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How to Implement a Crisis Communication Plan

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While many organizations have already transitioned into the recovery phase in the aftermath of the devastating coronavirus, some businesses are taking steps to implement a more structured crisis communication plan.

With some experts speculating that there is a strong possibility of a second wave, core crisis management planning is still a priority for many organizations around the world. 

What Is a Crisis Communication Plan?

Essentially, a crisis communication plan is a prepared set of guidelines and protocols used when sharing information about an emergency situation. 

According to the Universal Accreditation Board for public relations professionals, these emergency situations can be categorized in three ways: 

  1. Immediate — Crises such as natural disasters or sudden or other unforeseen situations that result in some sort of calamity.  
  2. Emerging — Crises that can be anticipated and addressed early in their development to minimize their impact.
  3. Sustained —  Crises involving issues that may linger for years and require long term interventions.

A functional crisis communication plan not only details what to do but how and when to communicate critical knowledge to your organization’s stakeholders, employees, and the public. Underlying all this, of course, is why it’s necessary to have such a plan in the first place. 

A crisis communication plan should enable your organization to share necessary, credible information in the midst of a worst-case scenario. A clear crisis communications plan is one of the cornerstones of a comprehensive crisis communications strategy

Crisis Communication Examples

A textbook study of a well-managed crisis communication effort occurred nearly 30 years ago when international beverage brand PepsiCo, Inc. endured and eventually triumphed over a public relations nightmare. 

In 1993, a syringe was allegedly discovered inside a can of Diet Pepsi by a consumer in Washington state. Soon, 50 more reports of similar product tampering hit the press. The news would have been devastating to the brand were it not for the fact that it was a hoax.

Working with the Food and Drug Administration, PepsiCo was able to prove the stories were fabricated. With the lethal Tylenol poisonings of the ‘80s still recent in public memory, and so-called “Cola Wars” reaching a fever pitch, the hoax was a public relations nightmare for the brand. 

To win back a squeamish public and bolster consumer confidence that their products were safe, PepsiCo produced a series of four videos that showed the beverage’s canning process. Moreover, then-CEO Craig Weatherup made appearances on news channels with reams of evidence refuting the fraudulent reports. Sales of Pepsi only dipped 2% and the brand’s reputation soon rebounded. 

The takeaway from these crisis communication examples? Public perception, though often volatile and driven by emotion, will also respond to transparency and sincere attempts to do right by an organization’s stakeholders. A proactive, aggressive defense based on facts can also mitigate negative public perception in the midst of a crisis.

“The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad. It’s preventing the bad from getting worse.”

– Andy Gilman, CommCore Consulting Group

5 Reasons to Have a Crisis Communication Plan

At the root of every crisis communication plan is an attempt to meaningfully direct the narrative towards a positive outcome. Your organization may not be able to control the aftermath of an unforeseen crisis, but it can contribute to the story surrounding the crisis. Doing so can help mitigate the extent of the damage to your organization and its stakeholders. 

There are many reasons why a crisis communication plan is an essential part of your company’s overall crisis management strategy

Here are our top five reasons to implement a dedicated crisis communication plan: 

  1. Stakeholders have both a need and right to know what is happening.
  2. Public perception forms quickly and there is only a brief window to meaningfully shape the narrative.
  3. A clear communications strategy conveys healthy organizational leadership which increases stakeholder confidence in your team’s ability to manage the situation.
  4. Reputational damage can snowball into financial damage, which can be mitigated with an effective internal communications strategy.
  5. Given the nature of some crises, there is the risk that a company may appear incompetent, criminally negligent, or intentionally obscuring the facts if communications aren’t swift and forthright.

When deploying any communications strategy, ethical considerations are paramount. As always, honesty is the best policy. This is also true for transparency. Sometimes, however, there are circumstances involving privacy or trade secrets that need to be factored into the crisis communication equation. 

This is among the many reasons why a plan should be in place prior to a crisis — your team should know both what and what not to say. 

Another question to ask yourself is, who’s going to say it?

Choosing Your Chief Communicator 

In the event of a crisis, it’s reasonable to assume that someone from leadership or upper management will be your primary spokesperson. After all, they’re often tasked with speaking on behalf of the company to internal stakeholders and the public. 

However, not all executives are built for public speaking. Given the nature of your organization’s particular crisis, they may not be the most appropriate choice (particularly if they’re somehow culpable or involved in the crisis). 

What to Look for in a Company Spokesperson

Many organizations outsource their crisis communications needs to specialty firms, but if you’re interested in handling your crisis communications in-house, consider choosing someone from the marketing or communications team who has a proven facility for interfacing with a range of people and can affect an aura of gravitas — someone who can instinctively appeal to customers, partners, media, and the public in general.

When choosing your chief communicator, it’s important to make sure they reflect the values of the audience to whom they will be speaking. If this crucial aspect of a crisis communication plan is overlooked, your organization could be accused of being tone-deaf. This is often the result of a company not being aligned with the group that they are addressing. 

The old saying, “don’t shoot the messenger” is quickly thrown out the window when an organization sends the wrong messenger as the bearer of bad news. Choose your spokesperson wisely, and make sure they are prepared to take on the task. Media training and other communications coaching is usually a good idea. A skilled communicator who is culturally competent and has a well thought out crisis communications plan in hand can do wonders for your organization in times of distress.

