The problem with communications crisis plans

I would bet my last dollar that parked on every Communication Director’s shelf in most every organization is a crisis communications plan binder sitting adoringly between a fern and a family photo.

What is the purpose of a crisis communication plan then?

While the size and detail vary from shelf to shelf, the contents of these binders chart a course of what to do when disasters strikes. The crisis communications plan is not unlike an insurance policy — valued when acquired with hopes that it never has to be used, but available when needed. 

In our 30 odd years as communicators and consultants, we've have had many opportunities to develop and review countless crisis communications plans. The structure and detail of these plans vary (there’s no single standard and nor should there be) but a communicator worth their weight will be able to define what’s essential to include in the plan based on their organization’s needs, size and risk.

A crisis plan is only as good as the strategy it considers

That all said, if there has been any consistency in years reviewing crisis plans, it has been the absence of strategic considerations that we believe are critical for organizations to think through when responding to a crisis. Relying solely on the tactics of a crisis plan without regard to bigger fundamental strategic issues is a bit like a firefighter taking on a fire without first assessing cause, extent and risk.

How do you do this “strategic” thing, then? Here is a list of filters that have guided us in the advice that we give to our clients. Here’s what you need to consider:

  • Nature/severity of crisis – What is the actual severity of the crisis? If there are fatalities or injuries, the issues are likely to be different than if the crisis involves let's say a corporate fraud.
  • Time immediacy – While all crises typically require immediate attention, how quickly we respond will vary. Are we dealing with a burning building or an allegation of misappropriation of funds?
  • Repetitiveness of issue (History) – Has this (or other crises) occurred within the organization before? If so, how recently and with what consequence?
  • Status of community relations/brand reputation – What is the external perception of the organization? What is the state of our relationship with its stakeholders, and the community at large? If you are labouring under a bad reputation, your considerations will be different than if you are a beloved part of a community.
  • Organizational skills and resources – Do we have the internal expertise to support us in this crisis? Are those resources accessible at the time of the crisis? Culturally, do we believe we have the organizational stamina to respond without external support?
  • Status of traditional and social media – Can we leverage our existing social media platforms? Do we have relations with the media? If so, how well have we managed our media relations in the past and have we nurtured trusting relationships with the media community?
  • Business continuity – Will this crisis have impact on our ability to deliver our services? Will people’s lives be affected or compromised?
  • Visibility of organization – What’s our relative profile in the community? Do people know us?
  • Spokesperson – Do we have a capable spokesperson in the organization who can provide reassurance to the community? Just as importantly, have we considered what level of person from the organization we should be using? Remember, it’s just as dangerous to put a CEO at a podium when the crisis may not warrant it as it is to make your CEO invisible when he or she needs to be front and centre.

Each of these considerations will help define your strategy and shape the approach and the tactics you will need to consider. Forging ahead with your crisis response without considering these issues has the potential to see you either over or under responding. Dust off your binders. Make room in your crisis communications plans for more than just tactics. Consider hiring a third-party communications expert to help you navigate choppy waters.  It’s a sure way to help you get through any difficult situation.

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