Crisis Communications. Issues Management.
Crisis Communications. Issues Management.

It’s the time of year we make resolutions.  Perhaps one of yours will be to get your organization ready to communicate effectively in a crisis.

If you don’t have a crisis communications plan already, now’s the time to craft one.  A good place to start the process is with the person or department responsible, such as your corporate communications group.  If you don’t have the capability in-house, look for an experienced consultant in the field.  Your crisis communications plan should mirror and support your organization’s strategic plan, business plan and overall vision, so don’t rely on something you found on the Internet. You need a customized crisis communications plan that fits your organization precisely.

Your plan must address these overarching principles for crisis communications management:

  • Quick and thoughtful response
  • Demonstrated concern for those affected
  • Authorized spokespersons available; inquiries welcome
  • Approved information regularly, broadly and frequently released
  • Media monitoring systems in place

Your company’s crisis communications plan must identify the people responsible for handling a challenging situation.  Keep an up-to-date list of home, work and mobile phone numbers as well as email addresses.  If your organization has the bench strength, create two teams of ‘first responders’ to cover the inevitable unavailability of one or more members of the ‘A’ team.  Make sure everyone knows where –and to whom — to turn in a crisis.

The crisis communications plan should also provide some templates such as holding statements for your spokesperson and draft comments for customer service staff to use.  The format and standard wording should be basic and brief; able to be quickly augmented and edited when needed and easily posted to all your media channels including your website, social media platforms, intranet or emails to employees.

Even with a small staff, at a minimum identify who will be in charge of the response team, who will keep the rest of the staff informed, who will liaise with the media, who will inform industry regulators and who will work with police, firefighters and stakeholders such as local government.  In drafting your plan, take the time to think carefully about all the players who may be involved in a crisis for your organization.  For example, if there is a fire at your plant over the weekend, who will respond and what support will they need?

An emergency event, like a fire or earthquake, requires immediate response with the priority being to preserve health and safety.  However, if your crisis du jour is the discovery your email system was hacked and confidential customer information compromised, your first call is not going to be to the fire department.  So your contact lists need to include legal counsel, social and traditional media outlets, relevant local, regional and national government, regulatory agencies, community organizations, neighbours and of course, your own employees.

An important part of creating your crisis communications plan is early brainstorming about the types of crises an organization like yours is most likely to face.  There is almost always an element of surprise (that’s what makes it a crisis), but when you and your team take time to list the ‘what if’s’ you will make great strides toward knowing how to respond when something does hit the fan.

Finally, review your crisis communications plan at least annually.  After the dust has settled on a crisis, take the time to review how the plan worked.  What went well, what could have gone better?  Did the plan anticipate the communication demands?  Monitor and review the media response and do a candid assessment of any reputational damage.  Sometimes it’s blindingly obvious; for example, a plummeting share price, scathing editorial opinions across the board and a social media storm. Don’t forget to check in with employees to see how they think the organization fared.  Make the necessary changes, give credit where due and provide support where it’s needed.  Then update your crisis communications plan, refresh those contact lists, reinforce your media monitoring and get all your systems ready for the next time.  There will be a next time.