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Crisis Communications for Small Businesses

Crisis Communications for Small Businesses

How to plan for—and deal with—the worst possible scenario when you have no formal PR team or experience with crisis communications

Illustration by Anastasia Andronachi
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Big companies and organizations facing a PR crisis may be the only ones making the news, but small businesses are not invulnerable to disasters or public criticism. First-time entrepreneurs might make a misstep in a product launch; a fledgling marketing team might launch a campaign that receives a negative response. And everyone, big and small, must effectively navigate a global crisis like a pandemic.

However, small businesses may find it even more difficult to deal with crises and backlash because they—unlike their larger competitors—are less likely to have a formal PR team or trained PR leader in place. 

We spoke with seasoned PR experts to understand how small businesses can use the resources and people they already have to effectively respond to any crisis.

Prepare—Even If You Don’t Have Time

If you’re a leader in a small company without in-house PR expertise, chances are you’re too busy to spend time on a crisis that hasn’t happened yet. But that’s precisely what you should do, according to the experts.

“Lay out a crisis plan, knowing that you aren’t staffed for it,” says Ron Culp, a veteran corporate PR and agency executive and the professional director of DePaul University’s Graduate PR and Advertising Program. “If I thought, ‘Worst-case scenarios in my organization—what are the top ten things that will probably never happen, but could?’ And then I would say with each, ‘How would I handle it if that happened?’”

“A company usually knows why it’s vulnerable and how it’s vulnerable,” concurs Mike Fernandez, senior vice president and chief communications officer at Enbridge. He recommends gathering your company’s principals and asking, “What can we do to get in front of the curve?” 

Getting ahead of the curve might entail establishing internal response processes, building out emergency contact information, and drafting statements to help your team respond more efficiently.

Identify Your Crisis Management Team

Once a crisis occurs and reporters start calling, the risk for reputational damage escalates quickly, so it’s essential to know in advance how you will respond—and who will respond. If your company doesn’t have an official PR leader, you need to proactively identify both a point person and a spokesperson (or persons). 

The point person should be someone who’s regularly available and able to reach leadership, such as an executive assistant. “Your role is not to get involved to the level of doing the response,” Culp says. “You’re collecting the information and promising, ‘We’re going to get back to you.’”

The spokesperson, on the other hand, should be knowledgeable about a specific risk area. And don’t worry if they don’t have any prior experience with crisis communications. “You can media train them well ahead of this kind of event using an agency or a specialist in this area,” Fernandez says. “Oftentimes, you’ll find people who were former on-air news reporters who do some of that, but there are also small agencies that can help.”

Keep Calm and Ask Questions

Your point person might be nervous in taking on that role if they haven’t worked in crisis communications before. If a reporter calls them, their instinct might be to get the reporter off the phone before they say something wrong. But Culp says the better approach is to turn the tables and ask for more information on what the reporter is calling about and what they need from you.

“As the reporter talks through it, you’re going to get a sense [of whether] they think this is a smoking gun, or if this really is a bigger crisis,” Culp explains. “Just by asking the right questions, you’ll know the significance of the event. Asking them questions is not putting you on the record.”

Culp suggests creating a form to use when fielding such calls to capture what the reporter knows, what they need, and details like their news outlet, contact information, and deadline. This process buys you time to go back to your organization and plan your response.

Tell It Straight

A spokesperson with little to no media training might be tempted to try to “spin” issues into a more favorable story. But Culp cautions against this.

“Correct [the problem] if necessary, apologize, and then indicate and make sure that you have policies in place so that it’s not going to happen here again,” he advises. “Once an executive puts that kind of a stake in the ground, their credibility goes up. The media—and the executive’s own organization—says, ‘I think I can trust this guy.’”

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