Building a Crisis Communications Plan Before You Need It

What’s your definition of a crisis?

If one of your key employees, clients, or close affiliates becomes implicated in a scandal. If your business suffers an unexpected emergency. If your business made a big, public mistake. If something tragic happens to one of your employees. Whatever the crisis is, as a business – and as a brand – you will need to decide how to respond.

Notice we said how to respond, not if. Ignoring the crisis is not an answer. It’s easier to stay out of the conversation when it’s not happening to you. But whatever “it” is, and you are guaranteed to face some kind of “if” in the course of your business, you need a plan to get in front of the message.

A crisis communications plan is a set of pre-determined guidelines that help leaders map out their response to stakeholders in the event of an unforeseen situation. It’s used to prepare leaders for how they’ll respond before something happens, instead of scrambling after the fact. The benefits of a crisis communications plan are that it enhances organization and control during an unexpected event, helps keep leaders accountable, ensures communications flow to the people who need them, whether those people are internal or external, or both. Consistent messaging is important, and a quick response is essential.

And most businesses don’t have one.

Every crisis communications plan should have these elements:

  • Purpose
    • Briefly explain why the plan is needed and what it will be used to do.
  • Triggering Events
    • This explains under what circumstances the crisis plan will be activated.
  • Roles and Responsibilities
    • Include the members of your crisis team, their role, as well as their contact information. Include personal cell phone and email addresses in case they need to be reached at home during the crisis.
  • Communication Channels
    • Define how you’ll communicate both internally and externally.
  • Escalation Procedures
    • These are the steps your crisis team will take when responding to either internal or external communications. Include who is responsible for each step.
  • Communication Guidelines
    • Outline general messaging based on anticipated crises.

Decide what constitutes a triggering event…

or a crisis. Even a negative review on social media can activate a part of the plan, but clearly not all of it. You would know who the point person is for that kind of response and what kind of response would generally be needed. In this step, you’ll want to imagine the range of possible events that could put your business in a compromising position. It’s not pleasant, but it is helpful in terms of proactive management.

Roles and responsibilities…

dictate who is on the crisis team and who is responsible for what part of it. Start by designating a spokesperson for external and internal communications. Identifying a point person helps people know who to go to for information and is also supposed to mitigate the flow of unofficial information elsewhere. The point person should be a recognized leader – CEO/managing partner, another executive, or maybe the head of HR. Whoever it is, the person should be comfortable communicating with a wide variety of audiences, be available to answer questions at any time, be cool under pressure, and be someone who represents your brand well.

Next, what are the channels by which you’ll communicate?

Internal memos, emails, notices to the intranet, or employee chat rooms could all be options for internal communications depending on the type of crisis. Externally, you would look at possibly press releases, the website, emails, social media, and media interviews.

Your social media policy will play into an overall crisis communications plan, too. Social media accounts are like real-time communication for businesses. You can have two-way conversations with followers or stakeholders and put out updates quickly and easily. Be careful to ensure consistent messaging and that escalation procedures are properly followed.

Pro tips:

  • Disable external comments on your Facebook page, or enable moderation. Interactive communication is important, but there are other ways to talk to your audience.

  • Enable social media notifications to the phones of anyone who’s in charge of responding to social media.

  • Set up Google Alerts and/or hashtag and keyword searches on Hootsuite to monitor brand mentions.

Escalation procedures…

outline the steps your crisis team will take depending on what’s happening. A simple example is a negative social media review. Escalation procedures might dictate to investigate the person posting it (is the account fake or is the person a real client/customer), then follow up with a public reply and/or private message to the poster. Internally, the next step might be to investigate the veracity of the claim, while simultaneously engaging the person in an offline conversation. Or, there would be escalation procedures for removing the post, or what to do if there’s an influx of negative reviews that you suspect are spam.

Escalation procedures will vary based on the triggering event.

Communication guidelines…

will help your crisis team assemble responses quickly. You can set up a general format for each type of triggering event that loosely follows:

  • Cause of crisis
  • Brief description
  • Timetable for response and future plans
  • Statement if there are victims involved
  • Additional comments as needed

Then, look at your internal processes and procedures and try to identify any gaps in protocols that could either cause a crisis to happen (think: IT security threats or employee fraud opportunities) or would inhibit a crisis response when the s**t hits the fan (think: lack of employee training, outdated employee policies, or lack of media training for key personnel). Get in front of a potential issue before it becomes a problem. Be proactive.

If you have questions on how to develop a crisis communications plan for your business or are wondering whether your existing communications policies need to be reviewed, contact us anytime.

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