Crisis Communication in 2021: The Five Most Important Key Learnings

SturmSo far, the year 2021 has certainly not been poor in one thing: crises. From our experience with clients we have supported and accompanied with crisis communications, five lessons can be distilled that will make life easier – and safer – for everyone involved.

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1. When digitalization becomes an obstacle: Upgrading analog solutions

Increasing cyberattacks repeatedly lead to a standstill or failure of corporate IT. In such a case, analog solutions for communication to all employees must then not only be available, but also immediately usable – such as IT-independent contact options to people in the home office. If there are no such options, they should be set up as quickly as possible before the emergency occurs.

Analog instead of digital: This requirement is not without a certain irony, especially in Germany, but it can ensure the company’s ability to communicate again in the short term, at least internally, in the event of an IT failure. This can go as far as Town Hall events instead of corresponding electronic circulars or information via the intranet. It goes without saying that all Corona protection rules must be adhered to – and this does not make the task any less demanding.

2. Really true: back-ups are of no use if they are deleted – think about it!!!

It sounds trivial, but it is by no means self-evident: companies feel safe because they regularly make back-ups and feel secure. But what happens when even these back-ups are deleted by criminal hackers?

Every company should seek comprehensive advice from IT experts at an early stage on how to set up a secure back-up structure – a structure that can minimize the loss of current, company-relevant data. This is especially true in the event of a cyber attack and the associated window of opportunity for recovering corporate data.

Here, every day counts. If you compare the investment in modern, high-performance back-up solutions with the potential damage caused by a prolonged IT outage and the associated downtime of several days or even weeks in production or service provision, the investment in professional back-up measures and prevention pays off very quickly. Think about it.

3. Communication is key!

Fast, transparent communication to all target groups is essential, especially in times or situations of crisis. On the one hand, to immediately communicate appropriate warnings and security measures. On the other hand, however, also in order to effectively and comprehensively counter the triad of “insecurity, uncertainty and ignorance”.

To do this, it is necessary to be able to empathize very well with each target group. This is the only way to find the right information and the convincing and target-oriented words that are necessary to pick up the stakeholders in the best possible way.

Above all, transparency, openness, empathy and understanding are required here – only then will the communicator appear trustworthy, cooperative, caring and approachable to employees, customers and business partners.

4. Communication does not need egoshooters

The importance of good and professional communication becomes particularly clear in times of crisis. A single wrong word, an inappropriate action or reaction can cause a scandal, and the reputation suffers severe damage – especially in an always-on society.

All the more reason to have good managers who either understand the importance of and how to deal with communication or surround themselves with professionals who actively help them plan and implement this important area. Here in particular, self-absorbed egos who would prefer to solve everything themselves do not hold good cards – especially in crisis situations.

Also unhelpful are those who, with a pronounced “Mr. Teacher, I know what” mentality, must immediately tell everyone how bad everything is. Without sense and reason and, above all, without a communication plan, this leads predictably to disaster. This is precisely the kind of “manager” that is simply not useful at this point.

Professional crisis management also means, and above all, professional crisis communication. And this can be learned – ideally before the situation becomes acute. Professional crisis prevention, including appropriate training of the responsible spokespersons and communicators, may be decisive for the existence of a company, even if it is perhaps less attractive and understandable for first-person shooters.

5. “Texas Cowboy” vs. corporate social responsibility

How often were hard-hitting turnaround and restructuring projects implemented in 2021? And how often has management communicated and acted empathetically? Who shows understanding for employees who have worked for a company for decades and now have to give up their jobs because of plant closures or relocations?

Often enough, there has been talk of increasing efficiency and competitiveness – especially from American-style companies that initiate change processes in Europe and carry them through as hard as nails. In these cases, a kind of ‘Texas cowboy’ mentality meets a culture that increasingly focuses on corporate responsibility with regard to social aspects as well as cultural diversity.

Internationally active companies in Germany are particularly in the public eye during such ‘culture clashes’. They should therefore ensure that cultural differences and their integration are given strong consideration in their communications activities.

Involving local communicators and market experts for local insider information can be worth its weight in gold and money here, in order to avoid a confrontation – at worst also ideologically charged – that rarely results in better corporate performance.

These are “only” five learnings from a selection that may well be tenfold – but they are precisely those that set the most important course when every hour, every minute counts.


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  • Volker Pulskamp

    Volker Pulskamp leads the Corporate Communications Practice of FleishmanHillard in Germany. Together with his team in Frankfurt and Berlin he provides advice to Companies and Organizations in the fields of Reputation Management, Corporate Affairs, and Change and Crisis Communications. With...

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