What Being a Girl Guide Taught me about Crisis Management: How to Prepare a Holding Statement

One of the few things I remember from my time as a Girl Guide was their motto, “be prepared”. That message was reinforced in everything we did – from camping to cooking, to parades, to showcases; every activity required planning, and within that planning, we had to make accommodations for a ‘rainy day’.  

As a first-generation Canadian whose parents didn’t venture too far out during the winter months, my first winter camping experience reinforced that you can never be prepared enough for a winter deep-freeze when you are camping in unheated, poorly-sealed, unsupervised cabins. 

After spending that first night in the public ski chalet (since our cabin door was frozen open), sleeping on a worn-out couch in the corner while overzealous skiers drank and sang the night away to live music, I swore to myself that I would never again be caught off-guard in the cold – I have never needed thermal underwear, extra socks, fleece and heat packs since. But, as the eternal girl guide, I’m always prepared. 

Accidents and incidents can happen at any time. While you can never be prepared for every eventuality, you can be ready to respond quickly to any unexpected scenario that might come your way.

As publicists, our canvas is often the written word, although thanks to social media, we’ve expanded our art form to images and video – our gallery, any communications platform connected to the internet. 

When a crisis strikes you often don’t have time to craft and then seek multiple approvals on critical incident statements or responses to media inquiries. You have to act fast and be smart about responding in a timely manner while maintaining your company or brand’s core values. You are told you have to get ahead of the narrative before it gets ahead of you.

In most industries, you can anticipate what some of the threats or key concerns may be: industrial accidents, untimely deaths, natural disasters, environmental impacts, harassment claims, criminal charges, fraud, impropriety, consumer claims, product safety, or these days, unimaginable consumer challenges (think the Tide Pod challenge or Lysol injections to curb COVID-19).

Here is a simple table to start brainstorming what scenarios are relevant to your business or industry:

ScenarioKey Message 1Key Message 2Communication tool(s)Spokesperson
Accident
Criminal investigation
Harassment
Product defect or delay
Environmental

Enter Holding Statements. 

Preparing a set of holding statements that contain your key messaging, customized for some of the most likely scenarios you may face, will help you buy time while you as a communications team can assess the threats, invoke your crisis communications strategy and audit the situation as it unfolds. It will also provide clarity on the current state of the situation, manage rumours and misinformation, and essentially help your comms team control – or at least massage – the narrative.

While this may seem reactive, it’s proactive and you’ll be grateful for it in the heat of the crisis.

Adam Fisher of PR Daily, recently wrote a great blog on the six crucial key elements of a holding statement. To summarize and elaborate on his key tips, holding statements should include:

1. Acknowledgement – This is not the time for cover-ups or denials. Clarity of the incident, even without much information to go from, will help contain rumours and misinformation. 

2. Empathy – Adam explains that organizations must show concern and empathy for those who have been affected in a crisis incident. Putting those people first and showing you understand the severity of what has happened will demonstrate compassion, concern and humanity.

3. Action/Commitment – You need to show that you are taking steps to rectify the situation and ensure that something similar cannot happen again. Even in the initial stages, it is important to outline what your organization is doing to deal with the crisis. This could be as simple as stating that you have launched an investigation to determine what has happened, or that you are reviewing procedures and working with the relevant authorities.

4. Reassurance – Try to put the incident into context and show that it is isolated. If the crisis has been triggered by an accident, highlight the safety protocols you have in place and your previously good record. If it is related to employee behaviours or misdeeds, note that the company is taking strong measures to investigate. 

5. Apology/Recognition – An apology is only important if there is any responsibility on behalf of your company or brand. Otherwise, ‘recognize’ that this incident or situation is likely causing pain or concern to those affected.

6. Details – Put your journalism hats on and provide as much information as you legally can: What happened? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved? Why did it happen?

Note that most people understand that given a criminal investigation that information will be forthcoming but can’t be forced. 

7. Regular Updates – Even if they are just for reassurance, they are recommended. Giving visibility to your brand, a human face the public can relate to or evoke empathy or compassion for can help with post-crisis reputation recovery.