Chip Heath, author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, recommends,

“To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey?’ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’” 

It’s a good idea to offer your spokesperson a roadmap like a crisis communication plan PDF to help drive the conversation in a way that’s productive and open. Moreover, it should anticipate and encourage a variety of questions that can be answered as conclusively as possible.

Audience Participation

Make sure you understand and appreciate the needs of the audiences that your organization will be communicating with in the aftermath of a crisis.

First, identify your audiences and determine what type of messaging they respond to. Craft your crisis communications plan accordingly. 

For example, the families of your employees will be concerned about the welfare of their loved ones. Shareholders without a personal relationship in the company may be concerned about the organization’s financial well-being. 

Your audiences may include one or more of the following groups:

  • Customers and clients, vendors, and partners.
  • Company stakeholders including directors, all levels of management, investors, employees, and their respective families.
  • Survivors of the crisis who were personally impacted by the incident as well as their families.
  • The local community including those within your organization’s immediate neighborhood, city, county, and region.
  • Elected government officials, relevant regulators, and law enforcement.
  • News media including local, regional, and national outlets.

Delivering the Right Message at the Right Time

It’s also important to make sure your message is consistent. Naturally, this means knowing what that message is and communicating it through your channels in a manner that maintains its integrity. Keep in mind that each channel, be it traditional media, social media, direct emails, etc., might reach a different audience

How you shape and present your message within different media will shape how it’s received. As the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said: “The medium is the message.” 

When making public statements in the midst of a crisis, your choice of medium will influence how the message itself is received. For example, using what is generally regarded as a fun, video-centric medium like TikTok (largely the domain of teens who use it for humorous self-expression) to announce a recent cyber attack to your shareholders might suggest that your organization is not taking the issue seriously. Or worse, it could look like you’re trying to bury the story.

When you’re in the middle of managing a crisis, maintaining a clear mode of communication might seem almost impossible. 

There are three simple guidelines to keep in mind. 

  1. Gather the facts. 
  2. Evaluate and understand the implications of your organization’s particular situation. 
  3. Consistently provide accurate information to all parties concerned.

Start with Holding Statements

Almost everyone has been in the unfortunate position of receiving bad news and finding themselves literally at loss for words. A good crisis communication plan should account for this very human response through a well-crafted holding statement.

Holding statements are prepared responses. They are often intended for use in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. They serve to address the events at hand and indicate to stakeholders that the channels of communication are open and operating. 

Holding statements aren’t merely public relations bandaids, they’re an opportunity to share available information while efforts are underway to obtain a more complete account of the facts surrounding the crisis. 

A holding statement should demonstrate a sense of empathy while releasing relevant factual details of a crisis. As with all communications during a crisis, holding statements should be framed in a manner that is accessible, compassionate, and informative.

While your company’s holding statements will differ depending on the nature of the crisis, there are three main components to keep in mind.  

  1. Your organization should clearly and plainly present the known facts of the event. If possible, provide a timeline of the event and outline who has been impacted and present factual data. 
  2. Explain how your organization intends to address and recover from the crisis in both the short and long term future. Consider having all statements about possible resolutions and outcomes reviewed by your organization’s legal team before committing to them in public.
  3. When necessary, express condolences and evoke a humanizing tone. An organization, after all, is comprised of people and its incumbent upon the crisis management team to prioritize humanity above all else. Moreover, this will help maintain goodwill with the public and ease future recovery efforts.

As Youngstown State University’s crisis communication plan reminds us:

“It is crucial in a crisis to tell it all, tell it fast, and tell the truth.”

Know Your Channels

Among the pre-crisis “essentials” an organization should establish early on is a notification system to assist in rapid outreach to stakeholders, employees, and company leadership. 

Conduct an audit of all of your organization’s available communication channels.

These may include:

  • Phone lists 
  • Email blasts 
  • Text messages 
  • Video conferencing platforms, and 
  • Social media 
  • Your digital workplace

Make sure that your crisis management team has access to all communication channels and accounts, and that all modes of contact for your team are up to date.

Always Be Listening

“When it comes to crisis communications, if you always focus on building a relationship with your customers, fans, and followers, you will always find yourself communicating in the right direction.”

– Melissa Agnes, President, and Co-Founder of Agnes + Day Inc.

One of the keys to effective communication is appreciating the fact that it’s two-way. This is where the concept of “monitoring” comes into play. Throughout the duration of a crisis event, stay informed of both the complementary and counter-narratives surrounding your crisis communications to gauge how they are being received. 

Read social media posts. Engage with your stakeholders, and track media coverage by setting up Google Alerts for your company. By following your organization’s story, you can see, often in real-time, the effectiveness of your messaging and identify points of improvement. 

Corporate communication is no longer a one-way, set-it-and-forget-it endeavor. It’s a conversation, and in order for your organization to participate it needs to be able to listen

Since most crises are sudden and arrive without warning, having a crisis communication plan at the ready is the only surefire way to guarantee your organization isn’t caught off-guard and is prepared to face any issue.

In need of a solid crisis communication plan PDF — who isn’t? Download our Crisis Communications Checklist here.