Speedinvest Blog

What Is Crisis Communication? Everything Startups Need To Know

February 20, 2024

Facing a crisis is daunting for any founder, regardless of your experience. And no matter how improbable a crisis may appear for your company, you must map out a plan in advance. Because when the ‘ya know’ does hit the fan, there’s no going back and no time to waste.

For a comprehensive guide on crisis communications, we reached out to Michael Hoare at Kekst CNC, a global strategic communications firm that Speedinvest works with for communication support. With Michael’s extensive expertise in crisis management, preparedness, national security, and geopolitics, he’s undoubtedly the ideal candidate to seek advice from on crisis communications.

In our conversation, we discussed how founders can identify a crisis before it happens, when to notify customers or media about a crisis, when to try and solve a crisis internally, as well as basic steps founders on a budget can follow to prepare for a crisis on their own.

Watch our full conversation in the video above or read a lightly edited version below.

What kind of crisis requires communication?

It starts with your definition of a crisis. We did training in the government for leaders of comms teams in a crisis. And we would always start with the question, “What is a crisis?”

It usually came out with something like: “a situation where the scale, the impact, the level of risk, and the speed of escalation mean, you can't manage it successfully with business-as-usual resources, capabilities, and processes”. So by definition, a crisis, you can't handle it on your own, you're gonna have imperfect information, and it really matters. So other people are going to be critical to the outcome.

And that means comms is almost always central to your approach to a crisis, whether that's internal comms, comms with key customers, or larger scale comms like engaging media.

How can someone identify a pending crisis before it happens?

Well, we'd love it if it was possible! We'd love to be able to know when the next one's coming. Some of them, you can see them building. I worked in the government on the comms around Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And we could see that coming. 

For a company, it might be rumbling customer dissatisfaction. And sometimes there are events that can spark a crisis. It might be a court case or an employee tribunal. And those you can see coming, if you've got good networks, you're listening to your people, and you're really paying attention to the signals.

Some crises, just come out of the blue, like a ransomware attack or other types of cyber incidents that often just come at you. And the key here is to have a general level of readiness. So you know how you're going to respond to a crisis that you haven't foreseen.

When is it time to notify customers or media about a crisis versus trying to work out a solution internally?

It comes back to your business objectives, and how those are impacted by different audiences, which audiences are critical to delivery, and therefore you need to reach out to them when things are going wrong. Sometimes that can be really disciplined and focused, like in a cyber incident.

For a B2B business, you're quite often being very disciplined about your comms. But it might be on a much wider scale. If you have a retail product and you're the subject of a disinformation campaign, you might see yourself wanting to communicate at a much greater scale. Usually, the customers and those most affected will want to hear from you first, rather than hear it secondhand. But it is a case-by-case decision. And it's worth really thinking about the factors involved in thinking about comms, and how are you going to approach it, early on.

Should communication to customers differ from communication to media?

Yes, definitely. Communication is all about having an impact on audiences. And so for different audiences, you want different types of messaging.

But that said, the core of the message shouldn't be different. It should be consistent. And you should think about how your messaging to one audience might end up reaching another audience. The classic example of that is internal comms. We're in a crisis, it's hugely important to engage your people and to speak to them honestly about what's happening. But you also need to be conscious of how that might also reach external audiences. So there are definitely different ways of going about it. But be consistent.

One thing in government that we found really helpful when sort of thinking about comms in a crisis was the Krebs principles, [1] [MH2] which suggest saying to your audiences: what you know; what you don't know; what you're doing about it; what they should do about it; and what they should expect to happen next – when you're going to come back to them with more information. And those principles are helpful for all audiences in all crises.

Are there instances in which you would recommend that a company take a step back, and not communicate?

Yes to both questions. Yes to taking a breath. 

One of the best media handlers who I worked with in the UK Government was a heavy smoker. And we would often be in the middle of a crisis and the press office would be going crazy. He would go out for a cigarette, and he'd come back 5 or 10 minutes later, and he would have had an idea about what we should do.

You have greater clarity of thought about how you approach that crisis when you take a breath. I often think of that in a crisis and try and carve out for myself some time. The more hectic the crisis is, the more you need that time.

Sometimes the answer isn't communicating. As I said earlier, often, in a crisis, you do need to communicate with some audiences, and you will be dependent on other people for the outcome. But sometimes it's keeping it internal. Sometimes it's being very focused about who you're reaching. And sometimes now might not be the right moment to do it. In a legal case, for example, you might find it better to communicate at a different point in the process. So, yes to both. 

There was a recent TechCrunch story about a company that reached out to its customers via email because of some bad press. But most of the customers had no idea about the bad press until they received that email.

If the media reports on something, but customers may not know about it yet, should companies communicate with them directly or wait?

Yeah, I think that's a really interesting case study. I think core to that is press coverage in and of itself is not a crisis, and you shouldn't really be driven by the press coverage.

So if an issue is affecting customers, and making for a more negative experience for them, then it might be a crisis. But I think in that case, in all communications, the issue is to think about your audiences. What are they thinking about? What's troubling them? And talk to them about what matters most to them, which often isn't press coverage.

