Key Elements of a Crisis Communication Plan

12.12.2011 | Molly McWhinnie

At the end of every year, media outlets and blogs around the world curate powerful image galleries or compose stories that cause us to pause and reflect back on the year’s top events and headlines. From turmoil in the global economy and tragic natural disasters that hit Japan and Missouri, to global uprisings like the “Arab Spring” and the Occupy Movement, 2011 has been another monumental year.

Recently, Ragan.com featured an article on the “Top 7 PR Disasters of 2011,” recalling the unfortunate missteps and actions of individuals and large corporations that have left reputations tarnished, and propelled PR teams into crisis management in an effort to repair the damage.

While no one ever knows when a crisis is going to happen, this should not delay the development of a crisis communication plan. When a crisis does occur, time is of the essence. It is the actions a company or an individual take within the first 24 hours that sets the tone for how the media and general public will react. By developing your plan now you will be able to react faster and make more effective decisions if and when you are in the midst of a crisis.

What information should you include? Below are some of the key elements, no matter the crisis.

  • Identify Your Crisis Communication Team. First and foremost, it is important to identify the key individuals within your organization who will be part of this core team. These individuals will most likely include your CEO, senior executives across your public relations, legal and human resources departments, and other functionaries depending upon the crisis.

As you form the team, define what each of their roles and responsibilities will be during a crisis, and conduct formal training to practice the decision-making process. We also highly recommend conducting formal media training to ensure your spokespersons are well prepared to speak publically during the crisis.

  • Develop the Response Action Plan. When a potential crisis situation arises, it is important to gather all of the facts as quickly as possible – who, what, when, where, why and how – and confirm the information with reliable sources. Consider developing a checklist of the essential questions you will need to ask to ensure you capture all of the information during a crisis. Next, determine how the core crisis team will be notified at the onset of a potential crisis, and come together quickly to assess the nature and scope of the issue.  

During this stage the team must determine the impact the crisis has on the company and the perceptions it may create among your key influencers. Once identified, the crisis team should develop an action plan that will include the objectives and goals to achieve, what materials to develop, how to notify all of the key stakeholders, and the plan for providing ongoing staff support and communication.

  • Developing Your Key Messages. During this stage the key facts you have gathered and confirmed will be critical. When developing your messaging, it is important that you share only indisputable facts and how your company is dealing with the issue. With proper media training, your spokesperson(s) should have the ability to effectively communicate these key messages, show and speak about them with concern, and respond to the toughest questions. An ill-worded response or speculation only creates more questions.

Since time is critical in a crisis, you should develop prepared statements and press materials in advance where you can quickly insert the key facts you have gathered, and share immediately when knowledge about the crisis becomes widely known. As the crisis evolves, you will need to change your messaging to continually keep your key audiences informed at all times.

  • Leveraging Various Communication Channels. Depending on the crisis and your organization, you will need to determine what communication channels to utilize in order to accurately and swiftly communicate with your key influencers.

For your employees, you will most likely issue an urgent email to the entire company and if possible conduct an all-hands meeting for your spokesperson(s) to share the facts of the situation and how the company is managing it. When working with the media, you may consider issuing a press release or statement, conducting a news conference, facilitating interviews for media to speak with your key spokesperson(s), or any combination of these options.  Another way to communicate to both your internal and external audiences is by creating a dedicated webpage on your company’s website to share the key facts and provide updates during and after the crisis.

If your company has a presence on social media, do not ignore this channel.  It is important to immediately engage with your communities whether they are on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any other social media platform. By sharing the same messaging and key facts with them, your fans and friends can help to amplify your messaging during a crisis. Be sure to monitor conversations closely to identify and dispel any rumors or misinformation as quickly as possible.

These are just a few of the key elements to consider as you begin to develop your crisis communication plan. If you need additional information, there are a number of resources and books on this topic. The Institute for Public Relations provides some strong suggestions and guidance on how to develop a plan and manage a crisis.

If you already have a plan developed, what elements or processes did you consider to be the most important to include and implement?

For more information on crisis communication, please see other posts we have written on this topic:

Molly McWhinnie


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Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, Crisis Communications, EXPERTISE

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