By Nancy Marshall, The PR Maven® 

How to Communicate in a Crisis Situation

  • Promptness is key to an effective crisis management strategy. Don’t wait too long to communicate your message. And even if you have more to learn about a crisis, resist the urge to say “no comment” to the media or public.
  • An official spokesperson or PR representative isn’t always the best person to speak in a crisis. Consider who else might be available to share the message.
  • Good crisis management gets to the heart of the emotional ramifications of a crisis.

In his more than three decades working as the spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, Steve McCausland had to communicate about his fair share of crises.

He was the point person for the media and the public about more than 500 homicides, another 500 fire deaths and thousands of auto fatalities. It was his responsibility to address one of the most terrifying moments for any organization: the appearance of journalists in a time of crisis.

“I think it’s one of the worst things that an executive … the president of a nonprofit, a municipality has [to deal with], is when the satellite trucks from the television station [start] circling the building, because there is obviously a story there and they’re following it up,” Steve says on Episode 118 of The PR Maven Podcast. “What you say and what you don’t say can go a long way in getting your position out there in the public, but more importantly, [in telling] the public what’s taken place.”

Steve’s many years of communicating with the public about serious issues throughout the state of Maine makes him an ideal member of the Marshall Communications team, and I’m thrilled to share that he has officially come on board as a strategic partner and communications specialist. Steve will help prepare our clients to deal with crisis management so they’ll be ready to address whatever comes their way.

How to Communicate in a Crisis SituationCrisis communication matters: Put your best foot forward

While it can be tempting to run and hide when your organization is dealing with a challenging situation, it’s pretty much the worst thing you can do — especially when other people’s interests are at stake. Communicating with the media and the public without proper preparation and training can also be a recipe for disaster.

“Many times, people look like a deer caught in the headlights or they say the darndest things… or they give up too much detail when they don’t have all the facts,” Steve says.

In his new role here at the agency, Steve and I will work closely to ensure that our clients never find themselves having to publicly address a challenging moment without the information or confidence necessary to ensure the best possible outcome.

Keep reading for more of Steve’s thoughts on how to best communicate in crisis.

1. Never say ‘no comment’

You may have seen many spokespeople use the phrase “no comment” on TV and in the movies, but trust your Marshall Communication team — this is not a wise strategy. Over time, “no comment” has taken on a negative connotation.

There are better ways to communicate the fact that you have limited information about a developing situation and are therefore being mindful of what you say. Instead of saying “no comment” when asked about a crisis, try using these suggestions from Steve:

  • “That’s not something we can get into at this time.”
  • “It’s under investigation.”
  • “When the proper time comes, we’ll be more than willing to answer that question.”

2. Don’t wait too long

When it’s handled correctly, crisis communication gives you the opportunity to share what you know about a potentially difficult situation before the conversation about it gets out of control. You might even call it the opportunity to share your side — and it’s important to do so ASAP.

According to Steve, speed is one of the key rules of thumb in crisis communication and management.

“You need to be able to respond promptly,” Steve says. “[A good prompt response] shows an initial response, which has empathy, has some information and has the assurance that things are going to be better.”

3. Find the right spokesperson

Throughout his years working for the state of Maine, Steve acted as the spokesperson for the media and the public in many times of crises. But that doesn’t mean that a public relations professional or spokesperson is always the right choice as the face of a crisis.

Often, a message is best received when it comes from someone who is more closely involved with the incident at hand — or someone who has been personally affected by it. When dealing with a crisis, think about who is really best suited to represent it to a larger audience.

“Sometimes, I was the face and the voice [of a crisis],” Steve says. “But it is far more preferable to have someone who is part of the organization — the CEO, the organization’s president, the fire chief — they’re the ones that can tell the story for the organization far better than a hired gun.”

4. Think of public relations as good public policy

Like every aspect of the communications and public relations industries, crisis management is a human practice. Finding ways to communicate with the public or the media must address the emotional toll of that situation.

“The public needs to have assurances that things will be better, will be [under] control,” Steve says.

Even if you don’t have all the answers to the questions about the crisis in question, you can communicate what you do know — and do so on an ongoing basis — so your audience can trust you moving forward.

This is based on episode 118 of The PR Maven® Podcast, a podcast hosted by Nancy Marshall. Weekly interviews feature industry leaders, top executives, media personalities and online influencers to give listeners a peek into the world of public relations, marketing and personal branding. Subscribe through Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

  • These were some great tips on how to manage conflict in communication. It was helpful to get the information from a professional crisis management expert. Thanks for sharing!

    • Nancy Marshall says:

      Steve is such a gem because of his wealth of information. He not only has a high IQ, but he has a high EQ, or emotional intelligence, which enables him to be empathetic with people who have suffered losses due to a crisis.