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23 August 2021

Crisis communications for small business

As lead coach and consultant for personal resilience and communications agency, WARN International, Lance Burdett has advised plenty of teams and individuals through crises. In this article Lance explains why any crisis response should be managed by the rule of three.

 The term ‘crisis communications’ is often synonymous with managing public relation hiccups, which are mostly errors of judgement. However, the term should be reserved solely for use during serious events.


Commonly, crisis communication is divided into three phases: pre-crisis, crisis response, and post-crisis. Yet this is hard to fathom for many business owners during a unique and ongoing event like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather, the act of crisis communication is more about providing a method of delivering important messages that can be used in all situations – clear, concise, and complete – and done so in threes.

Why in threes? Because our brains are programmed to operate this way. Look around the skyline of any city and you will see three-letter abbreviations of company names on buildings. We start running races with “ready, steady, go”. Our emergency response system is based on ‘fight-flight-freeze’; the list goes on.

The simplest method with which to develop a crisis communication message is to ask: what happened? What was the resulting issue? How will the issue be addressed?

If we were delivering an initial message to staff following the announcement of Level 4 restrictions it would read: “New Zealand is currently in a pandemic / which requires us to implement our staff safety plan / therefore everyone will be working remotely until further notice.”

This same message to clients would read: “New Zealand is currently in a pandemic / which requires our team to work remotely to minimise disruption / so please continue to contact us.”

If it were to be delivered to the media: “Due to the current situation / our team are now working remotely to ensure continuity of service / which may change with the corresponding change in alert levels.”

Why the first sentence is the most important    

The first sentence of any message is the most important as it provides clarity, certainty, and comfort. Just as the first 15 seconds of a speech or when meeting someone for the first time is important, so must the first sentence in a crisis-led communication.

Few people will read or hear beyond the first sentence if it is not engaging. Additional information can be added in the next sentence or two. Using the aforementioned three examples: “Questions should be directed to your immediate supervisor” (for staff), “You can contact us via phone, email or through our website” (for clients), and “Media queries should be directed to [staff contact]”.

Crisis communication is not just for big businesses; all business owners can use it effectively.

When service levels are affected, an effective message might be: “We are currently facing high demand and apologise for the delay. We will respond as soon as possible”.

While the message is important, so is the genuineness of it. It’s often not what we say but the way in which we say it.

Clear and regular communication with staff essential  

Ongoing messaging to staff during crisis situations can also be a challenge, more so where staff are required to work from home. Some manage comfortably working away from the busy vibe of the office, while others feel isolated and, perhaps, somewhat forgotten. Regular communication to those working from home reminds everyone that they are an integral part of the business and helps to maintain connection and reassurance for those who may feel alone.

The key is to establish a regular pattern where employee groups can expect to receive updates and important information. Again, the messaging must be clear and concise as insufficient information can cause unnecessary angst – and on occasion rumours.

Remember, when people are involved in a crisis situation they are often in a heightened emotional state with reduced clarity of thought. Overwhelming them with too much information may cause additional confusion. 

Always remember the three-message process; what is your message? Why are you telling them? What might be the impact or consequence? At the conclusion of each message, remind staff what they should do if they have any questions.

Regardless of what style of messaging you prefer, or the medium you are using to distribute your message, or that message’s intended recipients, it is always helpful to run your message past a colleague first before sending it out. It helps bring additional clarity and a degree of comfort when the message is reviewed through a different lens.

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