The Crisis Communication Lifecycle

Stylized words,

Every emergency evolves. For communicators, it’s important to understand that crises happen in phases; and understanding the pattern of a disaster can help communicators anticipate problems and appropriately respond.

CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) Communication Lifecycle identifies the types of information that need to be delivered during different phases of an emergency.

Crisis Communication Lifecycle

The pre-crisis phase, which occurs before the onset of the emergency, is the best time for a communicator to prepare by creating a crisis communication plan, drafting messages, identifying possible audiences, and predicting communication needs. When a new disaster happens, these ready resources can help communicators respond rapidly. Strong communication using CERC principles is vital in the initial phase of a response, when there is the greatest confusion and least amount of available information. It’s important to remember that as the emergency response progresses, available information and audience needs will change. Communication resources and strategies must adapt to meet these evolving needs.

All crises will go through all five stages, although the length of time for each stage will vary for each crisis, and even for different stakeholders who are affected. For example, as Zika virus disease (Zika) continues to initially affect new areas, some have been maintaining their outbreak response for a while. Others are in the pre-crisis phase, preparing for the eventuality that they too may have to deal with Zika soon. Even in the same location, pregnant women may experience a higher level of initial anxiety while the larger populations quickly moves on to the maintenance phase. Organizations addressing Zika are faced with the challenge of simultaneously communicating to diverse audiences experiencing different phases of the outbreak.

Emergency communicators must:

  • Recognize that all audiences are likely to experience all five stages, although individuals may go through the CERC Communication Lifecycle at different paces.
  • Adapt messaging to address audiences who are in different stages.
  • Always listen to stakeholders for feedback to inform and adapt messages that can better meet communications needs as they constantly change.
  • Know that as a crisis progresses, it may also move back a stage. Much like an earthquake will have aftershocks, new information can sometimes shake a response from the maintenance phase back to the confusion of the initial phase. 

Movement through each of the phases will vary according to the emergency, and events can develop in surprising ways. Not all crises are equal; their intensity and longevity can fluctuate. Well-planned and well-executed CERC, fully integrated into the activities of every phase, is critical to effective response communication.

For more information on CERC visit our website and check out the CERC manual. You can also read previous CERC Corners.

Have you used CERC in your work? To share your CERC stories, e-mail Your stories may appear in future CERC Corners.

Page last reviewed: March 23, 2017 (archived document)