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Crafting the First Statement in Crisis Situations: What To Say and When to Say It

By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications


For organizations responding to sudden, catastrophic crisis events, one of the most challenging decisions to make involves determining what to say and when to say it. Wait until all the facts have been gathered and you risk not being part of the critical first news cycle, which often sets the tone for ongoing coverage of the story. Speak too quickly and you run the risk of omitting important, basic facts or worse – making incorrect statements that you will subsequently have to walk back, threatening your credibility with the public and your own stakeholders.

Perhaps the most egregious and painful example of misstating initial critical facts about a crisis event is the first information issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which led the initial investigation of the May 24 Uvalde school shooting at Robb Elementary School. After first reports praised police officers for their quick response to the attack, investigators quickly learned the facts painted a far less heroic picture.  Weeks of news reports followed as the actual details came to light. By now, all of America knows that students were hunted down for more than hour by the shooter while responders hung back in the hallway.

Hopefully, your organization will never face the challenge of speaking out after a mass shooting.  But all organizations should be prepared to make sure what they say initially about an incident will stand the scrutiny of investigation and help them avoid correcting misinformation that needlessly erodes brand and reputation.  Of course, an equally important decision is the timing of an initial statement.  While each situation is unique, there are some developments that will almost always demand that the organization involved issues some sort of comment as quickly as possible.  Those include incidents that are clearly catastrophic, with injuries or even fatalities, along with those that pose an ongoing threat to those nearby.

Events that cause significant damage to an organization’s facilities or some other property also will likely call for some sort of statement – especially if the damage will interrupt operations. Remember that media are not the only stakeholders to consider when a crisis occurs.  In some cases, employees will need to know quickly about building closures, changes in work arrangements, etc. – as will customers or clients, as well as suppliers and vendors.

If outside safety forces are on the scene, it’s certainly time to consider making a statement. Police and other emergency responders now typically post activity on Twitter, which media also monitor closely.  It’s very common to receive a call for comment when this occurs.

In general, it’s time to consider issuing a statement when enough information is known about the event to provide credible information to the media and/or other stakeholders.  But be careful not to distribute information if it will only cause alarm or create confusion. You want your initial statement to convey the impression that your organization is on top of the situation and is responding appropriately. Here are other guidelines when you consider what you want to say.

First, state what happened, as you can currently confirm it.  Start with words like this, “What I’m about to tell you is preliminary and could change as new facts come in.” Second, note that your organization has responded and, if appropriate, is working with safety authorities or others to resolve the situation. If the event has been resolved, note that, or state that you are still responding. If true, state that you are investigating the cause (perhaps with help from emergency responders) and are confirming any injuries. Provide directions for employees and others to vacate the area or avoid it if appropriate.  If you can confirm there have been injuries – or even if the event has caused significant disruption or concern for those nearby, a message of concern or sympathy is appropriate.  A commitment to provide more information when it’s available is a good addition as well.

One critical piece of advice: do not provide detailed specifics, identify a cause, or confirm any fatalities at this time. Families always need to hear the news of a loved one’s death first and privately. And, as those in Uvalde learned, other facts can change quickly. It’s better to be brief and factual with a first statement and provide more information later.

Here are a few other recommendations for your first communication and all those that follow. To repeat: don’t speculate.  What the cause of the event might have been, who might be responsible and what long-term impact it may have will only be determined with further investigation. Save those details when you – or outside authorities – know more.  Beware of confirming information on social media as well.  It is often based on sheer speculation or posted by someone unauthorized to provide details.

If you decide to answer questions from the media or others, don’t respond to hypothetical questions. Simply responding that a question is one you don’t have the answers to is appropriate under these circumstances.  Speaking of questions, don’t provide answers that other parties should provide. Referring questions to hospitals, investigators or the police is standard procedure and something these individuals are used to fielding. And, don’t be tempted to offer your opinion, even if it’s in your field of expertise; stick to the facts. On the other hand, don’t allow misinformation to go unchallenged. If you know a detail is false, use this as an opportunity to set the record straight.

There’s an old adage: “You never have a second chance to make a first impression.”  Nowhere is this truer than the high-risk territory of first statements issued in times of crisis.  Done badly, they make a difficult situation worse.  Done well, they help position organizations as responsive and responsible, and can even help shorten the duration and severity of the crisis events that prompt them.

Free Stock photo by Vecteezy
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Nora Jacobs is senior vice president at Hennes Communications, as well as an experienced crisis communications counselor with three decades of agency and corporate experience. Over the years, she has counseled top executives at companies, associations, nonprofits and professional service firms throughout the country on reputational issues and problems ranging from accidents, environmental concerns, product failures, criminal matters and activist attacks to reorganizations, management transitions and downsizings. She has a strong portfolio of client work in consumer and industrial products, healthcare, biotechnology, education and economic development.
Previously, Jacobs served as executive vice president of Ohio-based Edward Howard (now Fahlgren Mortine). There, she was a member of its board of directors and executive committee, with management responsibility for its largest office, as well as staffing and training firm-wide. During her tenure with the firm, she managed some of Edward Howard’s largest accounts and led the firm’s healthcare practice. She began her career at BFGoodrich Chemical Group, a division of the Fortune 500 BFGoodrich Company, where she oversaw the group’s advertising, public relations, community relations and issues management programs.
Nora can be reached at 216-321-7774 or

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