Why you need a crisis communications plan — before it's too late

what not to do in a crisis situation Joan McGuire what not to do in a crisis situation

Recent scandals, crises highlight need for crisis communication planning.


Soon after the Wasco County Substation fire ignited, county officials kicked a sophisticated communications plan into high gear.

Emergency teams designated a public relations lead, the sheriff’s office. Officials held daily press conferences. They told the public during each briefing what time they could expect more information. They streamed up-to-date information on Facebook Live.

The Substation fire grew to 70,000 acres and jeopardized 500 homes. But the sheriff’s office stayed cool. Their response, says public relations veteran Lee Weinstein, was a case study in effective crisis communications.

A crisis can sink a business, or it can paint an honest picture of organizational evolution and development. The outcome depends on how a crisis team operates.

“Have a plan; have a team,” Weinstein says. “Practice it. Don’t just put your plan on a shelf.”

Crisis communications has become an increasingly important part of business planning. A polarized political climate fueled by social media lands organizations in the hot seat more often. Investigations of power players in Oregon this year cast doubt on such diverse organizations as Nike, Business Oregon, the Unity Behavioral Health Center and the Portland Police Bureau, among others. 

As Weinstein warns his clients, you don’t think the next crisis will happen to you. Until it does.


“Have a plan; have a team,” Weinstein says. “Practice it. Don’t just put your plan on a shelf.”


Ward Hubbell, president of Hubbell Communications, teaches his clients the three R’s: reaction, resolution, redemption.

“I always tell people crisis communications isn’t easy, but it’s pretty simple,” Hubbell says. “You want to tell the truth, get the story out there, do the right thing. People forgive mistakes, but they won’t forgive people who don’t own up to those mistakes.”

First, say something, even if it’s not much, he says. Let the public know you’re aware of the problem and working on a fix. Reaction could mean anything from a two-sentence emailed statement to an interview with a CEO.

Weinsten and Hubbell emphasized speed and full disclosure within legal limits.

“You want to be prepared to communicate what you can communicate as soon as possible,” Weinstein says.


"People forgive mistakes," Hubbell says, "but they won’t forgive people who don’t own up to those mistakes.”


Second, bring in knowledgeable experts to fix the problem. Give the public detailed updates on how and when you’re addressing particular issues. Work like a murder mystery author, revealing key plot details and gradually building toward a resolution.

For the past year, Unity Behavioral Health center has been plagued by reports of safety violations, suicide attempts and self-harm behaviors. At first the hospital released a series of terse responses from public relations officials. Then, earlier this week,  president Trent Green went into crisis communications mode. In a series of press interviews, he laid out a five-part plan for change

Responses to crises should come quickly, but not too quickly. As Hubbell puts it, “you don’t want to underdo it; you don’t want to overdo it.”  Weinstein advises several ounces of prevention: Build a team, run through scenarios and develop handbooks that spell out exactly what to do and who will be in charge.  

“This is time for the facts,” Weinstein says. “It’s not time for editorializing. It’s time to take care of whatever happened and do it well.”   


Related Story: Embattled mental healthcare facility says it has a plan for change


Finally, Hubbell says, the communications can’t end when the crisis is resolved. Reputational harm can stick for months or years. Organizations often need to take an extra leap to demonstrate cultural change.

He cites as an example an incident described in Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog. Following outrage over sweatshop workers in developing countries sickened by toxic glue, Knight set his team to developing a water-based glue. That resolved the issue, but it wasn’t enough to convince the public that Nike had changed. So Knight open-sourced the glue, providing the recipe to his competitors, Reebok and Adidas.

That was the extra step.

“Redemption is the one a lot of people leave off,” Hubbell says. “What can we do to show we are wiser as a result of it?”


“The biggest thing that companies do is they panic and go silent,” Hubbell says. “They pull up the drawbridge. Information voids will get filled with something, either truth or fiction.”


Perhaps the worst thing to say in a crisis is nothing at all. 

“The biggest thing that companies do is they panic and go silent,” Hubbell says. “They pull up the drawbridge. Information voids will get filled with something, either truth or fiction.”

Yet more companies are clamming up, a recent Washington Post article suggests. Many businesses see little value in speaking to the media, even in the face of a crisis.

Weinstein and Hubbell view that approach as problematic, especially in the information age. Every employee carries a smartphone and can shoot off an unedited tweet at any second. Leadership can’t leave fires to die on their own. The more information the better, as long as it’s presented in a straightforward fashion.

“You own as much as you got,” Hubbell says. “It’s usually a matter of balancing your reputational risk with your legal risk, and sometimes those things are at odds with each other.”


To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here. 

Caleb Diehl

Caleb Diehl is a reporter at Oregon Business

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.