Crisis Communication: How to Write Copy in Sensitive Times

In times of crisis, the words we choose carry more weight than ever. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a company scandal, or a global pandemic, responsible and effective communication is crucial.

And the stakes are high: poorly executed communication can exacerbate the situation, erode trust, and even put lives at risk. On the other hand, well-crafted messages can inform, reassure, and guide actions in ways that are genuinely beneficial.

Crisis Communication: How to Write Copy in Sensitive Times
Crisis Communication: How to Write Copy in Sensitive Times

This blog post aims to navigate the tricky waters of crisis communication, providing you with actionable tips and insights to maintain your brand’s integrity while being sensitive to the situation.

From understanding the crisis at hand to the nuances of tone and language, we’ll explore how to communicate in a way that is both compassionate and effective.

Understanding the Crisis Context

Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, it’s essential to fully grasp the situation you’re dealing with. A crisis is not the time for assumptions or guesswork. 

Inadequate understanding can lead to messages that come off as insensitive or exploitative.

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So, make sure to:

  1. Assess the Scale: Understand the magnitude and implications of the crisis. Is it a global, national, or community issue? Who are the most affected parties?
  1. Know Your Role: Determine the role your organization plays in this situation. Are you a bystander, a helper, or, unfortunately, part of the problem?
  1. Seek Expert Advice: Consult with experts related to the crisis, whether they are medical professionals, legal advisors, or crisis communication specialists. Their insights can be invaluable in shaping your message.

Fun Fact: The “Tylenol Murders” in 1982 is often cited as a case study in excellent crisis management. Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled $100 million worth of Tylenol capsules from stores and made a significant product redesign, all while keeping the public informed. The quick and transparent action helped them regain consumer trust.

Being Authentic and Transparent

Authenticity and transparency are the linchpins of effective communication. Audiences can quickly discern between genuine concern and corporate double-speak. Authenticity builds trust, while a lack of it can exponentially worsen an already fragile situation.

Good Transparency: In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward initially fumbled with insensitive comments. However, the company eventually adopted a transparent approach by publicly sharing the steps they were taking to manage and mitigate the disaster. This helped them regain some public trust.

Bad Transparency: On the flip side, the United Airlines incident in 2017, where a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, showed a lack of both authenticity and transparency. The company’s initial response was criticized for blaming the victim, which resulted in a PR disaster.

Fun Fact: Authenticity doesn’t just mean “saying sorry.” In crisis situations, actions often speak louder than words. Companies that transparently update stakeholders and take decisive actions to solve the problem are generally better received.

Language Sensitivity and Tone

Language is a powerful tool, especially in crisis situations where emotions run high and every word is scrutinized. The tone and choice of words can either comfort your audience or exacerbate their anxieties.


✔️Use empathetic language that acknowledges the situation and the feelings of those affected.

✔️Opt for clear and straightforward phrasing that leaves no room for misinterpretation. For example, instead of saying “we’re looking into it,” say, “we’re actively investigating the issue and will keep you updated.”


❌ Avoid jargon, technical language, or anything that might come off as dismissive or detached. Phrases like “collateral damage” or “unfortunate incident” may minimize the gravity of the situation and erode trust.

Fun Fact: Studies have shown that the right tone can actually alleviate stress hormones in the body, emphasizing how crucial it is to strike the right chord with your audience during trying times.

Timing and Frequency (100-150 words)

Timing is everything, particularly in crisis situations where new developments can unfold by the minute. Your audience needs to know what’s going on, but there’s a delicate balance to maintain between saying too much and saying too little.

When to Release Statements: Aim to communicate essential information as soon as it becomes available. Delays can lead to speculation and misinformation.

Balancing Communication: You don’t want to overload your audience with too many updates, but under-communicating can be just as damaging. A good rule of thumb is to send out initial critical information immediately, follow up with regular updates, and offer a conclusive message when the crisis has been managed.

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Fun Fact: PR professionals often use the “Goldilocks Principle” in crisis communication— not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of information to keep the audience informed without overwhelming them.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

When crafting your crisis communication, it’s crucial to be aware of legal and ethical considerations that could impact your message and, by extension, your organization’s reputation.

Legal Ramifications: Always consult with legal experts to ensure that what you’re saying won’t expose your company to potential lawsuits. This is especially important if the crisis involves a legal dispute or regulatory investigation.

Ethical Practices: Uphold the principles of truthfulness, integrity, and transparency in all communications. Doing so not only builds trust but can also protect your organization from further backlash.

Fun Fact: Many large organizations have “dark sites” ready: pre-made, unindexed web pages with general crisis messages that can be customized and made live quickly, helping them control the narrative while considering legal and ethical issues.

The Role of Social Media

Social media platforms have become frontlines for crisis management, offering both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, social media allows for rapid dissemination of information, reaching your audience almost instantaneously.

Risks: However, the flip side is that misinformation can spread just as quickly, and your messages may be taken out of context. Moreover, the tone and language used on social media are subject to intense scrutiny, and a single tweet can escalate the crisis further if not thoughtfully composed.

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Rewards: Despite the risks, using social media effectively can help in image recovery and damage control. Real-time updates can be given, and audience reactions can be gauged immediately, allowing for timely and informed decision-making.

Fun Fact: Did you know that around 28% of crises spread internationally within an hour via social media? This shows the power—and the peril—of using social platforms for crisis communication.

Your Step-by-Step Plan for Crisis Communication

When a crisis hits, time is of the essence, and crafting the right copy can make all the difference. Here’s a tactical step-by-step guide to navigate crisis communication:

  1. Team Meeting: Gather your communication and legal teams to understand the scope and implications of the crisis.
  1. Identify Stakeholders: Know your audience. Is this a public issue or is it isolated to certain stakeholders? Tailor your message accordingly.
  1. Draft Initial Statements: Based on your audience, draft succinct but comprehensive statements. Always be authentic and transparent.
  1. Language and Tone: Review your statements for any language or tone that might be inappropriate or insensitive given the situation. Make necessary adjustments.
  1. Legal Review: Have your legal team review all public-facing communications to avoid potential legal repercussions.
  1. Platform Selection: Decide where these statements will be released. For urgent crises, social media might be the fastest way to communicate.
  1. Timing: Know when to release your statements. Too early and you may not have all the facts; too late and you risk losing control of the narrative.
  1. Frequency: Keep your audience updated but avoid bombarding them with too much information. Choose a regular interval for updates.
  1. Social Media Monitoring: Assign a team to monitor social media responses to gauge public reaction and to correct any misinformation.
  1. Post-Crisis Review: After the situation has been resolved, review your actions. What worked? What didn’t? Prepare a revised crisis communication plan based on these insights.

By following this step-by-step guide, you’re well on your way to handling crisis communications in a sensitive and effective manner.

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