Plan For The Worst So You Can Be At Your Best: Tips For Developing A Crisis Communications Plan That Works

There’s no excuse to be unprepared, especially when all it takes is one click, tweet, off-hand remark or poor decision to spark a crisis.

Almost every organization has an emergency action plan that outlines how to handle situations that could result in loss of life or destruction of property (i.e., natural disaster, active shooter, fire, medical emergency). These plans are absolutely necessary to promote the safety and wellbeing of employees during unexpected or catastrophic events – hence the emphasis on emergency procedures and protocols in employee handbooks, on breakroom signs, and in regular safety drills and training workshops. Each is designed to make sure that employees know what to do, whom to call, and where to go in an emergency.

But what about situations that don’t involve evacuations, fire extinguishers, or ambulances? Executive misconduct. Discrimination. Sexual harassment. Data breach. Bankruptcy. Financial malfeasance. Termination. Litigation. Regulatory investigations. Such highly charged matters can irrevocably damage the health and long-term success of any organization – particularly when the incident is in the headlines for all the world to see.

It’s just as imperative to have a plan to communicate about sensitive matters as it is to have an emergency action plan. How and when you communicate – and what you say when you do – is of paramount importance, especially given 24/7 news coverage and the viral nature of social media. A small situation can quickly – and often unnecessarily – become a full-blown crisis that can negatively impact your organization’s reputation (and bottom line) for years to come.

Without a crisis communications plan, it’s very likely that a critical situation can lead to internal turmoil and/or emotional, hasty decisions, preventing a timely, appropriate response. A pre-approved crisis communications plan will help prevent these common pitfalls by allowing you to respond swiftly and effectively without disrupting day-to-day operations.

 Your crisis communications plan should contain:

  1. Internal processes and protocols – Everyone in your organization should know what can and cannot be said during a crisis, and who can handle internal and external questions.  A lack of process can quickly lead to a devastating loss of control.
  2. A defined crisis communications team – The exact makeup of your team will likely depend on the nature of the crisis and the structure of your organization. Almost all crises should be led by a small group of senior leaders, including legal and communications counsel. The full team must always work together and from the same set of facts to ensure cohesion.
  3. Guidelines for assessing the situation and taking action – The first hours of a breaking crisis require action. Start with reviewing all available information with your crisis communications team, either in a face-to-face meeting or on a conference call. A basic list of assessment questions (What happened? When? Who does it involve? Where did it occur? How many people know about it? What’s the context? How visible is the issue? Are the authorities involved?) will help guide that conversation and assist with the prioritization of next steps.
  4. Audiences of importance – Consider all audiences that should know about the situation – including your internal team. Determine how and when to notify each stakeholder group, keeping in mind that the message must be consistent across all communications.
  5. Core messages, communications tools, and templates – Timely, consistent, concise communications can stem misinformation and speculation – especially with social media. Develop core messages and templates in advance of a crisis to expedite the drafting of media statements, talking points and scripts, FAQs, letters, web content, and social media posts. Don’t overlook the opportunity to incorporate or emphasize important messages (mission, vision, policies and procedures, professional training and education.), if appropriate. And make sure to consider other internal and external news/issues that could impact, or be impacted by, the situation at hand
  6. Likely scenarios and responses strategies – It’s nearly impossible to predict every possible crisis, but certain situations may be possible to anticipate. Take time to consider specific scenarios you could face (or have previously encountered). Your response to these situations can are critical to your reputation and relationships. Don’t wait until an issue happens to figure out how to address it.

Once your crisis communications plan is complete, make sure your team has an opportunity to familiarize itself with the materials and the process. Practice implementing the plan through regular tabletop exercises and crisis communications workshops – these will build internal confidence and ensure your team stands ready to confidently spring into action when an incident occurs.

And it will occur. It’s just a question of when.

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