How to work with your Best Six Friends in a Crisis

CrisisGuest PostPR 2.0

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A Guest Post by Jane Jordan-Meier

Jane Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 6.32.25 PMCrisis planning has become somewhat of an art form since the 1980’s thanks to Johnson & Johnson’s deft handling off the Tylenol crisis. They set the gold standard. They acted very fast recalling every Tylenol capsule in America, and then quickly introducing tamper-proof bottles.

To act fast, and with an intelligent, compassionate and strategic approach, you need a plan. There are many approaches to crisis planning – the most basic of which is pre-crisis, during a crisis and post-crisis. Is there a best practice approach?

One method that I found to work very effectively for a wide cross-section of clients over the many years of facilitating crisis planning is this very simple process – work with your six best friends!

Six best friends, you ask?

That would be 5 w’s and how? They are definitely your best friends in a crisis. This is the mantra.

Who needs to know What, When, Where, Why and How?

Let’s take stage one, when the crisis has occurred, there had been a “show-stopping” event that has triggered your organization into a crisis. This is how you can use the process.

  • What happened?
  • Who was there?
  • When did it happen
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen? (the reasons why may come out much later, but at least asking that question you will give an early indication and most importantly, an inkling of why people might panic)
  • How did it happen?

Let’s look at how this process might work to select the spokespeople:

  • Who needs to speak? (And who is best to coach/prep them?)
  • Why (that choice – is that the right person for this stage)?
  • What will they say? (And why?)
  • How will they say it?
  • Where will they say it?
  • When will they say it (and how often?)

This simple, but powerful approach can work for scenario planning too:

  • What is the very worst that can happen? What is your worst nightmare? What keeps us awake at night? What will trigger our organization into crisis? The more bizarre, the better.
  • Who else will think that? (I.E. who will attach themselves to our crisis/will see it as opportunity to grandstand?) Who are allies?
  • Where are the risks and vulnerabilities – local, global? Do we need to ‘expose’ the risks in selected locations or across the entire organization?
  • How will the crisis unfold? Is it an internal, ‘smoldering’ issue that has escalated? Or an ‘attack’ in cyberspace, on social media?  How will we know that we are in crisis mode?
  • When will crisis occur? Is the timing a critical factor in our planning? For example, do we need to ‘expose’ our vulnerability to cope 24×7?
  • Why is that important? This is the ‘killer’ question to ask during both the scenario development phase and also during the exercise to ‘test’ and validate the plan. Asking why will challenge the underlying planning assumptions that will need to be exposed. Assumptions lead to mistakes, and it is vitally important to bring those to the surface when you are planning and running exercises.

I have found this back-to-basics approach to work very effectively. Simple too, and it can be used at every step of the planning process.

Jane Jordan-Meier is founder and CEO of The Media Skills Academy, an international boutique training, coaching and advisory firm. Jane is a high-stakes communication and media coach with more than two decades of experience in working with executive management in both the government and the private sectors. Most of Jane’s work today is in crisis management training with senior and executive management. Jane has taught at Masters and undergraduate levels at prestigious communication schools in Australia and is a frequent guest lecturer and speaker at conferences, workshops and seminars around the globe. Her book The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management: How to Manage the Media in the Digital Age was released to critical acclaim in May, 2011. Jane can be networked with through her LinkedIn profile and on Twitter@janejordanmeier

4 Responses to " How to work with your Best Six Friends in a Crisis "

  1. Marcela Mangarelli says:

    As a PR student, I’ve found it useful to go back to the basics – as you wrote – and remember the six best friends in a crisis. In PR, the process is the same for each project, but each project has new challenges. The mantra “Who needs to know What, When, Where, Why, and How?” is the always same, but the answers are completely different in each project. This makes PR interesting and challenging.
    After reading your article, I wanted to know more about how Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol crisis. From this case, I learned how important is to have open communication and the importance of maintaining communication with the different audiences during a crisis. It is interesting to see how many big companies fail to manage a crisis effecively because they are not able to apologize (for example, BP after the oil spill). Thanks for this article.


  2. Marcela – you are so right to say that while the questions remain constant the answers can be very different. From a strategic standpoint, I think the least asked question is why? Too many people jump straight to what do we need to say without stopping to think about the why.

    Another critical question, when scenario planning or indeed in crisis mode, is to ask the ‘boss’ – how does this end? When you have a clear idea of the ‘end’ and what that might look like, you can plan and execute a strategy.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great post regarding crisis planning. It seems many brands are requesting crisis management services to effectively craft and deliver customer communications during sensitive times. Interesting read.

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