Essential elements of a crisis communication plan

If you’ve just been communicating by the seat of your pants, waiting for the pandemic to end, take time to codify and clarify your strategy.


We live in uncertain, volatile times.

If you communicate for a living, you have the power—and the responsibility—to shepherd, enlighten, instruct and lead amid chaos or confusion. You are a first responder of sorts, so the onus is on you to be prepared for a crisis, which Jonathan Bernstein describes as “any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.”

Even if your company already has a crisis framework in place–or if COVID-19 has upended previous plans–it’s important to revise, refresh and rehearse regularly. Keep these basics in mind:

1. Pick a format, and get it in writing (or on slides or video).

If you’re starting from scratch, there are templates and examples that can get you going. It doesn’t have to be a Word.doc. Just make sure you choose a format that will resonate with your colleagues and audience. (A paper copy is important as a backup, should the need arise.)

2. Anticipate scenarios, delegate duties, and consider potential risks.

Use your imagination—and common sense. What sorts of crises are most likely to affect your company? Consider possible scenarios, and delegate who would be responsible for what, exactly, should something occur.

Simulate realistic crises the best you can to prepare for the real thing. It’s also wise to “create messaging platforms,” such as landing pages, microsites and pre-approved wording that can address increasingly common issues such as data breaches.

3. Think about your target audiences and the basic resources you’ll need.

In the event of a disaster, ready.gov lists potential audiences you might want to reach:

  • Customers
  • Survivors affected by the incident and their families
  • Employees and their families
  • News media
  • Community—especially neighbors living near the facility
  • Company management, directors and investors
  • Government elected officials, regulators and other authorities
  • Suppliers

Do you have a plan for how you’ll communicate with all your relevant stakeholders? Who would be the point person responsible for reaching each target audience?

As for a checklist of basic communication resources, ready.gov recommends having:

  • Telephones with dedicated or addressable lines for incoming calls and separate lines for outgoing calls
  • Access to any electronic notification system used to inform employees
  • Electronic mail (with access to “info@” inbox and ability to send messages)
  • Fax machine (one for receiving and one for sending)
  • Webmaster access to company website to post updates
  • Access to social media accounts
  • Access to local area network, secure remote server, message template library and printers
  • Hard copies of emergency response, business continuity and crisis communications plan
  • Site and building diagrams, information related to business processes and loss-prevention programs (e.g., safety and health, property loss prevention, physical and information/cyber security, fleet safety, environmental management and product quality)
  • Copiers
  • Forms for documenting events as they unfold
  • Message boards (flipcharts, whiteboards, etc.)
  • Pens, pencils, paper, clipboards and other stationery supplies

4. Establish social media rules and guidelines.

Who holds the keys to your social media vehicles? Who’s their backup in case of an emergency? What sorts of things are your social media managers (not) authorized to say online?

You might not have a deep bench of trusted Tweeters at your disposal like Slack does, but ideally you should have at least a few people trained and equipped to handle social media crisis communication.

This is a crucial channel to convey information, so make sure you have a backup for your backup who can step up if things go haywire.

Crises reveal a communicator’s true colors.  It’s an opportunity for you to shine, lead and encourage your colleagues when they need it most, but you must put in the planning, practice and preparation.

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