to provide expert commentary to support your key messages. Academics, well-known industry experts and consultants can be allies. Customers and constituents, of course, are those directly impacted by the crisis.

One area that’s often a weak spot in an organization’s crisis plans is how it maintains contact records of its key audiences, especially customers and constituents. Make sure your organization has updated contact lists with phone numbers, physical addresses, email addresses and social media handles, with notes on what language each customer or constituent speaks and what communication channels they prefer.

Concentrate On Messages

Messaging in crisis situations is a little different from other marketing activities, such as launching a new product. Here, we are appealing to people’s rational and emotional sides, and messaging must reflect that reality. Using mask-wearing during the Covid-19 pandemic as an example, the six elements of effective messaging are:

• Keep it simple: “Please wear a mask.”

• Make it motivating: “Wearing a mask can save your life and your loved ones.”

• Be demonstrative: “Our entire organization is wearing masks.”

• Show empathy: “We know masks can be uncomfortable.”

• Keep it timely: “We’re telling you in advance so you have time to buy masks.”

• Reflect diversity: Masking messages are communicated in the languages of your customers and constituents.

There are additional elements to a well-developed crisis strategy, but these are a good starting point. You also have to consider the reputational and related benefits of successful execution.

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Grads Take the Stage as ‘Architects of a Brighter, Healthier Future’

Student viewpoint: the sexual health of us youth is under attack, young voices need to fight back .

BY MADISON CHENG, EZRA LEVINSON, JA’KARRI PIERRE, DIVYA REDDY, AND KLARA SATTLER

Viewpoint articles are written by members of the SPH community from a wide diversity of perspectives. The views expressed are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University or the School of Public Health. We aspire to a culture where all can express views in a context of civility and respect. Our guidance on the values that guide our commitment can be found at  Revisiting the Principles of Free and Inclusive Academic Speech .

The sexual health of youth in the United States (US) is under attack. Teens struggle to access effective healthcare services, their confidentiality protections are not consistent, and the state of sex education across the country is abysmal. Factors like these contribute to the rising tide of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among youth—a clear sign that our laws, education, and culture surrounding sexual health needs to change.

STIs are an important aspect of sexual health. Because they are measurable negative health outcomes, they can be used to gauge the impact of public health policies and practices. In 2021, more than half (51%) of 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were among young people (ages 15–24). As teens, we are frustrated and terrified by this statistic, but we know we must empower ourselves in order to resolve this public health crisis. We are putting out a call to action to our fellow youth: Rise to the challenge! Get involved in work that can help turn the tide and protect our sexual health!

We are members of a youth advisory board that collaborates with the iCARE (Inclusive Consent & Access to Resources for Everyone) study, a National Institutes of Health-funded research project about adolescent sexual health in the US conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health. This study examines how minor consent laws—laws that enable youth to access a range of medical treatments and prevention services (such as STI and HIV testing) without needing their parents’ or legal guardians’ permission—have changed over time; whether or not teens have knowledge about these laws; and if recent changes in legislation are impacting teens’ sexual health and decisions to utilize sexual health resources. iCARE also assesses changes in sex education laws over time and asks teens about their experience with school-based sex education. We are working to gather information that will help to solve the youth sexual health crisis.

During our almost four years of being youth advisory board members, we have each contributed unique insights to make a real impact on the study. We’ve been involved in everything from naming iCARE to determining recruitment strategies, developing survey questions, and interpreting study results. With our help, the iCARE study has been far more effective in reaching a diverse group of teens from across the country and collecting relevant, timely information that can be used to improve public policy and fuel the fight for quality, accessible sexual healthcare and education for youth.

Being involved in the process of iCARE has helped us realize just how important youth voices are in understanding and addressing the sexual health needs of teens. We have a great depth of cultural knowledge, life experience, and community understanding that makes our voices integral to the success of this research. Any policy changes stemming from this work will directly impact the health and well-being of our peers and generations to come. Because of this, youth like us must have a say in the process of research and policymaking about adolescent sexual health. We are the future faces of healthcare, education, politics, and research. Our creativity and passion are desperately needed not only to address the health needs of teens, but to also make measurable improvements in sexual health and well-being for all.

Mobilizing in youth action can lead to meaningful change in your community and transform your social groups. As a result of working on the youth advisory board, we have become more comfortable talking about sex and our own experiences with sexual health with others in ways we might not have otherwise. There’s no doubt that talking about sexual health in social settings can be daunting, but being involved with this work has helped us overcome that. This has allowed us to spread our knowledge to peers through open-minded and informed conversations, which we’ve noticed has led our friends to making safer choices surrounding their sexual practices and relationships. Communicating about sex in this way combats stigma, especially for those of us who grew up in communities where sex is a taboo subject. Sexual health is a topic that should be openly discussed, and it is essential for youth to be involved in these conversations. This is the only way we can work to improve our collective health.

On a personal level, being involved in research about adolescent sexual health has been deeply empowering. When reflecting on our experiences working on the iCARE study, we’ve realized just how much confidence we’ve gained through educating ourselves about STIs and other important sexual health topics. Gone are the days of feeling insecure and fearful talking or thinking about sexual health. We are now equipped with more knowledge and communication skills to make informed decisions for our health and well-being. We also know that we have what it takes to take a stand in the world of academia and shape research to be more inclusive. This experience inspires us to use our voices to advocate for our communities across various matters, realizing that our voices must be heard not despite our age, but because of it.

As a teen reading this article, you might be wondering: how can I get involved in work to improve youth sexual health? It doesn’t have to be research: you could try peer health education, political action, or volunteering with a local clinic. Even having an open and informed conversation with your friends about sex can be a form of community-based activism. Try looking up what organizations or student groups are working to improve sexual health in your area. If you can’t find anything, try looking for online opportunities like we did! Social media is a great place to start on this journey: it’s how we found out about the iCARE study.

Youth like us need to get involved in research or other work related to sexual health. We are disproportionately impacted by sexual health inequities, including the rising tide of STIs in the US, and we must be involved in creating innovative solutions to issues directly pertaining to us. Our voices are needed now more than ever to improve the health of our communities. While diving headfirst into the world of sexual health research by joining the youth advisory board was intimidating for some of us, it’s been a meaningful and rewarding experience that we recommend to anyone who wants to make a difference in their community.

This Viewpoint was written by a Youth Advisory Board (YAB) of 5 teenagers on an  NIH funded study  supervised by principal investigator Kimberly Nelson , associate professor of community health sciences.

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FAA workforce grant provides funding for drone pilot training

The Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies (CAS) has been awarded a $346,400 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant to support workforce development. The funding will be used towards curriculum creation and delivery aimed at preparing high school educators to teach drone pilot training courses to their students. In addition, CAS will provide classroom support by teaching drone flying skills on site.

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Ohio State is one of 12 schools to receive funding as a part of  FAA’s Aircraft Pilots Aviation Workforce Development Grants program , with goals of increasing drone knowledge and self-efficacy among teachers wishing to implement drone educational programs, as well as preparing more historically underrepresented minority and rural students for the fast-growing drone workforce.

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  26. FAA workforce grant provides funding for drone pilot training

    The funding will be used towards curriculum creation and delivery aimed at preparing high school educators to teach drone pilot training courses to their students. In addition, CAS will provide classroom support by teaching drone flying skills on site.