Seeing the Positives of a Crisis

By Claire Papanastasiou

Note: On Thursday, Nov. 12 at 5 p.m., Matter Director Claire Papanastasiou will moderate a crisis communications panel at the Legal Marketing Association’s New England Conference. Panelists include Patricia Wen of the Boston Globe, Doug Banks of the Boston Business Journal, Ralph Martin of Northeastern University and Martin Murphy of Foley Hoag LLP. Contact for more information.

In the words of President John F. Kennedy: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

So true, yet so unseen.

Regardless of the language or situation, a crisis is an opportunity. The problem is that while in calamity mode, the last thing CEOs, CIOs, CHROs, lawyers, accountants and communications professionals see is hope, progress and the possibility of accomplishment.

When it comes to high-stakes matters, people prefer the comfort of the status quo. And at the risk of sounding stereotypical, the more traditional the profession, the more adverse it is to challenging the convention and engage in openness with the media. Sometimes that strategy serves an enterprise well. Depends on the topic, the news outlet as well as the news cycle. Other times, the head-in-the-sand approach can set an unfortunate trajectory of miscommunication, misrepresentation and misreporting that hurts not only an enterprise’s reputation, but also its employees and its short- and long-term relations with the media.

Below are a few best practices in preparing (as best as one can) for a crisis and working through it. Note that not every approach can turn lemons into lemonade, though incorporating some of these protocols may limit frustrations and keep heads cool so the best decisions can be made.


  • Identify the core crisis communication team
    • Leadership
    • Internal communications
    • External communications
    • HR
    • In-house counsel
      (Identify back-ups for these members, if possible.)
  • Identify the best way to communicate among the team
    • Real-time emails?
    • Daily conference calls?
    • A combination of the two
  • Establish unique protocols for each type of crisis.
    • Executive (leadership)
    • Organizational (HR)
    • Financial (accounting)
      (A crisis can have one of these elements, or two or three. Team members from each group may be added depending on the type of crisis.)


  • Determine type/scope of crisis and alert core teams.
    • Executive
    • Organizational
    • Financial
  • Determine if other members should be added to the core team.
  • Identify key audiences, create internal and external messaging.
  • Determine communications vehicles, i.e. in-person meetings or emails (or both) for internal.
  • Discuss the media plan and approach, i.e. proactive or reactive.
  • Identify spokesperson/people and method of communication to the media, i.e. statement, on-background interviews, combination of both, and set conditions, i.e. on-background or on-the-record.
  • Determine whether internal communications regarding upcoming coverage is necessary.
    • If necessary, select the messenger, i.e. company president or another executive, HR, company lawyer or media person.


  • After-crisis review
    • How was the process?
    • What worked?
    • What didn’t?
    • Were the appropriate people notified?
    • How was the coverage and its impact?
    • Any follow-up required with the media?

Stepping back to reflect a media crisis and its outcome – externally and internally – is hugely beneficial for an enterprise. Leadership can see weak links and use the crisis to address any issues that were simmering beneath the surface before the crisis hit. On a development level, people immediately involved will hopefully up their game and augment their talents, building confidence and improving performance. And externally, depending on how the company dealt with the media, it can serve as a basis of a positive relationship going forward.

Now that’s making lemonade out of lemons.