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  • Writer's pictureStavros Papagianneas

10 Essential Steps in Crisis Communications

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

crisis communications, PR, Virgin, Volkswagen

In the digital age, crisis has become a part of our lives. An unexpected crisis, in combination with the immediacy of social media, makes crisis communication and reputation management critical. Whether it is an airplane catastrophe, a nuclear accident, an institutional crisis, a terrorist incident, a dioxin affair, a stock market crash or a company closing down, crisis has become an everyday topic. Crises can be complex with unpredictable effects for both private and public sector and can move fast.

Good examples of crisis management are harder to remember

Let’s take a look at some relevant cases of poor crisis communications of major organisations such as Thomas Cook, Volkswagen and Air Malaysia. It is doubtful that executives of those companies woke up one morning thinking they would be facing major crises.

Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook could do nothing to bring back Christianne and Robert Shepherd in life, the two children killed by carbon monoxide poisoning on a holiday in Corfu in 2006. However, the company’s handling of the case has been a lesson in how not to manage a crisis. Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser apologised for the deaths of the children only 9 years later, in May 2015, after a € 81 million shares slump and a customer boycott. In the same month the children’s parents who had booked the family’s holiday through Thomas Cook were finally awarded € 382.000 for their loss. But their mother, speaking after the inquest said she would always hold Thomas Cook responsible for the deaths, adding they “could and should have identified that lethal boiler.”

Things got even worse when it emerged - also in May 2015 - that Thomas Cook has received compensation from the Louis Group, the owner of the hotel in Corfu whose manager was convicted of manslaughter and jailed by the 2010 trial in Greece. In 2013 and 2014, Thomas Cook received € 1,6 million in connection with a settlement with Louis Group in relation to a case brought by Thomas Cook in October 2012. The parents of the two children accused Thomas Cook of making money from their children’s deaths. The travel company announced it had donated the € 1,6 million received to the children’s organisation Unicef.

Under advice from its lawyers, the tour operator refused to apologise for the deaths until it was forced to do so by an angry public opinion. Thomas Cook showed a complete lack of empathy, isolating itself from the people who actually buy its holidays.

Malaysia Airlines

2014 was a terrible year for Malaysia Airlines. In March of that year flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur vanished without a trace with 239 passengers and crew onboard. The mysterious disappearing is still not solved. Four months later in July, flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was destroyed by a missile of pro-Russian rebels while flying over a conflict zone in the east of Ukraine.

In the case of MH370, the airline crisis communication was an example of how not to do it. Spokespersons for both government and the airline laid out often incomplete and inconsistent declarations, enraging relatives of passengers and undermining confidence. The lack of information gave rise to many speculative explanations.

The company’s digital response during the first days after the disappearance showed some activity in providing updates. Malaysia Airlines issued a statement of losing contact with Flight MH370 after five hours; social media accounts and website activated colourless backgrounds to reflect the severity of the situation; compassion towards family members and others affected by the disappearance of the plane was communicated via posts and tweets. However, the company did not encourage users to share their crisis communications and did not use enough and consistent hashtags.

In the case of MH17 the airline seemed to have learned from its mishandling of the MH370 crisis. This time, they immediately revealed all the information they had available when MH17 disappeared. The company’s social media carried the same message that was being given officially. The company also announced refunding anyone who booked a flight but was no longer feeling comfortable traveling on it.


In September 2015, a sophisticated “diesel dupe” software was discovered by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Volkswagen cars with a diesel engine. The software could detect when a car was tested and change the performance accordingly. The German company has since admitted cheating emission tests in the US. Incidents caused by internal actions are the most difficult to manage, especially if they are caused deliberately.

Volkswagen in the US surprisingly stopped posting on their Facebook and Twitter accounts on 18 September, the day that EPA made the scandal public. The accounts remained silent and dark until a statement of Volkswagen’s CEO at the US. However, the global Twitter account of the company continued to post “business as usual” messages until 22 September, and this created more tension and reputation damage.

Until 27 September, when VW launched an information site with FAQ, the only social media of the brand that were trying to provide more information were the Twitter and Facebook accounts of VW UK. There was a tremendous indignation among consumers, both in mainstream media and on social and it was clear that the automobile giant had not a real crisis communications plan.

Even a few weeks after the crisis a lot of consumers were still confused. If you are a car manufacturer, you are responsible for public safety and expected to have a plan in place if something goes wrong. According to Bloomberg (24 February 2017) VW's provisions for the diesel-cheating scandal rose to € 22,6 billion. The reputation damage to Volkswagen and Germany is gigantic.

