May 10, 2018

3 Tips to Build an Ethical Crisis Communication Plan in Business and Life


3 Tips to Build an Ethical Crisis Communication Plan in Business and Life

In this post, we will discuss 3 tips to build an ethical crisis communication plan to handle those crises that erupt in your business or personal life.

A few weeks ago, a friend told me that the way in which I have transformed my “life-changing crisis” is an example of true grit, resilience, and reinvention.  After we met that day, I thought about the way in which I communicated my legal challenges to others after I decided to plead guilty.  Was it an example of crisis communication at the most personal level?

When I was still managing my law firm with my father back in 2009, I recall an instance where we decided that we needed to seek out professional crisis communication support in anticipation of possible negative press for a matter.  At the time, I had never even heard of this area of expertise, nor did I understand what exactly the public relations firm that we hired would actually do for us.   Fortunately, our law firm never ended up having a crisis and our efforts to plan ahead still provided useful media coverage and positive leverage for marketing.

After contemplating what my friend said, I realized that my actions and words did serve as a crisis communication plan when I needed it the most. The communication scholar Timothy Coombs said that crisis communication is “the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation.” Timothy W. Coombs and Sherry. J Holladay. The Handbook of Crisis Communication. (2010), p. 20. Here are 3 tips to build an ethical crisis communication plan to handle those crises that erupt in your life or business – because for all of us, it’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a question of “when.”

Ethical Crisis Communication Plan Tip #1: Create an Honest Portrayal of the Facts

Once I decided to plead guilty, it was vital that I took ownership, understood all the facts of my case, and did not mitigate anything. If I was going to get through this difficult time, I knew I had to talk about what happened and I could not let the media control the discourse.  I no longer could use rationalizations or assumptions to explain away my actions.  I had to be transparent and do the right thing by taking full accountability.  In companies across the globe, there are instances where the communications team initially takes a factual stance that is not truthful.  There is some slight slant.  There is a little fact left out.  Certain documents seem to magically disappear.  Emails are deleted.  Denial of facts also seems to be a common tactic.  Corporate boards and executives should maintain a culture that demands transparency and ownership no matter the consequences.  Nothing screams integrity more than taking responsibility for a wrong and then working hard to ensure it will never happen again.

Ethical Crisis Communication Plan Tip #2: Develop a Proactive Outreach Plan

Once I decided to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud, I had a choice. Cower away and hide from the world….or seek support from my network.  I made two very important decisions: I needed to call every client and tell them the truth; and I was going to call each person that had a significant role in my life and individually tell them what I did and ask for help.  After calling our list of clients, my father (who was then my partner at the law firm and has remained in practice) was able to retain about half of our clients.  Each client stated that she appreciated our honesty and integrity throughout this process.  We knew the consequences for open dialogue meant that we would lose some clients.  In fact, about half of our clients decided to move their files to other law firms.  But, the other half continued to work with and maintain faith in the firm and my father for legal services.

I pled in federal court on December 19, 2014.  After spending the holidays with my family, I began 2015 with a commitment to call people in my life and tell them what was happening.  Outside of my close family and friends, very few people knew about the case.  I started by making an excel spreadsheet (Yes, I know – sounds crazy) of my contacts.  Friends from elementary school through high school, college, my Morgan Stanley days, law school, professional and social circles, athletic club friends….any person who I thought could share insight as to who I am.  Some were friends that I hadn’t spoken to in over 10, even 20 years.  One by one, I began to call each person.  Frankly, I could only handle about 5-6 calls each day, because each call was emotionally draining.  I called each person, and slowly explained what had happened from the moment I met my client to my indictment and my guilty plea.  Every single person was in disbelief and shock initially, as I was the one who had always followed that straight and narrow path and colored between the lines.  I made sure to tell all the facts to the best of my ability, tears flowing on each call and words of love and strength flowing from the other end of the receiver.  As a result of my calls and full clarity of conversation with each person, I ultimately was honored with over 180 letters of support to the judge in efforts to illustrate my history and character, all of which was substantively material for my sentencing hearing.

Amazingly, my proactive outreach and honesty in sharing my journey created advocates for life.  Each person not only committed to supporting me and helping me as much as they could, but they stood by me and continue to believe in me.  My relationships have each been enhanced by my efforts and transparency and have propelled me to reinvent myself now.  Corporate communication teams would be well served to actively strategize how to garner the most support from existing clients and other alliances in an effort to honestly portray the facts and find solutions.

Ethical Crisis Communication Plan Tip #3: Leverage your Vulnerability

When we are forced to learn tough lessons, whether in our personal lives or our professional careers, I believe we have a duty to share those lessons and help others. The sociology professor and fabulous TED speaker, Brene Brown writes that we derive strength when we can live through our shameful moments.  I have learned that much of my strength is a result of my openness to vulnerability and understanding that there may be consequences for being so open.  Obviously, I recognize that the stakes are much higher at a corporate level, than for me as an individual.  Its relative, of course.  The more I share my lessons and my story, the more I am able to speak my truth and others are listening.  Clients are asking me to work with them going forward – in various capacities such as consulting and speaking….and even possibly crisis communication strategy.  I feel honored to be able to develop new skills, share openly, and work with people across the globe in a fascinating pivot of my life.


What I have learned most in crisis communication from my experience is that you can never plan for a crisis.  Such is the nature of the beast.  But as individuals and corporations, we can commit to a create an ethical crisis communication plan that will allow for transparency, vulnerability, integrity, and continued rise within our communities.


Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to share the need for ethical vigilance and to inspire you to make good ethical choices in all areas of your life. Rashmi is an ethics speaker and consultant fighting to create a culture of conversation and bring ethical issues in business to light, to promote integrity, to enhance commitment to fiduciary duty, to build ethical leadership, and to shift the paradigm of ethics standards through ethics training.

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