The start of a new year is a perfect moment to dust off your crisis communications plan – or get busy preparing one.
The essence of a crisis communications plan is to anticipate the unexpected. When a crisis occurs, your ability to control events will go out the window. Your time frame for responding will shrivel. Your judgment will be tested.
One of the most underrated benefits of a crisis communications plan exercise is to identify vulnerabilities that you can eliminate or at least mitigate through proactive steps.
Here are our tips on reviewing your crisis communications plan:
- Check your contact lists to update current phone numbers and email addresses and add or subtract people.
- Review your potential crisis scenarios to see if any modifications are needed or new scenarios added because of an emerging vulnerability.
- Don’t overlook competitive threats as the source of a potential crisis.
- Ensure designated crisis team leaders, spokespersons and go-to fact-finders are still in place and prepared.
- Consider a crisis drill to test your organization’s preparedness and revive awareness of the need for a crisis plan.
- Suggest spokespersons undergo a media training refresher course – or receive media training – to sharpen their key message delivery skills under pressure.
- Double-check your media monitoring key words and assess whether you are listening in all the right places.
- Freshen or enhance the content stored away on your ghost website.
- Search your Twitter followers to ensure you have the media and community contacts you would need in the event of a crisis.
For organizations without a crisis communications plan, our best advice is to put one in place as quickly as you can. Get professional help if possible, but don’t procrastinate. Crises have a bad habit of happening without warning and when you least expect them.
Useful crisis plans start with a candid assessment – what we call an issue audit – of all of the potential vulnerabilities facing an organization. Think about what could happen, what might trigger it and how it might affect your organization. That explanation will be the basis for a crisis scenario.
The next step in crisis plan development is to assess the probability and consequence of various scenarios. A crisis scenario that is highly likely to occur and could pose devastating consequences deserves more attention than an unlikely crisis with inconsequential impact.
The crisis plan is built around those higher probability-consequential crisis scenarios. The plan will have elements that apply to all or most scenarios, such as a crisis team leader, an identified situation room and a rapid decision-making crisis team. Each scenario will identify elements that apply specifically to that crisis such as the go-to fact-finder, background information and community contacts.
A crisis involving financial misconduct should trigger different internal resources and external contacts than an environmental spill that threatens a nearby water source or residential neighborhood.
Grabbing a crisis plan template off the internet can give you a picture of how to structure your crisis plan, but don’t use it as basis framework of your plan because it is too generic and lacks the specificity of real scenarios.
We advise skipping the wordsmithing exercise of holding statements. Unless you are clairvoyant, you won’t know exactly how or where a crisis will break. Anything you could dream up to say in advance will probably be off point or so general as to be useless when an actual crisis occurs. A better approach is get your ducks in a row on how you will field calls, how quickly you can get the facts on what happened and get timely management sign-off on how to address the crisis.
In a crisis, actions speak louder than words. A crisis plan should be built on how to respond, not just on what to say.
One final bit of advice. The guiding star for any crisis plan should be an organization’s mission and values. If you say you put customers or patients first, then let that pledge inform and guide your actions. Protecting your reputation in a crisis depends on the actions you take that reflect the reputation you want to maintain.