Communicating in a Crisis: The Three Things You Need to Know

The time to prepare for your next corporate crisis is now.

Amanda Duckworth, partner at the corporate communications firm Brunswick Group, emphasized that point at a session with KPCB portfolio company CEOs at KPCB’s recent 12-200 Workshop. “With a certain surefootedness, you can coordinate your actions to help, not hurt, the situation,” she said. “In other words, you really need some crisis IQ.”

Amanda shared three important tips on how to communicate effectively during a crisis:

  1. Lead through a crisis – Don’t try to manage it

We’ve all heard of “crisis management.” But you can’t really manage a crisis: events are typically beyond your control. An executive can, however, lead in a crisis. Ultimately, it is actions, rather than behind-the-scenes “management,” that drive perceptions of the company and its leaders.

A prime example is Airbnb. The young company faced a crisis in 2011 when vandals badly damaged one of the properties rented out through the site and the story blew up in the media. CEO Brian Chesky’s heartfelt apology shifted the news coverage and made a big difference in preserving the trust of the Airbnb community.

By not simply managing the situation but by leaning in and owning it, Brian assumed greater control over how the company would be portrayed, and he was able to guide the company out of crisis.

  1. Build crisis muscle

You would never dream of running a marathon without training – and the same theory applies to crisis preparedness:

Assess your vulnerabilities. Every business has them. Know what they are in advance and determine what your responses may be if one of them is affected.

Build out your communications infrastructure. If an issue arises, you should know in advance who will make decisions and communicate them to customers, media, employees, government, and other stakeholders. Determine the team in advance – down to who should be called in the middle of the night if anything comes up. Ensure that you can communicate quickly with customers and that press lists are up-to-date.

Practice your crisis response steps. For each of the possible scenarios you have identified, practice your response steps and keep identifying areas where you can improve. Even when a crisis arrives out of the blue, you will have exercised your crisis muscles enough to enable the team to quickly jump into action.

  1. Know your environment

Finally, it’s important to know your environment and refine your strategy accordingly. Because social media has changed the way news spreads, it’s especially critical to build relationships with people who can become messengers for your company.

The same goes for building relationships with the media. If you want to communicate with a reporter during a crisis, your job will be significantly easier if you have already spoken with the reporter about the company in the past and established a personal connection.


Every crisis is different, and even with extensive preparation, you will never know with certainty what the next news cycle will bring. But every little step increases the strength of your crisis muscle – and building that muscle will make a difference when it counts.