5 min read

Crisis Communication for Startups

08 September 2020

How would you feel when you were the  customer of a startup, that seems to have some trouble going on – and not knowing what’s happening with your order? 

Have you ever bought something and received the message that the package has been sent, but has not been delivered in over a week?


Being left alone with uncertainty is one of the many reasons why relationships between customers and startups (or any other interest groups) are doomed to fail.

Most startups do not consider crisis communication as something they need to be prepared for – which is understandable, as the main priority should be on telling a story of their vision and how they contribute to it.

What to consider when coming up with a crisis plan

The most difficult part of coming up with a strategy is to take into consideration which scenarios could happen, as this seems to be very abstract and far away from reality.

STEP 1: Defining and Finding Scenarios

The easiest way to come up with potential pitfalls is to take a look at your SWOT analysis and go from there. A SWOT analysis lists all strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats that your startup (could) face. Remember to think from different perspectives. From there, take a look at W and T, the weaknesses and threads. Start with the most obvious ones and break them down into the categories “can be prevented” and “force majeure”. 

Here’s an example:

SWOT Analysis COVID-19 Digital Contact Tracing AppSTRENGTH Helps to interrupt infection chains Easy to install and use Trustworthy because of decentralized data reconciliation WEAKNESSES Accessibility for the elderly and non-digital natives OPPORTUNITIES Building tr

Start with the most likely situation that could cause trouble. In this case, I would choose “accessibility for the elderly and non-digital natives”. Considering that investors or even customers would question if the Digital Contact Tracing App would even work when the ones that need to be protected most have a hard time to use it or even do not have a corresponding device. 

Thus, we need to create a narrative to explain how to either overcome this, or why this perceived problem is not as drastic as it seems. Now, it is time to come up with an overall storyline which needs to be framed differently towards the target audience in the later stage. 

It helps to take a look at the opportunities and strength section to identify which considerations have not been taken into account to alleviate the potential obstacle. In this case, we could argue that the tracing app itself is just one out of many measures to fight the virus, and that it can be ínstalled on devices such as smartwatches or beacons that can be attached to key rings to make sure that even more people can have access to the app.

Now, check the other threats, such as being vulnerable towards hackers that want to use the data in an inappropriate way, coming up with how to communicate which preventive measures have been taken and how to cope when a data leakage takes place. Consider who needs to be contacted, when and through which channels. 

A possible solution could be:

Crisis Communication Employees Investors  Crisis Communication Customers Journalists


STEP 2: Roles and Responsibilities

It is time to come up with responsibilities within the crisis mode. Here, it makes sense to think about who has the best relationship with the different stakeholders, communicating in a manner that will soothe the nerves and being transparent at the same time. Mostly, startups only have one communication expert, which makes it hard to tackle all tasks at the same time. 

This is why preparation is key: In crisis mode, priorities have to shift  – we need those taking care of the operational tasks, such as taking care of the actual threat, and those leading through the crisis by keeping everyone informed, such as the PR person, HR and customer care – splitting up the channel responsibilities and who will be in charge of answering questions, updating the interest groups in a timely manner.

STEP 3: Processes and Tools

Exceptional situations require exceptionally fast actions. This is where defining processes and breaking them down into actionable steps with dedicated responsibilities comes into play: Starting with a notification system that will let you know when rumors come up (set up a monitoring system for media coverage within your respective field!), setting up mailing lists for different scenarios (e.g. if the data leakage only affects a specific customer group) and monitoring the reactions on various channels. 

Come up with a reporting line which will speed up the information flow and create an internal “single point of truth” which could be a shared document or folder with FAQ’s and strict instructions. Try to work with visuals to make your reporting lines and processes easy to grasp.

STEP 4: Content Preparation

Each situation needs different wording and framing – however, you can set up some pre-written posts, mailings, announcements and checklists to speed up the writing process. It will help get your minds sorted and remember the way specific messages have to be framed towards the different target audiences and which information to include. 

It seems like a small task, but when you are facing a tough situation, even the easiest tasks seem to be a hurdle. Having a blank document in front of you will not spark any creativity – and stressful situations do not promote it either. Having something to start with helps prevent yourself from feeling paralyzed.



Pro tip: Simulating crises

As soon as you feel like you have set up a system that will help your team to cope with extreme situations, test it. 

You can set up a simulation yourself, but it is better to ask specialists to create an environment that feels like a real crisis to get the most out of the training. It will challenge you to understand which threats you might have missed and how to tackle them, raising the awareness within your team on how to manage situations that can’t be foreseen as well.

With this said, I hope you learned how to prepare for your worst case scenarios – let’s hope you will never need it. However, better be safe than sorry: Failing to communicate in crises could make or break your startup. 

If you have any questions or want to receive any consulting on how to set up your crisis management, feel free to contact me if you are part of our program or an alumni team.


Topics: Startup Tips
Clara Fischer

Written by Clara Fischer

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