What is a crisis communication plan?
Plan now or forever hold your (chaos)!
Almost every organization has an emergency action plan that outlines how to manage situations that could result in loss of life or destruction of property (i.e., natural disaster, active shooter, fire, medical emergency). These plans are essential during unexpected or catastrophic events – employees must know what to do, whom to call, and where to go in an emergency.
But it’s just as imperative for organizations to have internal crisis communications processes and scenario-specific communications plans to ensure an immediate, coordinated, and strategic response. The aim is to mitigate – or at least stem – negative repercussions and neutralize short- and long-term risk by responding in a timely, accurate, and appropriate manner.
This is particularly important given 24/7 news coverage and the viral nature of social media. Without a plan for communicating about an incident, a small problem can quickly – and often unnecessarily – become a full-blown crisis that could negatively impact your organization’s health, reputation, and bottom line for years.
Why are crisis communication plans important?
A pre-approved crisis communications plan helps curtail internal turmoil, emotional responses, and rushed decisions. It also brings structure to your approach, facilitates action, and expedites response time, bringing order to an event that is often more chaotic when fueled by inaccurate information or speculation and rumor.
How to create a crisis communication plan
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, but almost all crises will be led by a small group of senior leaders, including legal and communications counsel. The team must always work together and from the same set of facts to prevent unnecessary confusion.
3. Guidelines for assessing the situation and taking action
Start with reviewing the facts with your crisis communications team, either in a face-to-face meeting or on a conference/Zoom call. A basic list of high-level assessment questions will help guide that conversation and assist with prioritizing of next steps.
4. Audiences of importance
Identify the critical stakeholders who should know about the situation – and don’t forget your internal team. Determine how and when to notify each group, keeping in mind that the message must be consistent across all communications.
5. Core messages, communications tools, and templates
Every issue/event requires a tailored response, but developing core messages and templates in advance of a crisis will help expedite the drafting of media statements, talking points and scripts, FAQs, letters, web content, and social media posts. Don’t forget to incorporate or emphasize important messages (mission, vision, policies and procedures, professional training, and education), as appropriate.
6. Possible spokesperson
It is important to consider the type and visibility of the issue when choosing the spokesperson – certain people and job titles/functions will be more appropriate than others. The president of a company or legal counsel should serve as the spokesperson only when it is deemed necessary; their involvement will immediately elevate the situation, and not always in a helpful way.
Don’t watch and wait – predict and plan with a crisis communication plan
It is nearly impossible to predict every possible crisis and response strategy – not many businesses had “pandemic” in their crisis management plans before 2020 – but certain situations may be possible to anticipate and plan for. Taking time now to consider specific scenarios you could face (or have previously encountered) as part of your crisis communications planning will make up for the time you don’t have when the situation does occur. Don’t wait until an issue happens to figure out how to address it.