10 steps for building your crisis communications plan

In today’s lightning-fast social media environment, a proactive approach is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Follow these protocols for snuffing out the sparks of controversy.


Social media has changed crisis communication.

Victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma used social media to communicate with first responders, discover where gas was available and follow emergency updates. This month, The Wall Street Journal outlined dozens of ways social sites and apps are used during a crisis.

For brand managers, however, this rapid-response, multi-channel communication grid can produce scary challenges: A situation that once took weeks to unfold can now grow into a firestorm in a matter of hours. Getting approved responses and researching a situation takes time and is often delivered too late.

However, with careful planning and structure, you can put together an effective crisis communications plan that allows you to move quickly and avoid common pitfalls.

Here are 10 steps for building an effective crisis communications plan:

  1. Watch and listen to trends. It is vitally important to use media and social monitoring tools and set up regular alerts so you know immediately when news hits and a crisis bubbles to the surface. Think of your monitoring tools as an early warning system.
  2. Identify who is responsible for listening and when. Are you covered on weekends and off hours? Notifications from monitoring and measurement tools can help you with 24/7 coverage. Establish an escalation protocol. Once a PR manager or social media manager identifies a potential crisis, it is important to know the next steps to take. Map out what is and isn’t a crisis, who needs to be alerted and who should respond.
  3. Acknowledge the situation. It is tempting to “go dark” while you investigate a crisis, but those many will be checking your site and looking for your response. It is important to acknowledge the situation and say, “We are aware…” even if you don’t have an official response to the situation. Promise that a response is coming.
  4. If necessary, apologize. This is the scary one. Apologizing in a time of crisis can lead to legal concerns. If you are nervous about whether you can apologize, at least say “I’m sorry for the emotional duress that has ensued.” Check out how Boingo CEO Dave Hagan quickly addressed an email campaign error on the Boingo blog with an apology, defusing the situation before it became a crisis.
  5. Create a hub. Whether it’s your blog, your LinkedIn page, a landing page on your website or a pre-prepared dark site, consumers look to you to deliver the truth. Have a hub where people can find official responses and information. Otherwise, consumers will turn to other sources (which could be inaccurate) for information.
  6. If consumers are angry, create a place to vent. Whether it’s on one of your social handles, on your landing site or on your blog, providing a place to vent can control the situation and allow you to have a voice in responding. During the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State issued an apology on its Facebook page and provided a place for people to share their thoughts, giving Penn State the opportunity to respond:

    Crisis Communications Penn State Screenshot

  7. Take your third-reply offline. In crises, conversations can continue as you respond to articles and social posts, and people begin replying. To avoid seeing the crisis escalate, you should take the conversation offline after two responses. Know how you will take conversations offline. Will you reach out via email or phone? Who will respond?
  8. Empower your employees and advocates. In times of crisis, people will reach out to your employees, influencers and advocates. Arm your people with information and let them know when to defer to others. Dell has trained over 10,000 employees on social media through its Technology Solutions Training Portal. Preparing your employees well in advance can help you share information and avoid rogue responses during a crisis.
  9. Track results and establish takeaways. Using your media monitoring and analysis tools, track metrics in real time and report on progress. After a crisis has passed, ask yourself, how did we do? What can be done differently in the future?
  10. Iterate and adjust. Rarely does an organization handle every aspect of a crisis perfectly. Once you have established takeaways, adjust your protocols and measurements for the future.

Judy Luk-Smit is AirPR’s VP of product. A version of this post first appeared on AirPR.

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