Matthew Harrison, Scott Moritz & Cari Robinson
Matthew Harrison, Scott Moritz & Cari Robinson

If handled well, a crisis can enable a company’s leadership to demonstrate their mettle, sincerity and good character to investors, customers, employees and the public. If handled poorly, that crisis can irreparably damage corporate credibility, stakeholder trust and share price. To prepare for a crisis, companies need a team of experts—legal, investigative, forensic and crisis communications—to ensure proper strategy and communications through “make or break” situations.

Securities fraud, corruption, criminal prosecutions, search warrants, executive misconduct, cyber-attacks, data loss, trade secret theft, consumer fraud and mass torts are examples of “make or break” scenarios that tend to play out publicly. It’s important to recognize that these are not just legal problems. Treating them as such is both risky and short-sighted. Developing a cohesive legal, investigation and communications strategy requires a thorough understanding of the facts and specialized knowledge of the legal and regulatory issues at stake.

The most effective crisis communication strategies begin with core messaging that’s consistent with the facts, transparent and credible. This core narrative is fundamental to message discipline. Message discipline also means designating a spokesperson or spokespersons through whom communications will pass, providing for consistency and reining in the risk of a communication misstep.

Effective response also requires organizational collaboration, discipline, and the ability to anticipate the next stages of the crisis. And it must be sustainable—that is, designed to apply to future communications across all stakeholder groups.

Getting ready …

Crisis plans should identify the most likely crisis scenarios and provide company executives, communications and other functional key team members with comprehensive procedures and tools that enable quick and decisive action when navigating a crisis, irrespective of the specific details. These plans typically define and systematize the following elements:

  • Designating and activating crisis response teams. Form internal and external teams who have specialized skills to handle different situations and define their lines of authority and accountability.
  • Assessing the situation and gathering facts. When a crisis emerges, convene the crisis team and gather as many facts as possible. Act quickly and carefully to assess the severity and scope of the situation.
  • Developing key messages. Build strategies for internal and external communications and get a head start by drafting core messaging that applies to any scenario and can quickly be deployed.
  • Testing and practicing. Conduct regular tabletop exercises, which are simulations of real-life crisis situations designed to test a company’s ability to mount an effective response.

Getting set … when there is no imminent public disclosure

Companies often have little control over the timing and nature of the disclosure(s) that catalyze crises. No matter the situation, crises by their nature are dynamic and require constant monitoring and adaptability.

When a crisis materializes, legal, investigative and communications teams have different mandates, but they must remain aligned. Lawyers and investigators take the lead on fact finding, witness interviews, issue spotting, protection of legal privileges and developing legal theories and defenses. Communications teams must be in lock-step with the legal strategy as it develops while simultaneously identifying critical stakeholder groups and creating credible, compelling and accurate statements and talking points.

If there’s no urgent circumstance driving a decision to disclose, companies and their crisis teams should take time to advance the investigation and uncover as many relevant facts as possible. By preparing in advance through mapping and organizing its institutional data and identifying subject matter experts in key areas of its operations, a company’s legal team will be better able to pinpoint and access relevant information and handle the issues at stake. Throughout this time, the legal team will also be keeping management—and in some cases the company’s board of directors—updated and will stand ready to advise and align on issues like whether any public disclosures should be made or whether the matter under investigation should be reported to the authorities.

Go: the crisis is public!

When stakeholders first learn about a consequential event, they will want to hear from the company quickly: i) what happened, ii) what the harm is, iii) what the company plans to do about it, and iv) how the company plans to ensure the issues do not recur.

If communications are necessary while an investigation is underway and critical information remains unknown, there are still ways to communicate transparently and effectively through a holding statement. An effective holding statement typically involves openly acknowledging the situation, demonstrating empathy for those impacted, and outlining the actions the company has taken and plans to take in the future.

To avoid costly missteps, companies and their response teams should consider the following:

  • Never get ahead of the facts and don’t minimize or hide the facts.
  • Don’t make promises that can’t or won’t be kept.
  • Never say anything publicly that could damage credibility.

It’s easier to build on a statement later than to dial it back, and it’s okay to say things like: We’re looking into these allegations; we feel deeply for the individuals impacted; we are taking this situation very seriously; we’re devoting all resources necessary to find out what happened and ensure it doesn’t happen again; and, we’ll give updates as we are able. It’s important, however, not to make a hard commitment in an initial statement as to whether, how and when the company will report back.

When updates in real time are necessary, don’t speak in terms of certainties unless the facts are known and unassailable. Also, be wary that real-time disclosures of facts can derail an ongoing investigation. The same rules apply if a company discloses it’s under investigation by a government, regulator or agency. Sharing that the company is cooperating fully with the authorities can still engender trust and convey that the company is being transparent, without disclosing details the company cannot share for legal or other reasons.


The time to start building a team of internal and external experts is long before a crisis strikes. A company should identify key enterprise risks and think through the kinds of serious events that could occur and impact the organization in advance. It should map out how it plans to undertake an investigation, make disclosures, and communicate to its stakeholders along the way. All these steps will position the organization to respond confidently and avoid communications missteps that make the mishandling of the crisis—and not the crisis itself—the main story.


Scott Moritz is the president of White Collar Forensic LLC, a boutique investigative, forensic accounting and compliance advisory firm. He served as an FBI Special Agent assigned to the Memphis, Tennessee and New York City field offices.

Cari Robinson is a senior managing director at August, with decades of experience helping public global corporations navigate crises. She has worked as a litigator at a multinational law firm as well as Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York.

Matt Harrison is a managing director at August and has more than a decade of experience consulting on high-stakes litigation and business situations at law firms and strategic communications consultancies.