Crisis Communications

What is a crisis? 

  • “A stage at which all future events affecting a person or organization will be determined. It is a major turning point resulting in permanent drastic change. It is far more crucial than most emergencies.” — Philip Lesly
  • “A significant business disruption which stimulates extensive news media coverage. The resulting public scrutiny affects the organization’s normal operations and also could have a political, legal, financial and governmental impact on its business.” — Institute for Crisis Management
  • “A situation that puts your organization’s values on trial in the court of public opinion.” — Wm. Curry

In times of crisis, you will likely see the soul of your organization, as well your own, exposed for better or for worse. You’ll see, sometimes suddenly, weaknesses that need attention both in yourself and your organization. And you’ll lay awake nights searching for strengths and strategizing about how you can build upon them.

The best time to plan for a crisis is before you have one!

**Most of the material presented here is drawn from the book Not If, but When, published by United Methodist Communications, and from the Episcopal Communicator’s Manual, Diocese of Texas Office of Communications.


  • They arise suddenly.
  • Information and key leaders are not always available when you need them.
  • Every crisis provides its own opportunity to position your organization in the way it wants to be understood. This opportunity comes very early in the game.
  • All crises tend to impair judgment and clear thinking.


The typical life cycle of a crisis begins with the event, quickly moves to investigative coverage, and eventually to blame-assignment, public reaction, reminders and disinterest. Your objective is to get from the event to disinterest as quickly as possible. The longer that full and complete facts are not forthcoming, the longer the situation continues to be unresolved, the longer the crisis will be kept alive. The longer the crisis lives, the more damage that will be done.


Permanent Basic Team:
Dean, Communications Director, Sr. Warden, and other staff or congregational leaders as needed. Designate only one spokesperson.

Expanded Diocesan Team might include as needed:
Legal counsel, financial officer, dean or other regional administrator, communications committee, representative from a public relations firm, or media professional, other support personnel as required.

Whoever comprises your team should be available 24 hours a day during the entire life cycle of the crisis by phone, email, and in person. Do not assume team members know their responsibilities. Make specific assignments. Prepare a list of duties and actions expected of each team member. 

Make sure every member of the team understands who is responsible for what. Establish a clear chain of command and an agreed-upon approval process for action and the dissemination of information.

The Rector or Bishop

  1. Assembles the crisis management team and sets the plan in motion.
  2. Assists in anticipating the intermediate and long-range impact of the crisis.
  3. Provides final decisions based on input from the crisis management team.
  4. May serve as spokesperson in some situations.

The Communications Director

  1. Manages the organization’s message — is responsible for crafting a clear, concise, constructive and credible message.
  2. Often the primary spokesperson to inform others of the crisis, including clergy, laity, the general public, the media, and others.
  3. Relates to the media with input from the crisis management team, anticipates and meets the needs of the media.
  4. Corrects inaccurate or misleading reporting immediately.

The Senior Warden

  1. Keeps in touch with the family of victim(s) involved.
  2. Manages logistics of the crisis — screens and logs calls.
  3. Tracks schedules of all team members — knows how to reach them all at all times.
  4. May serve as alternate spokesperson.

Legal Counsel

  1. Provides input on liability and regulatory concerns.
  2. Reviews all statements and news releases for legal implications.
  3. Understands that a loss in the court of public opinion can be more devastating than a loss in a court of law. During a crisis, a legally correct decision may not be the best solution to the problem.


The optimum time within which to respond to a crisis is 90 minutes. The longer you take to respond, the bigger the chance that public opinion will be swayed by others. Having a plan will enable you to respond quickly. 

A good plan is characterized by the following standards:

  • Openness, accessibility, availability and willingness to respond
  • Truthfulness — Honesty without conditions
  • Responsiveness to all constituencies
  • No secrets — behavior, attitudes, plans, strategic discussions are unchallengeable, unassailable, and positive

1: Objectives — clear statements that clarify your response strategies

2: A list of possible crises including scenarios from all of the following categories:

  • Natural disasters
  • Criminal or legal action
  • Violent acts, demonstrations, death, or violent injuries
  • Personnel crises
  • Positive crises
  • Perceived crises

3: Choice of spokesperson(s) and alternate(s)

4: Staff assignments

5: Outline of your decision-making process.

6: Media guidelines and up-to-date phone numbers and emails.

7: Prioritized list of various audiences to whom information must be disseminated.

  • Each list should include identified means of communicating with each list (office or home phone, email, Internet, 1-800 numbers, hotlines, home and office numbers).
  • Primary list with all contact information for persons who “need to know” immediately. This includes employees/staff, law enforcement. Others are key clergy and lay leaders, and those most directly impacted by the crisis.
  • Secondary list of those who need to be informed shortly following the initial event. This may include deans, priests, wardens, national church personnel, Episcopal News Service, etc.
  • Current Media Contacts, both print and broadcast, in regional and local media.
  • Other lists might include non-Episcopal clergy in the affected area, public officials (board of health, social services, fire, police, city, county and state emergency management agencies, insurance agents, etc.)

8: Plans for computer backup and storage of files.

9: Plans for informing and training staff about the crisis plan.

10: Office space. Designate a strategy room for the media response team’s use. 

11: A Media room. If needed, how could you provide sufficient phone, fax, or computer capabilities? How might you provide the media work room? Press conference space?

12: Outline a notification process for family and friends when there is loss of life or injury. Name the crisis team member(s) who will keep in touch with them.

13: Media relations: Assess your current media relations. Do you need to know and make friends with current media personnel? Building a working, trusting relationship rarely occurs in the midst of a crisis.

14: Practice: Your plan should include times when crises are simulated so that the plan can be practiced.

15: Regular meeting: Team should meet to anticipate and discuss possible crises and how they might be avoided or minimized.

General Resources

Think like a Girl Scout: Be prepared for the next disaster, by Hanah Smith, August 2016

Sample Press Release from 3in1 Communications!forum/google-newslab-updates: Resource to pull satellite imagery of current events; satellite media alerts. 

Handling Media in a Crisis:

Crisis Communication Plan Nonprofit Toolkit by the Colorado Nonprofit Association

Gun Violence Resources

Litany for Gun Violence Prevention written by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Episcopal Bishop of Maine

The liturgical resources are here:

Bishops Against Gun Violence Sutherland Springs Statement

Bishops Against Gun Violence Las Vegas Statement

Bishops Against Gun Violence Parkland Florida Statement

Gun Litany Revised Feb 2018 by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Episcopal Bishop of Maine

Statement of the Bishops of Virginia in Support of our Youth Following the Parkland Shootings

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