Effective Crisis Communication is a Process, not Just a Plan

Are the captains in your company ready for things to blow up?If it is a quiet time for your organization in terms of controversy, if there are no disasters on the horizon, it may be a great time to think through your crisis communications plan and preparedness.

How an organization responds to a crisis – or makes major business announcements  – may depend in some cases on external regulatory guidelines. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission has rules on how publically held corporations must behave. Because of raised concerns about national security, even some local governments follow certain federal protocols in communicating with the public.

No matter what ground rules apply, there are a few basics to think through in creating or updating a crisis response process. Many of these ideas come from CFM’s collective experience, and many are borrowed from Richard S. Levick, internationally recognized for his corporate communications work at Levick Strategic Communications.

Form a team: Create a core team, including the CEO, of five to seven persons empowered to make rapid decisions and execute a plan. The team also should include legal counsel. And, do not forget the importance of employee communications.

Include values statement: As an anchor, your plan should simply state your organization’s values. What are the principles guiding your actions on how you wish to be known, or don’t wish to be known.

Create scenarios: In writing a plan, create several worst-case scenarios. For example, a company in manufacturing should imagine what actions it might be facing during a labor strike, a product recall, consumer boycott, a natural disaster, incidents involving first responders or a major business event such as executive change or a lawsuit. Are all the proposed response tactics the same across the board or are modifications needed?

Train and prepare the team: Take one or two of the scenarios and develop brief key messages. Gather the team together for some serious role play. Videotape several team members delivering the key messages as they are asked questions. In addition to building skills, this media relations experience helps team members to better know each other and bond.

Identify tactical steps: Identify the tools that will be used and think through timelines. Do as much prep work as possible even though you may not know what event may happen.

Determine roles: Identify the spokesperson(s) for the crisis event and determine who on the team or in a support role has key duties to perform.

Make lists:  Make sure your key audience lists are, such as key clients, employees, elected officials and or regulators, as well as the media, are up-to-date,.

Create a checklist: A good checklist summarizing to dos and sequencing helps keep an organization out of trouble during the pressure cooker of a crisis.

Monitor and respond: Make sure the media and the blogosphere is continually monitored and that timely, and credible, responses are offered.

Do the right thing: A good guidepost for all aspects of communications is the book Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public,” by James Hoggan, a senior public relations practitioner.