The Skillfull Art of Crisis Communication

By: Christina Olivarria, MSPM, LBBP

Communication is vital to the success of every organization. Organizations that understand the value of communication are those whose business success we all wish to emulate. During normal, day-to-day operations, communication aids us in everything from keeping teams abreast of new policies and procedures to highlighting monthly departmental priorities. Leaders skilled in communication engage stakeholders using a variety of methods including email, in-person meetings, videos, reports, and one-on-one communication. However, during times of crisis and uncertainty, our standard communication playbook may not serve us well. How then do we engage our stakeholders and provide reassurance that the situation is under control?

The art of crisis communication is a vital skill for leaders to master. It is a requirement to address how unexpected events may impact the organization and its stakeholders. Failure to communicate effectively during a crisis can negatively impact stakeholders and the organization at large. This can lead to reduced productivity, increased turnover, and negative financial impacts. During recent months, the need for skilled communication during times of crisis has been brought under the microscope. Whether you are dealing with a crisis within your organization or an external calamity the best practices outlined below will serve you well.

Monitor Risks before they Become a Crisis

A large part of project management is risk management. Operational risk management is a cyclical process to continuously evaluate potential risks and opportunities. Once identified, risks should be measured by likelihood and impact. Below is an example of the output of this exercise.

Based on the assessment, an organization should develop risk response strategies including avoidance and mitigation steps that will be taken should a risk escalate into an issue or, even worse, a crisis. By conducting iterative risk monitoring, an organization can reduce the risk of reactive communication responses.

Have a Plan in Your Back Pocket

Establishing a plan that can be used in times of crisis will enable your organization to jump in front of a crisis should it emerge. Seeger, Sellnow and Ulmer define organizational crises as “specific, unexpected, and non-routine events or series of events that [create] high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization’s high priority goals.” Center your plan around pre-crisis relationships with stakeholders. This will require your organization to explore current operations and identify primary and secondary stakeholders. Below is an example of how healthcare organizations primary and secondary stakeholder may be broken down:



Directly impact daily operations Can exert influence operations
Examples: Team Members, Patients, Suppliers Examples: Government, Community, Unions

Be sure your communication methods consider how best to reach the targeted groups and consider leveraging newer communication mediums such as live streaming, videos, and text messaging.

Establish a Crisis Team and Reporting Structure

Identify which team members will compose the crisis team. Tailor your team to meet the needs of the organization and consider all departments. In hospital operations, a crisis team may consist of the following:

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Marketing and Communications Team
  • Disaster Preparedness
  • Regulatory Affairs
  • Legal
  • Impacted Departmental Leaders

This team will be responsible for managing the crisis and enacting the plan. Establish and document a team reporting structure, approval process, and response strategies. Identifying these items in advance of a crisis will allow for a timely response.

Rally Behind a Single Spokesperson

During times of crisis, stakeholders are bombarded with information. This can cause confusion and lead to stakeholder skepticism and frustration. In order to avoid this conundrum, an organization should nominate a single spokesperson who will speak on behalf of the organization. This person should be someone who has established credibility amongst stakeholders. A 2016 study argued that leaders play a critical role in stakeholders’ resilience during a crisis. Of all the leadership styles, transformational leaders are those that perform the best during times of crisis. These are leaders that lead by example, practice servant leadership, and possess high emotional intelligence. Some of the most notable examples of savvy leaders handled crises using the following approach:

  • Accepting responsibility
  • Apologizing
  • Fixing the Problem
  • Making Systematic Changes

Test Your Plan with Simulation Exercises

Yellow Brick advocates the use of interdisciplinary simulation exercises prior to healthcare facility activations. This allows for the identification of issues prior to activation so that issues can be resolved prior to Day 1. The same method can be applied to crisis communication planning. Draft potential scenarios and simulate how your organization would respond. This can be done using tabletop Dress Rehearsals with the identified crisis teams. Be sure to track identified issues and gaps and ensure that they are remedied. By taking this extra step, you are ensuring that your organization is ready to respond.

Taking the time to develop a crisis communication plan in advance will enable your organization to focus on attending to the crisis while providing meaningful information to impacted stakeholders. This will reduce the risk of stakeholders seeking information from outside sources and will ensure that your team is united in their response.