Virgin: The good example

Someone who has an excellent track record in crisis communications is Richard Branson. On Friday 23 February 2007, a Virgin train travelling from London to Glasgow derailed and crashed, killing one person and injuring five. At a press conference at the scene of the crash, Richard Branson was visibly emotional and every comment he made seemed positive, complimentary and dignified. He even commended Network Rail for being “dignified” in accepting responsibility for the accident.

He successfully handled the tragedy, travelling back through the night from a family holiday to meet passengers and crew members in hospital. He was at the scene of the incident before the cause of the accident had been determined. He branded the train driver a hero, invited the press to his factory to see how safety was built into the carriages and e-mailed every customer to explain what had happened. His actions resulted in him being branded a PR genius. Branson turned a potentially reputation-damaging incident into an example of best practice crisis communications.

Are you ready for a crisis?

There’s a lot to learn from crisis communication best practices, but there is also a lot that we can learn from seeing organisations doing it wrong. Analysing their mistakes can help us avoid making similar ones.

Key recommendations:

1. Be prepared

The key to crisis planning is to expect the unexpected. You are unlikely to be able to predict the exact scenario but you can take a look at your organisation, anticipate its vulnerabilities and forecast potential problems. What could expose your organisation to public attention, intense media scrutiny and damage your reputation?

2. Develop a crisis communication plan

During a crisis, it’s often too late to start determining what to do. If you do not have a plan yet, do not wait for the crisis to hit first. Every organisation needs a plan to identify who says what when bad news is there. A written plan will save you time and will reduce the stress of the management, and allow them to focus on dealing with the situation when it is there.

3. Create a crisis team

Identify a small team of people in your organisation as your crisis communication team. While every staff member is important, they can’t all be part of the crisis management team. Put together a group of responsible responders, each with their dedicated role. We need a good mix of executive personnel to enforce decisions, management to coordinate, and the communications department to craft the right messages.

4. Identify and train the spokesperson

Speak with one voice and be clear. Tell people as early as possible the good and the bad news. Identify one central spokesperson that has the authority and the knowledge to speak on behalf of your organisation and shows empathy. If you are not 100% certain of the facts, do not communicate them. Do not speculate but share information about how you are planning to address the problem.

5. Speak first

Communicating immediately and efficiently should be the priority of every organisation. Be empathetic and sincere. Getting your messages out quickly, even if initially through a simple holding statement, will show that you are aware of the situation, are taking it seriously and are in control. This will build trust and will reduce rumours and misinformation.

6. Use the most important word in any crisis

Using the word "sorry" during a crisis is absolutely necessary. Even if the crisis is not your fault. Apologies are not about taking the blame for a crisis. It is about empathy and showing that you understand how your stakeholders feel.

7. Be transparent and honest

One of the best measures that organisations can employ to either avoid or reduce negative publicity is to aim for transparency. An organisation may be tempted to try to cover-up some of the bad news. Don’t. You need to be open and honest with the media and your clients or stakeholders. Trying to mask the intensity of any crisis is a recipe for trouble. Journalists will find out if you are trying to hide something. Information usually comes out anyway and a lack of transparency could reinforce suspicions and make it worse. In our days even the most seemingly insignificant detail can go viral with minutes and reputations are more and more at the mercy of social media. People need information but they also understand that you don’t have all the answers.

8. Use social media and Twitter in particular

Outline the exact steps everyone should take on social media during a crisis, from top executives to the most junior employees. Include a list of who should be contacted at each stage of a potential crisis. Provide guidelines for how all employees are expected to communicate on social media. Twitter is very important. Journalists are very active on social media and Twitter in particular. The key benefit of Twitter is how quickly one is able to disseminate information. Journalists are able to alert readers in real time that a big story is forthcoming, or correct an existing story. Tweets are the new press release.

9. Test your plan and run stimulations

The middle of a real crisis is the worst time to realise your plans don’t hold up. We need to test our plan, the team and the spokesperson. Identify a type of crisis that would have a big impact on your organisation and practice running through every step outlined in your plan. It will give everyone a better sense of how long it really takes to execute the plan, and help to identify any gaps or weaknesses that require more attention. Don't forget: you need professionals guiding this process. If you feel you can't do it in-house, you need to co-operate with a specialised PR company.

10. Make a post-crisis analysis

Any Crisis Communication Team should make a follow-up after a crisis. A thorough analysis of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be done better next time and how to improve various elements of crisis management is needed to answer the question “What did we learn from this?”.

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