Crisis communications in the public relations world can have many different interpretations depending on who you ask, but here’s the fundamental definition: you’re trying to mitigate damage to your company’s reputation by third party sources. It’s the reverse of traditional public relations, where you’re trying to acquire the attention and approval of third parties, earning media, credibility and awareness through your good works, your brand, your insights. Crisis communications turns that on its head by dealing with negative earned media.

In many ways, it’s analogous to putting out a fire (though nowhere near as dangerous as what actual firefighters do). In a crisis communications situation, something has gone wrong and your brand is on fire. There’s the something you did or something you’re responsible for – the fuel. There’s the tide of public opinion – the energy behind it. There’s your speed of reaction to it – the catalyst. As with real fires, if you deny the fire any one of these sources, you break the chain reaction that causes fire and it burns itself out.

The types of crisis communications

There are two kinds of crisis communications. There is the negative scenarios you have time to plan for, such as executive departures, losing a prominent customer,  or even layoffs. There are situations that occur quickly but can be anticipated (and therefore should have a plan around), such as product downtime, a security breach, etc.. Then there are the situations you cannot plan for – spinoffs, acquisitions, bad employee behavior, sensitive leaks.

The three ways to fight these brand fires are similar to the ways we put out their real world fire counterparts:


By providing correct knowledge and information, you take away the rumor mill and word of mouth. Very often in a crisis, people fill in gaps of knowledge with their own suspicions. Take away that speculation with facts, and there’s less for their minds to imagine.


The faster you react and respond, the quicker you deny a crisis the chance to ramp up and get out of control. Speed is critical in most crises and what could be an explosive backdraft if allowed to build up can instead be controlled to a slow, manageable burn by being ahead of the news cycle and turning a juicy story into “old news”.


Taking responsibility or ownership of a situation, being out in front of the crowds, and being forthcoming about either what you did or what you’re going to do to prevent the problem from happening again. This pre-empts the blame cycle where others can pile on to assign blame – by being in front of it and owning it, the most they can do is agree with you.

Finally, as with real world fires, the more effective you are in implementing crisis communications methods, the smaller the fire will grow and the faster you can put it out. That said, it’s also critical to take the time to gather information and get the full download on the situation; ensure all key stakeholders (legal, executives, Board members, etc.) are in agreement and have weighed in; you have a clear and empathetic message to respond with; and that you have a support system in place to handle the repercussions.

In your crisis communications, be in front with acceptance of responsibility and delivery of knowledge, and you may intercept the fire while it’s still just a few sparks.

Keep in Touch

Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.

Ready to shift ahead?

Let's talk