How to handle a crisis

From a marketing standpoint, the blueprint of a crisis is typically: something has happened and it requires a response. The crisis might be a natural disaster or a public relations incident. The response can range from individual communications to customers, to the wider public, and even the press. It’s likely the crisis will need to be handled across many platforms including social media, online reviews and forums.

When specialist expertise is needed, a PR or crisis management agency are worth their weight in gold. This doesn’t mean you can check out of crisis mode. You will be liaising with the agency and in the eyes of your employer or client, you’re accountable for what happens next.

I have worked in marketing during the Coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the credit crunch. I have also been involved in responding to crises across a number of businesses. This is my “crisis mode” that has served me well over the years:

Don’t panic!

Even the calmest person can start to panic, it’s how you respond to this that matters. There’s a balance between acting fast enough to be effective and taking the time to really think through your actions. Too fast and you risk saying or doing the wrong thing. Too slow and your customers (and the rest of the world) think you don’t care.

Get into an action-focused mindset by finding out the facts. What is the actual crisis? What has happened? What has been done so far, and what’s the plan? This might be from the government, your customer, your team or your client. Review the facts and the evidence, then use this to formulate your response.

You also have an influence on the mindset of those around you. If you are part of a team or representing a freelance client, remember you’re only as calm as the most stressed person in the room. Your client or colleague might have a tendency to act too slow or too fast. Your facts and evidence will help you to get them on board.

The outside world

As a marketer, part of your role in the crisis is to view it from the perspective of the outside world. For the customer, or those affected, how is the crisis being communicated and dealt with? What about the media? Don’t forget about potential customers, the industry and the public too.

Based on the facts to hand, make sure everyone who has contact with the outside world has a consistent message to give, even if it’s “we’re investigating”. Make sure press enquiries or escalated queries go to the right place. Monitor what is being said about your business or your client.

Drafting the official response will be influenced by the nature of the crisis and the culture of the business you’re working with. It became crystal clear during the Coronavirus pandemic that honesty and authenticity are universally valued in business responses to a crisis. Take the time to review the response from the perspective of the outside world and make sure it answers all the potential questions that could be asked. They will be asked anyway over social media if it goes unaddressed.

A business’ response to a crisis will go through a number of approvals. Make sure all the right people from across the organisation are involved in this, especially senior leadership. It will feel frustrating when you are waiting for everyone to have input, but approval is key. If you can assign key decision makers and deadlines it will speed up the process. The last thing you want is that the CEO finds out what has happened by seeing it on local news.

Take stock of what customers are telling the business, what the media are saying and what your competitors are doing. This will help you judge how much you need to communicate.

Reflect, measure, improve

Communications have gone out, your website and social channels have been updated and internal teams have been briefed. It’s time to reflect. If the crisis was within the business’ control, make sure this has been escalated to operational teams. If it wasn’t (hello, Coronavirus!) there are still lessons to be learnt for next time.

It’s time to gather the facts again. How did the business respond? How fast? How did customers respond? Did they request additional information?

On a personal level, think about your handling of the crisis. What did you do well or not so well? What would you change next time? And don’t be too hard on yourself, this is one area where experience will help to build your resilience.


Coronavirus is a defining moment for a generation of marketers. If it isn’t your first crisis, then it’s likely your worst. The lessons you have learned from the pandemic will stay with you throughout your career. If nothing else, the experience will serve you well in your next crisis.

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