Volcanic crises are complex and especially challenging to manage. Volcanic unrest is characterised by uncertainty about whether an eruption will or will not take place, as well as its possible location, size and evolution. Planning is further complicated by the range of potential hazards and the variety of disciplines involved in forecasting and responding to volcanic emergencies. Effective management is favoured at frequently active volcanoes, owing to the experience gained through the repeated ‘testing’ of systems of communication. Even when plans have not been officially put in place, the groups involved tend to have an understanding of their roles and responsibilities and those of others. Such experience is rarely available at volcanoes that have been quiescent for several generations. Emergency responses are less effective, not only because of uncertainties about the volcanic system itself, but also because scientists, crisis directors, managers and the public are inexperienced in volcanic unrest. In such situations, tensions and misunderstandings result in poor communication and have the potential to affect decision making and delay vital operations. Here we compare experiences on communicating information during crises on volcanoes reawakening after long repose (El Hierro in the Canary Islands) and in frequent eruption (Etna and Stromboli in Sicily). The results provide a basis for enhancing communication protocols during volcanic emergencies.