Crisis Communication: Managing the Message

Third in a Three-Part Series

Clients often ask: What’s the difference between an issue and a crisis? A crisis has greater potential for harm – to others and to the reputation of the company – and a greater sense of urgency than an issue, often the result of media involvement. As a channel to your audience, media amplify your messages, and that changes interest, timing, demands and expectations.

A fundamental objective in crisis communication is to control the narrative. The best way to do that is to speak early and speak often. A company can plan and do all the right things in a crisis, but if the spokesperson doesn’t convey the correct messages, progress can be lost.

But what is it you’re saying? How are you defining the narrative?

The only narrative in a crisis is the truth.

Who Says What?
In a crisis, an organization’s control of the narrative begins with developing key messages. Three-to-five succinct messages will serve as the foundation of the organization’s communication. They help to ensure accuracy and consistency.

The decision of who delivers the messages is critical. Choosing a spokesperson is never as simple as reviewing job titles. The selection of a spokesperson should equate with the gravity of the crisis. During Tylenol’s crisis, there were two spokespeople: the chair of the board of directors and the CEO. By using the highest-level representatives, Tylenol instantly conveyed both that the company recognized the seriousness of the situation and their commitment to doing the right thing. Had a public relations representative (nothing against us!) met with the media, it would have conveyed a different message, possibly that the company’s leadership had reasons to avoid media or that they didn’t think the situation was serious.

Athletes, Actors and You
Tom Brady never entered a game without training and preparation; Meryl Streep continually takes acting lessons and rehearses repeatedly before filming begins. Similarly, a spokesperson should never meet the media without training and preparation. Comprehensive crisis communication planning includes formal media training.

Media training has benefits in every situation – it isn’t only a crisis tool. Whether speaking about a crisis or a celebration, an organization’s spokesperson should be formally media trained. It provides the tools and the practice necessary to help ensure the spokesperson communicates the desired messages and does so with credibility and authenticity. A well-trained company leader can manage media interviews in a manner that is truthful, protects the company’s reputation, and fulfills the interest of media and the public.

The best preparation for meeting with media occurs before it’s ever needed. And training should be repeated periodically – media change, people change and situations change. At the time a crisis develops, it’s too late for thorough media training. There are too many actions the organization is managing, and media’s need for information is immediate. There isn’t sufficient time to put spokespeople through the level of training required to control the narrative.

At Pipitone, our media training process is designed for C-level and administrative leaders, as well as public relations practitioners. In our day-long training sessions, we share strategies and tactics that empower participants to make media interviews effective. Joining the Pipitone training team are a TV journalist and a videographer, and we work with small groups (four people is ideal) to ensure individualized coaching that focuses on the specific needs of the company. Each participant has multiple on-camera opportunities to practice skills, learning with each interview.

This Means You
Crises don’t discriminate, so no corporation is too big, and no organization is too small to need media training. And the training has multiple benefits since participants can use the skills they learn in other settings – the strategies apply to one-on-one conversations, group meetings, even family negotiations.

Speaking of speaking, let’s do some. Email me at Afterall, don’t you want to take me up on that beverage I promised in the first crisis blog?

Learn more about crisis communication at Pipitone’s upcoming webinar, Crisis Communication: Resiliency to Recovery on Wednesday, October 25, at 3:00. For more information visit:


Lynn McMahon

Written by Lynn McMahon

As Pipitone’s vice president of Public Relations, Lynn McMahon guides the group to utilize all tools of the trade – planning, strategy, creativity, writing, media relations and more – to help clients achieve their business objectives. Engaged, strategic and imaginative, Lynn enjoys crafting comprehensive PR plans, conducting media training and collaborating with the enormously talented Pipitone team.