I wanted to expand on a recent blog post about creating a crisis communications plan. There are many details you have to worry about when building out an effective crisis plan, but the framework for an effective crisis communications blueprint is the same, no matter what your market. Here are some of the basics you should keep in mind:
- Understand how to define a crisis. A communications crisis is any event that could adversely affect your organization’s reputation, integrity, brand, and ultimately your business. Remember that to be considered a crisis, there has to be a victim; someone who is directly affected and harmed, whether that person is a customer, employee, stockholder, or some other entity such as a special interest group, the community or the environment.
- Know the common elements of a crisis. Every crisis is a surprise. If you can see the train wreck coming then you should be able to prepare and control the message, so there is no crisis. There also needs to be an imminent threat; an element of danger or risk to employees, customers, the environment, somebody. And there needs to be a need for a short response time.
- Set goals to handle the crisis in advance. Of course, our primary goal is to protect the reputation of the organization. Beyond that you need to assess additional goals, whether it is to protect employees and their families, serve the needs of the public, protect key stakeholders, or some combination of multiple goals. You need to be clear about your objectives before you can formulate an effective game plan.
- Form a crisis team. Have your crisis management team (not necessarily your spokespersons) tapped in advance and create a master call sheet and a plan to make sure you can rally the troops quickly.
- Prepare your spokespersons. Once you have your goals and your messaging, you can prepare your spokespersons. Effective preparation extends beyond the immediate crisis. Most companies make sure their corporate spokespersons go through intense media training so they know how to deal effectively with the press in the event of a crisis. Practice promotes perfection and it keeps your team cool and controlled under pressure.
- Have background material ready. Make sure your fact sheets and executive biographies are up to date, and you have information you can hand out to the press to help them get their facts straight.
- Manage the crisis. This includes managing uncertainty first through quick and definitive outreach to all the parties affected, including the press. Then you can respond and resolve the situation, including setting compensation and memorializing the event so the victims can feel they have been honored and their needs met.
- Close the books. During the crisis you should maintain a communications log of all calls and e-mail communications with reporters. When the smoke clears, go back and make sure you have successfully closed each open issue in the log. Also be sure to perform a post-crisis analysis – Why did the crisis occur? Could it have been prevented? Was it handled properly? How did the spokespersons do? What would you do differently next time? Take this information and refine your plan to prepare for the next crisis.
These are just some of the myriad of things to consider when developing your crisis communications strategy. And there’s lots of great material available online to help you refine your crisis plan. One of the most useful I found was a written by Sandra K Lawson Freeo at Newsplace.org. The PRSA and other groups have additional ideas. We’ll be fleshing out components of the crisis communications plan in future posts but in the meantime, be prepared!