4 ways to ensure your crisis communications plan isn’t derailed

For many business leaders, a crisis communications plan can feel vague or theoretical - until an actual crisis comes crashing through the door.

As professional communicators, our work involves anticipating and planning for the worst to happen – and mapping out how our organizations will communicate their way through that crisis. We’re all-too-aware that when a crisis does eventually hit you and your organization, those disruptive, painful, and sometimes dangerous situations can trip up even the best-laid plans.

Developing a sound crisis communications plan is a tool all organizations need to have in place. But drafting it is just the first step. The following are some helpful tips to ensure your crisis response stays on the rails.

How to keep your crisis communication plan on track

Move fast, but keep your wits about you

Every communications expert will tell you that in a time of crisis, speed is everything. And they’re mostly right. No question, getting your message out as quickly as possible helps you better manage a crisis.  

But once that crisis hits, you’ll be moving at the speed of real-time events – and that means you can be prone to hasty decisions that can knock you off course.

When stress levels are high, it’s easy to become reactive. Remember to breathe and give events and activities the time they need. When a media outlet calls you, carve out whatever time you can to review your key messages, find a quiet spot, and gather your thoughts. It’s tempting to allow a crisis to move you from pressure point to pressure point, but remember your role is to provide accurate and timely information. If a news outlet is calling for an update, check-in with your team to see if there’s anything new to report (or correct). Double-check your facts, update your messages, take that breath, and then return that phone call or send that tweet.

Practice makes perfect

Airports take great care to ensure that if a disaster happens, their various teams and partner agencies are prepared to respond. Running through a real-world practice, with real people and scenarios, helps expose weak links in operations, roles, and technology. It gives planners the opportunity to see what works and what needs adjusting.

And if that example doesn’t sound like it applies to your world, just think about your favourite pro sports team. Every week, usually the day before a game, football teams take to the field and physically walk through their playbook, ensuring every teammate understands their role, no matter what scenario or stage of the game they’re in. 

Your crisis communications planning should employ this approach. A plan might look solid on paper, but if it sits in a binder and gathers dust, what happens when your nightmare scenario explodes, and you’ve got to roll out your plan in real-time? Do your latest new hires understand their roles? Has your plan considered incorporating the latest tools and technology (some institutions employ the use of messaging apps to manage employee communications in the event of an emergency, though you’ll want to consider privacy issues and whether they can be deployed on phones and tablets)?

Make your response team part of a regular review session. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Grab a meeting room and run a tabletop exercise where you bring together your team to walk through the steps and processes involved in a crisis response.

Know when to stick to your plan – and when to throw it out and start over

Not too long ago, a colleague shared a story about his efforts to help an organization with its crisis communications planning. He spent months consulting experts to prepare his company on how best to respond. Then, literally weeks after the company approved his plan, disaster struck, hitting the province with a catastrophe of epic proportions.

About a day or so into the event, my colleague realized he had to throw out a good chunk of the plan and start over. In essence, the scale of the disaster swamped all of the insight and expert opinion that informed his crisis communications plan.

This doesn’t mean you don’t draft the plan, or abandon it at the first sight of concern. But it’s a handy reminder that being adaptable to the reality of events after a crisis hits means you may need to rethink elements of your plan and be willing to alter or even jettison an approach that’s not working the way you anticipated.

Think about the public – but don’t forget your internal audience

Imagine you’re advising your CEO on how to manage the media and public outcry following an upcoming data breach announcement, or the potential firing of a senior executive for unethical behaviour.

Your instincts are to start planning your media, consumer and shareholder outreach, and rightly so. But never, ever forget the most important asset your company has: its employees. Too often, internal communications go by the wayside when a crisis hits, but it should be a foundational piece of your response.

Ensuring your employees hear about the news – good or bad – from your CEO or leadership, rather than on the news, is paramount. This means that at every touchpoint and every phase, you should be asking yourself who is communicating internally and giving your employees an opportunity to ask questions. When a crisis hits, poor morale and uncertainty can be natural outcomes. Do your best to ensure your response isn’t fueling those feelings. 

Want to learn more about how to best manage your media relations at large? Watch me and my colleague Laurel Gregory in our free webinar: 

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