Think back to the early example. Always, we're taking a breath, thinking about the audience you're trying to reach and considering the impact it might have on them, and speaking to the issues that matter to them. 

In a perfect world, a startup could pay someone like yourself to handle these problems. But it can be very expensive. What can founders do on their own?

I think the core of the advice for me would be around: think ahead. Try and predict where the crisis is going. Develop your networks, ideally, before the crisis.

One of our clients loves to say, make friends before you need them. And it is so true. Establish a narrative with those networks about your organization. Define what you can do for them and build trust, which takes time. But reputation and a clear set of values are your strongest armor when you're under attack.

When you are communicating externally, be human. Think about the impact on other people, be honest, and set out as described with the Krebs principles, what you know, what you don't know. And be humble. The definition of a crisis is that you'll have imperfect information. Don't pretend to know everything, and communicate with a tone that acknowledges that things might change, because they always, always do in a crisis, and they never go quite how you think. 

But above all, in terms of preparing for the crisis, make sure that the behavior of everyone involved in the company withstands external scrutiny. Make sure your team understands, that your partners understand, that. It doesn't matter how big or small a company is. That is essential to its ability to withstand and ultimately come out stronger from a crisis.

If you could suggest a basic crisis management plan that every startup should have, what would it include from the crisis prep to addressing the crisis when it occurs?

Breaking it down into the sort of the fundamentals, I would say, have a plan and test it. It can mean anything from an exercise or simulation to just really gaming it out.

Think about a few specific scenarios that would be high impact, and high likelihood for your business. Just thinking through those threats and the various elements of that helps sort of bring home how you respond to the crisis. But also, think about the general, because you won't be able to predict every crisis that hits you. Think about how would we resolve the crisis. How would information flow work? How would the decision-making processes work? And the last thing about the plan is to mix the external and the internal. Some of it is about the external risks and the audiences you'd want to reach. How do you influence? Then, which partners would you be working with? And some of it is about the internal: What's your decision-making process?

As I mentioned, who is the crisis response team? That should be driven by the crisis itself and the business needs, but do have someone who's thinking about comms in that team. What are the obstacles? And sometimes we in crisis preparedness work, we've come up with some really specific things, like time differences of people who need to make a decision together being in different places, or the guy that has the password for the website left last week, and no one knows how to update the website. Really small things that can come out. 

Think about where you are going to get your information from. And how will your culture be? How will your culture work in a crisis? Thinking about that, I think, is a core part of planning for and preparing for a crisis.

Is there a point that you would say, you need to hire an expert, you need to hire somebody who knows crisis comms regardless of what the cost is?

Crisis comms support can be expensive because it comes at a moment when it matters. And if you're in a crisis, and you have that feeling, as we talked about at the beginning, that it's of a scale that means you can't handle it on your own –– do look for help and bring in support. Because there can be incredibly difficult moments, and what may be small decisions can end up having a significant impact. It is almost always cheaper to prepare. 

We see this with clients going into crises. Those with a plan and with some level of sensitization in their teams, the decisions they're going to need to take, and how they're going to need to work can help and can mitigate the cost quite a bit. Ultimately, on preparation, that comes down to what is the mitigatable cost of the crisis, the elements you could have saved yourself (if you prepared), and multiply that by the likelihood of the crisis happening, is that bigger or smaller than the cost of preparing for the crisis?

I mean, it sort of boils down to that. And you can calibrate the cost of preparing. Because you can do anything from a full-scale exercise to thinking through some of the trickier issues and maybe bouncing some ideas off of someone external. So there's sort of a range, but it's thinking about how much could this cost us if we're not ready for it. Versus, how can we keep the cost of preparing for it as cost-effective as possible?

What would you say are some of the most common mistakes that you see companies make in a crisis that can easily be avoided?

You do often see brilliant responses. I was involved in a crisis recently where I didn't have to do a huge amount because the client was well prepared. And they did a fantastic job. Often people do really come into their own in a crisis.

But people make mistakes, as the question implies, and I think of them as being on a spectrum. Quite often crisis response is about balance. You can communicate too much or communicate too little, as one example of a spectrum where you can make a mistake on either end. There's overreacting to the situation as it happens, versus burying your head in the sand and pretending it's not happening. 

People can be on the wrong end of that spectrum. Thinking too much about internal engagement versus external – again, people sit at different places on that spectrum. Relying too much on your own perspective and thinking too much about that, and not about how others might see it, and getting a diversity of perspectives, can be a problem.

One, which is a bit sad, but it's true, is hope. Hope can be a problem in crisis preparedness and crisis handling, either because you recognize that that might happen, but you just really hope it doesn't, or because you hope that the crisis is over, you keep hoping that tomorrow, we're going to wake up and it's going to all have been fixed and things will go away.

Don't fall for hope on the preparedness –– do prepare for high-impact, high-likelihood scenarios. And on the hope that things might be over soon –– they will be over. Crises do finish. And companies and organizations come out on the other side, often stronger if they've handled them well.

But you need to base that on evidence and support. And where you need it, get expert, external advice.

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