So, what are some examples of holding statements:

Example 1: Workplace Injury

“We are deeply saddened to confirm that [Individual(s) Name] of our colleagues/clients/customers/crew were injured at [set/office location] in [city/town] earlier this morning. They are currently receiving medical treatment. We are in contact with their family and are doing everything we can to support them at this difficult time.

An investigation has been launched and we are fully cooperating with authorities. We have / will / are going to  [ postpone /shut down /limit / maintain] [site/business/factory/office].  

Over our XX-year history we have maintained an excellent safety record. We will be reviewing our procedures and will put in place any recommendations from the authorities to ensure this does not happen again. We will share more information as it is released to us and provide an update about this incident on our website and social media channels at [date and time]”

Example 2: Delay in Service or Release

Dear Customer,

Yesterday, we learned that several shipments of our [product] contain [contaminated/damaged/XXX] goods due to [specify reason if there is one].

We are working around-the-clock with our producers/distributors/quality control/safety inspectors/ transportation providers and internal teams to ensure your orders/shipments are fulfilled in the coming [provide timeline if possible].

At [company name], we are always looking for ways to better service our customers. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you, and are working tirelessly to ensure this issue doesn’t happen again.

Should you have any questions, feel free to contact me at XXX@xyzcompany.com.

Example 3: Technical difficulties

“This afternoon, we were made aware of a technical issue/outage that is affecting our [specify which service or product]. This [issue] took place [date and time] in the [region/city]. We apologize that we are not able to provide you with [service or product] at the moment. Our technicians are working diligently to get our operations to full functionality as soon as possible. 

Alternately, you can download/use/stream/ [alternate product or service] for your XXX needs at [URL or app].

We will continue to update you on our progress in resolving this matter at [website] and on Twitter / IG / TikToc @XXX. We have created a dedicated customer service line to address any inquiries related to this issue. We ask that you please be patient with our customer support team as they work to help address your concerns/needs. The XXX customer service team can be reached at 1-800-123-4567. 

Media inquiries should be directed to our communications team at 1-800-555-1234.”

Example 4: Accidental Death on Set or at Workplace

Date

Time

“We are heartbroken and devastated by the passing of our treasured colleague, [name and position], after an accident which occurred at a [location and set or workplace area in city/region] during the [circumstance ie. preparation and testing for an upcoming shoot, or workplace activity] ,’ [quote from production company/rep/CEO]. 

“[Name] is beloved by all who worked with him during an impressive XX-year career as a [specialty] in [industry]. The [executive team designation/producers], along with everyone in the [list of stakeholders], wish to express our deepest condolences, and heartfelt love and support, to [name] family and friends at this most difficult time.”

We have no further details but are working closely with investigators as they review the incident. We will be providing updates as they are released to us. 

We ask that you please respect the highly sensitive nature of this incident for our employees/colleagues and refer any queries to our media relations team:

Contact information

Name 

Phone

Email

Example 5: Some Key Messaging within Holding Statements :

  • “XXX’s statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values”
  • “ XXX [words/actions/behaviour] is antithetical to our core values, both as individuals and as an [company/brand/agency], consequently, we have made the decision that we can no longer [represent/employ/collaborate/partner with] XXX.”
  • “We are deeply saddened by this tragic news of XXX passing. XXX was an exceptional talent and an even more exceptional person. He was a true joy to work with and we will all miss him tremendously. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones”.
  • “We are saddened by the recent allegations surrounding the [incident/accusation],” [company rep/company name]. “While the investigation is ongoing, we have made the difficult decisions to suspend production at this time and are no longer working with XXX”
  • “Today, we tragically lost a member of our crew while filming [name of production]. We’re heartbroken, shocked and devastated … but recognize nothing can come close to the grief and inexplicable pain her family and loved ones must feel in this moment. Our hearts pour out to them — along with each and every person they touched in this world.”

Regardless of the format, you choose to articulate your holding statements, identifying your internal and external threats and preparing a strong, coherent, and well-received message for each one, ahead of any unexpected or unpleasant scenarios, will help alleviate the stress and panic usually associated with a crisis.