What to Do When Your Hair Is on Fire

A Timely Primer on Crisis Communication

You’re watching football on a crisp fall afternoon when suddenly your phone explodes. Tweets, texts, and telephone calls start pouring in. You change the channel on your TV to Fox or CNN (or maybe MSNBC if you’re into Rachel Maddow’s show, I guess), and your jaw drops to the floor as you hear the words fall out of your candidates mouth. You think to yourself, “What was he thinking?” Is this real life?” “Should I have stuck with accounting in college?” Fear not, friends. There’s a way forward when your hair’s on fire.

A Game Plan

If you wait until after a crisis has struck to come up with a plan, you’re way behind in a game where the odds are already stacked against you. Before a crisis occurs, take time to do a situational analysis to try and pinpoint weaknesses that opponents can hammer you on.

It isn’t alway possible to intuit when and where a crisis will arrive, but at the very least you can have a plan to move forward.

Most of all, make sure there’s a clear spokesperson (and a backup) who handles all inquiries and messaging, and that everyone on your team knows to defer messaging questions to that person. You want a central mouthpiece because the most important part of crisis communications is to speak quickly and truthfully. Having a designated spokesperson ensures that there’s a consistent message…and that person should never be you!

More Information, Not Less

Anytime you’re in a crisis, you want to do everything you can to be sure you’re the one in control of the message. This means you’ve got to be out in front with your message so you can help shape the narrative. The last thing you want is a “no comment” that allows for speculation.

Let media members know early and often when they can expect statements, comments, press releases, or conferences. Even if you’re not ready to release a statement immediately, letting the media know that a statement is forthcoming should buy you time.

The most important thing to remember is to speak truthfully. Nothing makes a terrible situation worse than having to walk back a comment you said off-the-cuff.

Properly-Timed Endorsements

According to Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight blog, endorsements don’t matter during a campaign. Our own polling has shown that there’s little correlation between endorsements and improved candidate performance. During a crisis though, the right endorsement can help steady the ship.

Public support and validation from respected individuals and groups is invaluable during a crisis. Nurturing relationships with organizations and people that can speak to your character or the issue at hand can help redeem your campaign in the public eye.

A word of caution, though. Make sure you take the time to properly vet your allies. If increased scrutiny turns up more dirt on your allies, or that your relationship is disingenuous, you may find yourself in a worse place than where you started.

Rely on Polling

One of the best investments you can make during a crisis is polling. When things have hit the fan, every word and action is put under a microscope. A poll with targeted questions by an experienced pollster can tell you if you’re headed out of a crisis or if you’re digging yourself a bigger hole.

You need a pollster who is fast, cost-effective, and has a proven track record (I happen to know one if you need a recommendation), so you can assess your messaging and see where you stand. It may be that what seems like a major crisis is only a small, very vocal minority, or you may have a major problem on your hands, either way, knowing where you stand is an invaluable asset during a crisis.


This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but when you’re stuck in the hole, these are the tools you’re going to use to dig yourself out. There’s a light at the end of almost every crisis, the media will move on, people will forget, but even if they don’t, there’s always next cycle.

If you’re hair’s on fire, and next cycle isn’t good enough for you, send me an email. I’m standing at the ready with a fire extinguisher in hand.