Crisis … Continued: The Old and New Rules of Crisis Communication 


Lesley Sillaman, EVP, Red Havas 

As communicators, we’ve all been taught the standard rules of crisis situations – succinctly put: that you can work your way out of a crisis with timely, transparent and truthful communication. As agency partners, for years we’ve counseled clients and colleagues about the importance of setting up a RASCI and a war room (physical or virtual) and about ways to institute scenario planning. We know how to separate a crisis from an issue and in the last decade, have sharpened our skills further to include a key crisis player – social media – understanding that it can be both a cause of and a tool to stem a crisis scenario.

But since 2020, the world of crisis communication has fundamentally changed. Going beyond reputation management and acute crisis situations (a product defect or natural disaster) and adding to the routine planning that corporations and organizations do, we’ve had to rethink – and therefore replan – for crisis as an “always on” function, one that needs to be looked after almost daily and certainly with regularity. Now, companies and organizations are tackling a myriad of issues from employee health and safety, workplace culture and norms, personnel issues and future of work discussions, social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion, and global and national political and humanitarian movements. Quite simply, the crisis is continuing.

From this evolution, new rules have emerged. These don’t replace but rather build on the old rules. Namely: being relevant, responsible and resilient. Companies and brands are expected to weigh in on social and cultural issues – but they have to do so in a relevant way that demonstrates true commitment and action. Appearing disingenuous or out-of-touch can create a new crisis. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, many companies issued public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, voicing concern for employees, customers and local communities. But companies with credibility in the space – like Ben and Jerry’s for example, who had a prior history of support for social justice – were able to win the confidence of the public and build on their strong reputation of activism. 

Consumers also expect brands to lead in driving change, and they demand responsibility for decisions made by the C-suite and other leaders. Boycotts and social media trending topics are distinct possibilities if brands don’t take their roles seriously. Since the war in Ukraine started, many brands have faced justified pressure from angry consumers about their activities in Russia. Fashion brands like Uniqlo and Zara eventually agreed to close stores in Russia after calls for boycotts flooded social media. 

Internally, companies have had to deploy increased and extensive internal communication plans that adapt in real time to address employees’ concerns about safety and wellness in the workplace, diversity, equity and inclusion, and remote and hybrid work. In many cases – like Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom – using the CEO to communicate regularly and transparently with employees have helped them to keep a steady and engaged workforce throughout COVID-19 and into our post-pandemic working world. 

Yet brands, just like people, can bounce back – given that they employ the right platform and communication tools. Pulling from the old rules can help a brand reverse course and build a future with credibility.

There are also new roles in crisis communication. Mid-level managers – once often left out of the loop in crisis situations – are on the front lines of employee and internal communications, providing a valuable channel between staff and leadership. Social media managers have always been on the front lines (and occasionally in a creator role) but now, new, sophisticated tools have increased its efficacy, providing the opportunity to monitor and even predict the velocity and severity of a crisis. And crisis teams need to lean on the PR function more than ever – to help balance the needs of legal and HR whilst still communicating the critical need to present swiftly and proactively.

Crisis communication should sit squarely within the purview of the communication team, advocating and lending support to legal and HR and reviewing current events and internal engagement regularly for potential crisis impacts. By looking after crisis as an always-on function, companies and brands can future-proof their environment to tackle what’s next.

About the Author: Lesley is an executive vice president with Red Havas, leading the agency’s Pittsburgh office and working as a key member of the company’s Global Collective, helping to coordinate the agency’s cross-border work with Havas teams around the world. Sillaman joined Havas PR in 2006, and since then has been immersed as strategist, content and speech writer, media relations specialist and trainer. Lesley has been recognized in the industry for her expertise in crisis and corporate communication and regularly trains clients and teams on crisis communication. She has been recognized in the industry with several awards and accolades, including the 2016 PR News PR People Awards as Agency PR Professional of the Year and in 2018, as a member of the Cannes Lions Grand Jury in the PR category and as Jury President for the 2020 Lisbon PR Awards. In 2022, Lesley was recognized as the 2022 Renaissance Hall of Fame Inductee for PRSA’s Pittsburgh chapter.