How to Create a Communications Plan for Your Next Crisis

Shana Harris

Not so long ago, word-of-mouth and media coverage used to be the common channels to communicate during a business crisis. With the explosion of digital technologies and social media as essential business communications channels, expectations have changed.

Today, customers and stakeholders alike expect transparency and immediate responses — snail mail and phone calls to reporters simply doesn’t cut it in a world dominated by Google, Twitter and Facebook. Information – whether positive or negative — spreads faster than companies can create and disseminate it. In a crisis situation, it’s important for companies to be proactive and prepared for when a real crisis occurs.

Best Practices in Handling a Crisis

Emotions invariably play a central role in any crisis event – and fear is often what is behind every crisis. In these situations, fear is like kindling: all it does is feed the fire of a crisis situation.

While crisis events can be tense and emotional times, it’s essential to remember to address the issue head on (to the extent you can legally) and resist the temptation to avoid it whenever possible. Remember to show your emotions and be sincere – your audience will be more likely to empathize with you and appropriate displays of emotion will humanize your business.

As soon as you are aware of the situation, be transparent about what’s happening with your key stakeholders. Provide a schedule of what will happen and give them the opportunity to receive updates (website, social media, email, etc.). Clearly communicate what you are doing to resolve the issue, the steps you are taking, who else is involved, what outside organizations you are partnering with to resolve the situation, etc.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Having a strong offense is the best way to prepare for any crisis. How do you prepare?

  • Build a strong brand reputation
  • Make sure you actively communicate with your significant audiences on a regular basis so you have a strong track record of engaging with them
  • Be a good corporate citizen and build strong relationships with key constituents
  • Don’t wait for a crisis situation to be the first time you communicate with important audiences

Identifying a Crisis Situation

It’s important to be able to identify when something is a crisis and when it is not. Know the different phases of a crisis and how to respond in each phase. People can actually make things worse when responding to something when it is not a “real crisis”. One of the best ways to start is by color coding or creating levels, which provide a shared vocabulary for your entire team to communicate the severity of the situation and direct an appropriate response.

Level 1 Crisis
Not a crisis yet, but requires continuous, careful monitoring to ensure that it does not become one.

Level 2 Crisis
The situation has escalated, but only directly impacts a small audience. In this situation, your priority should be to quickly communicate with the effected group(s) to resolve the situation.

Level 3 Crisis
Represents a full-blown crisis that impacts a large group of customers has the potential to severely damage the company’s reputation and standing in the market. There is an immediate need to initiate the company’s crisis plan.

Create a Response Plan

It’s important to have a crisis team in place before you are in an actual crisis situation. Identify who needs to be part of the team and make them aware of this additional role and your expectations of them if and when their participation in the crisis team is necessary. Some key questions to ask yourself as you assemble a crisis team:

  • How do you identify key members?
  • What departments need to be involved in making decisions?
  • Who are the key people that can help communicate to key audiences?
  • Who is the spokesperson?
  • Are they media trained?

In most situations, the crisis team is composed of individuals from the C-Suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CCO, CMO, etc.), along with select individuals from the marketing/PR team, legal team and investor relations/Board of Directors. Depending on your business and industry, you may want to include individuals from other departments, such as sales, product, operations, R&D or HR. Regardless of who you choose to include on your crisis team, the most important thing is to involve them before a crisis strikes.

During a crisis situation, it is more important than ever to bring your “A” game. You want to make sure you deliver a consistent message time and time again, with similar messaging for internal and external audiences. If you put out different messages, it can negatively impact your credibility and raise suspicions.

Once you have your messages, make sure to identify who needs to receive it: who are your key audiences? What medium(s) will you use for the communication (written, in-person, video, etc.)? Is it multi-lingual? It’s important to answer these questions before a crisis strikes and include them as part of a clear and concise response plan. Remember to document your internal and external audiences, as well as the optimal channels to reach them. When a crisis situation strikes, quickly respond using the above tactics and your selected communication channel(s).

Create a Positive Brand Experience

While crisis situations are incredibly stressful and difficult times, they also provide an incredible opportunity to connect with your target audiences in a brand-centric way. Your target audience wants to hear from you and the way you handle the situation will play a major role in determining how you come out of it.

Key Takeaways

Make sure to have a monitoring system to check for potential crisis issues, along with a system in place to identify risk level and how to best respond

Have a team in place with the right people who can quickly make decisions on how to address a situation

Make sure you are transparent and share information throughout a crisis

Update key constituents on a regular basis—even if there is not a substantial update

Create brand messages that you can incorporate into your messaging during a crisis