Maintaining Control During A Crisis: Can It Be Done?

August 28, 2023

A crisis of any type can create a stressful environment for those involved, no matter the size of your organization. As a result, making sure the organization’s side of the story is heard usually becomes a priority for leaders, even for those who may have not  paid much attention to the importance of communications beforehand. For communication professionals, this scenario can create an opportunity (or headache or both), as you may be looked upon to quickly develop and deliver a crisis-neutralizing strategy and narrative suitable for a variety of different audiences.

If you work in the communications field long enough, you will likely be faced with a situation where someone says, “We need to PR this thing.” As cringeworthy as statements like this are, it goes to the heart of what most people instinctively recognize during a crisis: Getting your message out there in a clear and consistent manner is important. Accomplishing this, though, requires an understanding of the realities of any crisis and how a narrative can be shaped – both positively and negatively – by a number of different factors. 

Control What You Can Control

Charles Swindoll, a noted pastor, author and educator, is credited with saying, "Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it."

Besides being good personal advice, this statement is also good for communication professionals to remember when responding to a crisis and offering counsel to leaders. Something becomes a crisis because it is unexpected. You may intuitively know a workplace accident, natural disaster, chemical spill, factory fire, etc. are all possibilities, but you never know when or where they might happen, so having total control is non-existent or limited, at best. However, what you can control is your response to the crisis. What you say, when you communicate it, and how you say it are what people will scrutinize; and much of what others think will be based on your reaction (or lack thereof) to the situation. 

Given this, responding to all crises in a professional manner, with clear, appropriate and confident messaging is always recommended. However, even if you do all the right things, you cannot control what people think or feel about you – nor what the media says or writes about you. Once again, you can control your response and how messages are communicated, so stay focused on these key items. 

Shaping the Narrative

Controlling what you say and how you say it is also dependent upon people being prepared to step-in (and step-up) when a crisis occurs. Given this, here are some important questions to ask regarding your organization’s present communications toolbox:

  • Do we have a crisis communications plan?
  • Do we have people who are trained to respond to media inquiries?
  • Is there a dedicated crisis response team? 
  • Have we openly discussed “what if” scenarios and taken time to talk about how we would respond to different crises?
  • Do we have defined (and tested) lines of communication with key audiences?
  • Have we consistently and clearly share our story with key audiences?
  • Do people know who we are and what we stand for? 

If you answered “Yes” to all of the above, congratulations on your efforts and the communications-focused environment you have created. If you answered “No” to some or all of the questions, there is work to be done – work that can pay dividends in the long-run for your organization, especially when dealing with future crises.

The key takeaway is this: During a crisis, your organization may be given a little more grace or latitude in the court of public opinion based on the work, planning and “seeds of goodwill” you have planted in advance of any situation even occurring. In short, putting in the appropriate communications-related work and preparation beforehand can be just as important as how you respond to something in the present. 

Final Thoughts

Can you control things, like the narrative, during a crisis? The honest answer is, “Maybe.” It all depends on a variety of factors. “Control” might actually be too much to ask for in most situations, especially when you consider all of the possible variables. Instead, striving to “manage” a crisis is probably a more attainable goal. Granted, there may be instances where everything lines-up and works in your favor, but crises rarely take place or transpire in a predictable manner – there is always something that makes each crisis unique and challenging. This is why being prepared to react and respond, as well as having a good narrative already established, are both important for your organization from a communications standpoint. 

Blog by Mark Yontz