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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Crisis Communications 102: What to Say and How to Say It

In the first of our crisis communication series, I outlined the best ways you can prepare your company for a crisis. By now, you should know who to call, where to go, and what to do if you find out about a security leak, you discover a defect with your product, or your co-founder has suddenly gone AWOL.

But, you’re not in the home stretch yet. Knowing what to say—and how to say it—is every bit as important as the steps you take to quell your crisis. With some careful wordsmithing and good old-fashioned open communication, you’ll ensure that your stakeholders, investors, and those beloved journalists are aware of the issue at hand, while remaining as transparent (and still as protected) as possible.

What to Say

When a crisis hits, it’s important to arm yourself with an all-purpose response, or “holding statement,” to get you through the initial inquiries from panicked customers or probing journalists who begin kamikaze-calling your team. A simple, generic statement will help reassure your various stakeholders that you are aware of, and addressing, the issue—while buying you time to prepare a full briefing on the situation.

Imagine you ship out several orders of your blood, sweat, and tears-inspired holiday gift baskets, only to learn they arrived at the doorsteps of your new and returning customers with the crumbled remains of hand soap and broken jars of jam. Although you probably feel like you need an explanation from your vendors or delivery company—your customers will be expecting one sooner than that. The first message you draft should be something along the lines of this:

We understand that a few shipments of our holiday gift baskets were found to be damaged upon delivery. We are looking into the cause of this issue and will keep you informed of our progress.

Not exactly the kind of response that gives you the warm and fuzzies, but if you're on the receiving end it does let you know the company is aware there’s an issue, and likely dissuades you from calling the company directly to ask, “WTF?”

Then, once you’ve gathered the who, what, where, why, and how, draft a more comprehensive statement, which will replace your holding statement. This should address what happened, when it happened, and include an update on the status of the issue. For example:

On Tuesday, December 15, we learned that several shipments of our holiday gift baskets were found to be damaged upon delivery. In quickly investigating the issue, we were able to pinpoint the cause of the problem—an exceptionally turbulent flight—and are working with our transportation providers to ensure that all of our customer orders are fulfilled before the holiday and that this issue will not happen again.

Finally, draft a note to your customers. Keep in mind that anything you say externally—regardless of your intended audience—has the potential to end up in the hands of a journalist, especially if your issue is particularly juicy.

That said, you’ll likely want to add more of a personal touch to your customer note. Here’s an example:

Dear Customer,

Yesterday, we learned that several shipments of our holiday gift baskets contain damaged goods due to an exceptionally turbulent flight they experienced on their way to you.

We are working around-the-clock with our transportation providers and internal teams to ensure your orders are fulfilled prior to the holidays.

At XYZ, we are always looking for ways to better service our customers. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you, and are working tirelessly to ensure this issue doesn’t happen again.

Should you have any questions, feel free to contact me at

How to Say It

While it’s tempting to worry about the media’s response first, always make sure your customers are taken care of. Companies who slack on great service do so at their peril—just ask Ocean Marketing about the power of just one neglected customer.

With that in mind, it’s best to be as proactive as possible with your customers (though be prepared to be reactive as well). Pick up the phone or start sending out emails to as many clients as possible. As painful as some of these conversations can be, deferring your calls to voicemail until the dust settles is not advised. When you do speak with clients, be sure to reiterate the same information you have previously released—you want to be consistent with your messaging.

Remember that there’s one thing an email blast can’t quite communicate, and that’s empathy. Be prepared for some angry calls and frustrated customers. In this case, find a way to connect with your customers while expressing both your regret for the issue and instilling confidence that you’re still the same awesome company they’ve come to know and love. For a bit of inspiration, check out the 2011 Customer Service Hall of Fame. Number one on the list? Not surprisingly, it’s Amazon.

For media inquiries, on the other hand, it’s usually best to deliver your statement on a reactive basis (i.e., when a journalist calls you). You’ll already have the messaging prepared from your initial public statements, however, if you’d like to provide a journalist with more context without having your every word quoted all over the Internet that afternoon, you can ask to speak “on background” (similar to asking to speak "off the record"). For example, it might be helpful for a reporter to have more color on how many gift baskets were damaged—as in 100, not 100,000—so she isn’t left to assume the severity of any details you haven’t communicated.

As with your customers, treat the media with professionalism and care. They may not purchase your product, but they can write about it, so their experience with you can significantly impact the tone of the story they choose to tell.

If there’s only one thing to remember about crisis communications, it’s this: Always be as transparent and honest as possible. Companies are often defined by their communication styles—and especially by their communication in crisis situations. The more your team keeps everyone informed with factual and consistent information, the less time you'll spend fielding calls and fending off the media. And that will let you focus on getting back to business.

Photo courtesy of ItzaFineDay.