The First 20 Minutes: 6 Tips for Communicating When a Crisis Hits

Posted on



Michael Tebo

Picture this: A user of your new on-demand service just posted a story to her blog about a terrible experience, and major media outlets are now reporting on the story. Someone discovered your app is inadvertently making users’ private information public, and now they’re outraged. Your company’s founder posted an offensive rant to Facebook.

As a tech marketing agency, we know crises are common in all businesses. And because startups and high-growth companies face many challenges as they try to stand out from the crowd and grow, mismanagement of a PR disaster can not only set the company back, it can ruin its future.

The First 20 Minutes of a Crisis 

How you respond to crises can make all the difference. Now that news is transmitted instantly around the world over social media, with real-time pictures and videos, there is little to no time to position, posture or even understand the facts before you’re pressed to make a public statement.

While effective crisis communications is no easy task for even the biggest and most polished companies, it can be absolutely daunting for startups–especially if none of the founders have much experience dealing with the press.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years working in technology PR, it’s that how you respond in the first 20 minutes of a crisis can make or break your organization. During those first 20 minutes, your response has to be the right message, delivered in the right words, to the right audiences, in just the right way – and as quickly as possible – or you’ll have to deal with your mistakes for days, weeks, or even months to come.

When a crisis hits, these six tips can help ensure that you react as best as you possibly can.

  • Don’t wait. Responding quickly to a breaking crisis with as much information as you’re able to confirm or share is crucial. Being proactive lets you get your message out – before anyone else decides what the message is – and establishes you as the person to turn to for what’s going on. It’s often equally important to correct false information or rumors that might be circulating. By acting quickly, you maximize your control of the situation and have a much greater chance of becoming the media’s main source for information during the crisis.Your company’s reaction to the crisis will have a lasting impact on public perception, even after the PR storm has passed. By reacting quickly, you can address what went wrong, how you plan to fix it, how it affects the public and how you plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

  • Tell the truth. The truth is your most important asset during a crisis. Stick to confirmed facts, don’t speculate, resist the temptation to respond to hypothetical questions, and never try to cover up. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that something happened, you’re looking into it and will share more information as soon as you know it.If you don’t have the answer to a question or are caught unaware of a crisis unfolding, tell reporters you will find out more details and get back to them. Transparency creates trust. Honesty is the best policy.
  • Never say, “no comment.” There are no two words worse in PR than “no comment.” When a crisis strikes, many companies want to withhold comment until they have more information. That’s an understandable impulse, but also a wrong one. In the eyes of the public, your refusal to comment is the same as saying, “we don’t care,” “we’re out of touch,” or “we’re guilty.” Instead, say that you’re looking into the situation and will share details as soon as you have them.
  • Speak with one voice. When a crisis hits, having multiple people answering questions can result in inconsistencies or miscommunication. Make sure there’s only one person who will serve as the primary spokesperson for your organization throughout the crisis.Always strive for consistency in what is said, how it’s said and who says it. It’s essential to establish yourself with the media as a single point of truth that provides clear and timely information. This extends to social media, too–if you’re making public statements in front of a camera, make sure you’re sharing the same information on your social media channels.
  • Put people first. If the situation negatively impacts customers, employees or the general public, make sure to communicate your regrets and sincere desire to solve the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again. We know you care! Express empathy and concern for the victims to avoid appearing insensitive and uncaring. And keep a calm, positive tone when you respond because how you say things can often be more important than what you actually say.
  • Get it all out. It’s only human to want to avoid the bad parts of a story that haven’t yet been reported. But trying to bury, hide or minimize negative situations often makes things worse. Being forthright with all available information, good and bad, will avoid triggering suspicions about your integrity and credibility. If you think something bad is going to eventually see the light of day, it’s better to get it out on your own terms instead of a reporter discovering it.

If nothing new has occurred after the initial flurry of activity has passed, make sure that you don’t fall into a black hole. Keep communicating, even if the status quo is unchanged. Even if your statement is, “We have nothing new to add at this time,” the media will appreciate you taking the effort to be open and transparent. By keeping an eye on what’s being said on social media, you can also correct false facts and avoid the spread of rumors.

In a crisis, you only get one chance to get things right, and keeping these six tips in mind can set you up for success. Regardless of the situation, the sooner you react, the better you can minimize the damage to your company’s reputation.

If you want to ensure that your organization is well prepared should a crisis strike, contact Gabriel Marketing Group to see how we can help with the process.

From the Blog

Leah Nurik