Using the 5 Ws in Business Communication to Navigate a Crisis

An Effective Crisis Communication Strategy Is Crucial

2020. The year of crisis. The year when critical lessons in communication were learned by governments around the world. In their paper ‘An Analysis of Government Communication in the United States During the COVID‐19 Pandemic’, Do Kyun David Kim and Gary L. Kreps conclude that:

“Ineffective government communication has resulted in a great deal of public confusion and misunderstanding, as well as serious errors in responding to this evolving health threat, leading to disastrous health and social outcomes for the public and prolonging the pandemic, especially within the United States.”

To avoid the same fate during a crisis, organizations must communicate effectively, both internally and externally. Using the 5 Ws in business communication will help you communicate your key messages successfully.

Why does communication fail during a crisis?

Let’s put crisis into context. All organizations suffer crises, and more regularly than they would like. These may be big or small and be internal or external. Coronavirus? External and huge. Losing a key sales team? Internal and huge for the organization.

Many organizations have crisis communication plans in place. When the crisis happens, these plans swing in to action. Many fail. Here are six reasons why:

  1. You fail to build an appropriate narrative

The narrative must be controlled from the word go. The first thing you communicate is the most important, and the most remembered. Consider the difference in narrative between these two statements:

  • “COVID is likely to claim many lives, but we will beat it.”

  • “We will beat COVID, despite the potential for it to take many lives.”

  1. The wrong person communicates

Who communicates is as important as the message. The communicator must be selected for purpose, and because, quite frankly, they are good at communicating.

  1. Communication is made to the wrong audience

If you are not speaking to those affected most, your message is lost. Your time is wasted. People become confused.

  1. They fail to build trust

Communication is seen as reactive to the crisis. Trust is something that is developed over time. Something that must be nurtured in every communication you make. Communication should be regular and often.

  1. Your message is communicated inappropriately

When communicating to an audience, it is also essential that you manage internal communications in the omnichannel workplace, and that you communicate internally and externally through appropriate communication channels. Holding an inhouse event may not reach your audience if half your team are working remotely.

  1. You don’t account for emotions

A crisis unfolds, and as it does so people’s feelings will shift. If you are not monitoring these changes, you risk communicating the wrong message at the wrong time. Rumors will grow, misinformation will spread, and speculation will mount.

The 5 Ws of business communication

Your crisis communication plan should create focus and two-way dialogue, and set the scene for continuing performance and increasing productivity. 

In the middle of a crisis, creating such a plan is difficult. Leadership is distracted by immediate needs and firefighting. 

Yet to navigate volatility and uncertainty successfully, it is imperative that your leaders and managers communicate effectively. By focusing your communication strategy on the five Ws of business communication, you will set objectives, communicate to who needs to receive your message, when they need to receive it, and in the communication channel that is most relevant to them.


Decide on your narrative. What is it that you must tell your people? What information is available, and which of that information is important to share?

One way to be prepared for immediate opening of a narrative is to have a holding statement prepared for if a crisis breaks. These holding statements should be formulated with empathy, and easily replaced as and when more details become available.


There are two parts of who in crisis communication – who must be communicated to, and who must do the communicating.

Your employees are your brand advocates, but when they are not kept informed, they can also be the biggest source of rumor and discontent. Therefore, decide which employees and teams must be communicated to, and ensure that you communicate potential effects on jobs, working processes, etc.

With your audience defined, now decide who must do the communicating. This is as important as the message itself. If your CFO is the one sharing your message, people may get the impression that your organization’s major concern is financial. Choose who communicates wisely.


When do you communicate your message to your audience? As we discussed above, constant communication is needed to build trust. Only with trust in place can you expect your people to respond positively to your crisis communication.

Of course, your first messages should be shared as soon as practicable when a crisis breaks. Those holding messages should stop dissent and the rumor mill before it begins. As more information and data becomes available, share quickly. Regular and often is key.


‘Where do you communicate?’ could also be framed as ‘How do you communicate?’ Consider your audience, how they communicate best, and where they are located. Consider the technological tools that can be used to reach all your people, therefore ensuring that all employees receive the same consistent message.


Each communication should align with your purpose – the outcome you wish to achieve as you navigate and emerge from the crisis. Though related to the what of your communication, the why is different.

As an example, let’s take an internal crisis. Your sales team has left for a competitor. People are worried that sales will dry up and that they will lose their jobs:

  • The what is an acknowledgement of the loss. A statement of fact, explaining what has happened and what you propose to do now.

  • The why is because you do not want other employees looking for jobs elsewhere. You want a calm and collected ship, with remaining employees onboard and rowing in the same direction. 

Why crisis communication is critical

It is imperative to communicate to your people and teams through a crisis. It is how you address their concerns, allay their fears, and keep people motivated.

Your focus should be on providing the information you have, putting a stop to misinformation and destructive gossip, and enabling two-way conversation.

Employing the five Ws of business communication will ensure that you disseminate messages with meaning to the right audience, when communication must be made, and via the most appropriate communication channels. 

Crises are common. Communicating effectively through them is rare. To learn more about developing an effective communication strategy as a manager or leader, connect with Forward Focus today.

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