How crisis comms fits into the business continuity plan

When crisis strikes, communicators are responsible for being connectors and helping to keep stakeholders in the loop about response actions. That means becoming a planner.

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For many communicators around the country, the business continuity plan has been activated in the face of COVID-19.

A business continuity plan charts how an organization will respond to a major crisis like a natural disaster—or a global pandemic that is shuttering business operations.

Ready.gov offers a basic outline of what a plan could contain:

Image courtesy of Ready.gov.

For communicators in a crisis, it’s essential to know how your role fits into this plan and to be able to direct media inquiries and internal questions to the proper departments.

That doesn’t mean that you should run the plan, but it should mean you are familiar with it.

Rebeca Mueller, VP for digital strategy at Porter Novelli, explains it this way: “The business continuity plan is not led by the comms team. It’s usually led by a risk officer or some other trained person that is going to look at all of the operations and logistics. Then, everything in comms fits into that.”

She shared takeaways on the COVID-19 crisis with attendees at Ragan’s Social Media Conference at Walt Disney World, presenting them alongside Caitlin Angeloff, social strategy director for Providence St. Joseph Health.

Mueller says every department or team within your organization that might be affected by a disaster should contribute to the plan; then the plan should be tested with a tabletop dry run once or twice a year. For communicators, these tests are essential to figuring out key personnel to turn to for information.

Mueller also stresses that you should bring multiple people into this crisis training so that when a crisis hits, leaders can work in shifts instead of having one person work 24/7.

“Bring multiple people to that training, because then you leave with a plan that’s been tested and then revised and tested again,” she adds. “Then you have a hard copy at your desk at work. You have a hard copy at home, because (God forbid) you’re at home and something happens in the middle of the night and you can’t go into the building.”

The continuity plan should then have clearly identified triggers, like the governor of the state declaring a state of emergency.

How communications fits

Angeloff adds that your communications plan within your business continuity plan should have layers as well.

“They’re all nested together like Russian dolls,” she says. “For example, within the communications plan is the social crisis plan … and so this large continuity plan has plans coming off it, and then there are usually plans within those plans.”

This nesting is crucial for making sure a large crisis response apparatus is working cohesively instead of at odds with itself. “You can begin to see our ecosystem, right?” says Angeloff. “We must work together and stay coordinated.”

Part of that coordination is ensuring that everyone knows what the primary mode of communication is and where important information is housed.

“There’s so many different ways people can communicate nowadays that it’s essential that you tell everyone what the de facto communication is going to be,” she says.

For example, Angeloff says her group uses both Microsoft Teams and the app Social Chorus for internal communications. They use both tools to reach out to employees, but they make sure messages drive traffic to the designated hub where important documents live.

“You have to know where it lives,” she says, “but then you can’t say, ‘I put it on the thing; why didn’t you check the thing?’” Just as with any other audience, you as a communicator have to be ready to meet them where they are.

“You have to look at all of the ways that you can communicate internally and externally from a publishing standpoint,” Angeloff says. “It’s all content, but you have to think through the purpose of the content and about where that content is going to reside.”

Lessons from COVID-19

Both Mueller and Angeloff point to takeaways for communicators.

“I’m being reminded the importance of collaboration,” says Angeloff. “I think sometimes we feel like we have to know everything and solve for everything, when in fact you need to lean on the experts.”

One example involves turning to social listening experts who know the ins and outs of a particular platform. (Her team uses Sprinklr.) “I could try to build a listening topic on Sprinklr,” she says, “but [my team] are the experts, so I raised my hand and said, ‘I need you right now.’”

She emphasizes that asking for help is not a sign of your weakness or vulnerability but rather a commitment to excellence in the face of high stakes. “It’s not that I can’t do this or I won’t do this,” she says. “I need you as the expert to make sure that this is the best listening topic because we need the best information.”

Mueller echoes Angeloff’s point, adding that a major takeaway should be that we aren’t alone.

The importance of practicing for a crisis

“I think people are going to quickly learn that it’s been a while since their business continuity plan has been looked at or it’s been a while since they’ve done a drill,” says Angeloff. She hopes many will take this crisis as a learning moment.

Mueller agrees. “My hope is that if this is the first time that you’ve heard the word business continuity plan, you’re going to go back to your company and ask who’s responsible for this, and where is it exactly, and how can I pull my plan into that?”

She adds that this isn’t the kind of thing that gets taught in school, so communicators should seek out further information or training to hone their crisis skills. Some resources? Conferences (virtually for now) and information available on government websites such as Ready.gov.

Angeloff says that amid a crisis, communicators should take the time to provide a thoughtful response.

“As humans, it’s in our nature to just react,” she says. “We need to use our brain. We need to breathe and think through this and respond, not react.” She acknowledges that time matters in a crisis, but she suggests that you might have more time than you think.

“In an emergency, people think they don’t have time,” she says, “but actually it takes more time to correct misinformation. If you put something out there that is not factually correct, it’s very hard to call it back.”

The last bit of preparation advice? Know the players. “There are going to be situations during a crisis when you say, ‘Oh, I need to go talk to the lead of the IT team,’ or, ‘Oh, I need to talk to the lead of logistics,’” she says. By knowing those players, as well as their responsibilities within your crisis plan, you can be much better prepared for a rapid—and accurate—response.

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