April 23, 2017

Now What Do We Do? Leading and Communicating Through a Crisis by Buckley Brinkman and Spencer Maus

No one expects a plant boiler to explode, an injury to an employee from an industrial accident, a key executive to resign, or the cancellation of a line of credit.

The hardest question to answer before, during, and after a crisis is “Now what do we do?” Of course, the best time to ask that question is before any crisis occurs. Unfortunately, most of us don’t take the time to fully consider the impact of crisis situations.

Even though you hope you will never need to execute on a crisis plan (as you never expect to file an insurance claim), it is as important to have a crisis plan as it is a growth, operations and benefits plan. When the unexpected disaster occurs, you need to be ready. A solid plan puts you in the best possible position to lead your organization through the crisis and beyond.

Crises are emotional times. The pressure of the situation may cause employees, vendors, customers, communities, and corporate executives to react emotionally, not logically. Keep your cool. People are depending on you to lead them and staying calm helps everyone make better decisions and work together. A solid crisis plan makes it easier to overcome the pressure and emotions of these situations.

Your crisis plan should include all of the elements necessary for you to manage the crisis at your pace, bring the critical expertise to bear, take the appropriate action, and control the key communications. Crises unfold quickly and it is imperative that you are able to move fast enough to control the pace of action around the event. A comprehensive plan around these four factors will put you in control.


Crises can take on a momentum of their own and quickly run out of control. Events happen quickly and unexpectedly. Great athletes are able to slow down a game and play it at their pace. You want the same ability and advantage. Make sure you plan includes several well organized routines:

  • Information is critical during a crisis. Put a routine in place to get facts quickly and stay ahead of the action.
  • Stakeholders are not created equal. Victims and employees deserve to know the facts before other stakeholders. Put the plan in place to see that stakeholders receive information in the proper order.
  • Create a communication schedule. Determine who needs regular updates. Put them on a schedule and stick to it – even when there is no news. A steady communication schedule sets the pace to your tempo and provides a measure of stability to the situation.


Timely and effective action can make the difference between a crisp recovery and a prolonged spiral into more difficulty. Pumping adrenalin makes it more difficult to execute effective decisions. Great plans provide the framework to channel the energy and solidly lead the organization during these crises. Think about these action elements in your crisis plan:

  • Insure everyone’s physical safety and err on the side of caution. Losing a life is never a good trade for saving a building. Once everyone is safe, make sure they stay safe. No one puts themselves in harm’s way to save anything. Rescue is a job for professionals.
  • Preserve value and protect assets. Make sure you are taking the actions to secure the company’s future; taking care of your people, stabilizing the physical assets, resuming operations as quickly as safely possible, and insuring that your customers receive the best possible attention.
  • Communicate your actions to all stakeholders. When you think you’ve over communicated to everyone, redouble your efforts. Communication always takes more time and effort than expected. Make sure you don’t fall short.
  • Stay in control! Avoid being baited into saying or doing something you will regret. Effective actions create the cornerstone for smoother crisis recovery. Make sure your plan addresses these elements.


Recovery from any crisis requires specific expertise in certain critical skills. Your crisis plan should include the experts you will need to complete the recovery and the specific roles they will play. Several things are essential:

  • Know the public emergency services responsible for your operation. Know who will respond and try to meet them before a crisis. When they respond, let them do their jobs, including communication of any status reports.
  • Know who has the critical skills you will need during the crisis, including attorneys, public relations experts, and property remediation experts.
  • Make sure you have the experts’ numbers on your cell phone – at the ready when a crisis arises when you are out of position.

The proper expertise is essential for a solid recovery. Make sure you have the right experts ready to go.


Communication often gets the short shrift in any crisis plan. Coordination, clarity, timeliness, and completeness are all critical elements of effective communication. These take a degree of thoroughness not required from many of the other elements. Anticipation also plays a large role in communication planning. The right message at the right time to the right audience can make all the difference between a quick and a sluggish recovery. Think about these elements for your plan:

  • Set the communication routine outlined in the Pace section of this document.
  • Designate only one representative to speak for the company. Make sure no other employees speak to the media or outsiders.
  • If you don’t have answers, simply say that you are still gathering information or that you don’t know. Don’t say, “No comment,” or worse yet, make up an answer without all the facts.

Follow these guidelines and you will be prepared to manage the crises that come your way.

(Buckley Brinkman is a Change Catalyst and one of the Launchpad Partners. He has been helping companies make the most of change for over 25 years and led operations through crises in several different industries.)

(Spencer Maus is with Lake Effect Communication, LLC and has over 15 years of public, media and investor relations experience He has been involved in numerous crisis situations, including representing a plaintiff trial law firm that negotiated a precedent setting settlement from a multi-billion dollar, international corporation).


  1. This is an interesting post, but I would argue that the PR value outside the company is crucial. Admit the issue/describe and update the investigation/provide conclusions as to the WHY it happened/follow up with the WHY IT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN, and finally report back when all is ‘working well’ again and lessons learned.

    Another observation-as we well know-with the prevalence of social media, we cannot stop employees from sending out inconsistent messages. It would be wise to frankly speak with employees as to the consequences of providing ‘inside information’ which could harm the company while trying to recover from a criss (I am assuming an ethical company, of course). It won’t stop everyone but it may make them think twice if they understand that undermining the communications strategy may result in job losses if a company does not recover well.

    My 2 cents!

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