Navigating a Communications Crisis Like a Pro

Jan 28, 2020

By Cayley Moynihan, Public Affairs Associate at MassBio

The insights shared in this blog post were gleaned from a recent MassBio Professional Development Forum, “Building A Bulletproof Communications & Crisis Management Strategy.”

While almost everyone will validate the importance of having a crisis communications plan, very few have the means in place to effectively navigate a crisis – or the moments leading up to one. ICER reviews, unexpected side effect profiles, and data readouts – among many others – are just a handful of biotech regularities that require rapid response and could amount to a crisis if a company is not prepared.


First and foremost, what qualifies as a crisis for your company? What one person views as a crisis may not correspond with what the C-suite believes. Small companies, in particular, may have more difficulty distinguishing what a crisis is because they often lack the resources to staff a full communications team and don’t have the same experience as large companies. In any instance, focus on aligning your team to streamline preparation protocols and ensure that if a crisis does hit, you can respond immediately. Here’s how you can get prepared:

Conduct a simulated test and make it as real as possible. Don’t tell the C-suite when it is happening to gauge a better understanding of how executives will respond in the real world. In one example shared at a recent MassBio forum, an industry professional discussed his company’s simulation. At the time it was understood that a firm plan was in place and everyone knew their role. However, once the simulation was launched the communications team could not get in touch with the CEO, the team was tripping over one another, and no one knew whether to issue a press release, a statement, or what to say to the press. You may think you are prepared, but when disaster strikes your plan can fall apart. The best way to ensure success is to simulate a crisis, diagnose the issues that occurred, and adjust moving forward.

The Response

It can take years to bring your company back to normalcy once a crisis hits. They are unexpected and cannot be anticipated, but good processes for response must be implemented to avoid reputation damage. The first step: control the messaging by being the first to respond. Acknowledge the problem and share how it will be addressed both internally and externally. You must also determine who will serve as the voice of the company during the crisis and run all messaging through him/her to ensure alignment. Companies need to be assertive and quick to respond while making sure any statements released are purely informational, not emotional.

One person cannot mitigate a crisis. You need a unified team that can act as a curator of what a crisis is and when to elevate it. When it comes to sexual harassment, for example, companies should assume that any allegations will be made public and must act with immediacy to maintain brand reputation. In these situations, identifying a streamlined corporate message is critical – any employees that outwardly dissent will exacerbate the situation.

The Impact of Social Media

The rise of social media has ultimately led to the escalation of crises. Anyone can say anything, factual or not, and gain support and attention. Communications teams must have a developed plan to respond on social platforms and disseminate it throughout the entire employee base – you cannot risk having one person respond on behalf of the company and deviate from the planned messaging.

Social media has the capability to both aid and complicate communications, based on the strategy deployed. The average lifespan of a tweet is about 15-20 minutes, so messaging can often get lost. Given the breadth of the audience exposed to any given post, you need to be direct and genuine in what you’re saying, without playing defense. Twitter can be a helpful tool in a crisis when leveraged to be authentic, personable, and honest. However, it is not often maximized in the biotech industry because publicly-traded companies are very limited in the information that can be circulated.

A crisis can hit at any time, by any measure, and to any company. And, while there’s no silver bullet in mitigating a crisis, or avoiding one altogether, focusing on preparedness is key. Develop a plan, simulate it, and simulate it again until you are confident in its reach and your team and company’s ability to execute it seamlessly. The media can and will run with the news of any crisis – regardless of the severity – but how your company responds, and how it holds itself accountable is what will resonate with the public.

To stay up-to-date on current hot topics in the life sciences and learn more about how industry can address common challenges, be sure to check out our upcoming forums for professional development.

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