How to Create a Crisis Communications Plan

As a crisis communications professional, I have often heard the following question from company leaders – how do we plan for a crisis? This might seem like a strange question, because aren’t crises, by nature, unplanned?

Not really. By definition, a crisis for an organization is any event that can have significant, negative effects on the company, its employees, customers or shareholders. Negative effects may include damage to a brand’s reputation, financial performance or its overall ability to operate. While these crises sometimes happen out of the blue, you would be surprised how many of those events are foreseeable.

Either way, no one wants to plan for a crisis. It can take a tremendous amount of work and man hours, and most people don’t even know where to start.

There are two basic steps in the process: Crisis Planning and Scenario Planning.

Step 1: Crisis Planning

There’s a saying in this business — good crisis communications are 90 percent planning and practice, and 10 percent execution.

So naturally, the first step is to create an overall crisis communications plan. This will enable you to know who to talk to and what to say immediately after a crisis occurs. To create your plan, you need to:

  • Identify your crisis team, including key spokespeople.
  • Identify the most likely negative situations that could arise. You won’t be able to come up with all of them, so start with the top five to 10.
  • Identify the target audiences you will have to communicate with during and after a crisis. These may differ according to the crisis event.
  • Write out the top three to five key messages you will use with each audience in responding to the situations outlined.
  • Identify all of the communications vehicles you have at your disposal.

With this information, you will be able to react quickly and effectively as situations arise.

Step 2: Scenario Planning

Gather your crisis team in a room for the day and review your top ten “scary scenarios.” Walk through and decide how you will react and respond to each scenario, who you are communicating with and in what order. Your goal for the day is to not only identify issues, but to set up a process that will work for most, if not all of them.

Crisis Communications Best Practices

There are some important steps that should be taken as soon as a crisis situation is identified. Here’s my tried-and-true list of crisis communications best practices:

  • The first 24 hours of any crisis are critical. Your public, the media, your employees and your friends are forming an opinion about you, your company and how much you care about their concerns.
  • Respond to any immediate issues or threats to your staff, operations or facilities. If emergency officials are involved, identify which member of your team will coordinate with them.
  • Verify the details surrounding the crisis and get as much information as you can – What happened? When did it happen? Who was affected?
  • Identify your communications leader and team members who can support the people who were negatively impacted.
  • Call the team together and decide on your initial response to the situation. It’s a good idea at this point to set a schedule for updates to media or the public. This includes setting up a communications protocol so everyone knows who is in charge and who will be the spokesperson. It’s critical to speak with one voice at this point.
  • Identify your key audiences and distribute communications to each of them. This should be a very short message with critical details, how you are responding and the update schedule.

A Little More To It

There are a lot more details that go into a solid crisis plan, but taking these basic steps can help get you started. Give yourself the peace of mind that comes by creating your crisis communications plan now.