Plan Ahead, Prevent Crisis: A Guide

In today’s interconnected world, it is crucial for organizations to have an up-to-date, formal crisis communications plan. Let us help you anticipate and prepare with our guide.
Written by:

Erin Foster

A client recently said: “If we get lucky, we won’t need one.” They were referring to holding off on building a crisis communications plan. In today’s world luck has nothing to do with it. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” as the adage goes. It underscores that the lack of foresight and planning essentially sets the stage for poor performance and adverse outcomes.

On top of the internal mayhem that comes with any crisis, 2024 presents powerful external forces that add to the challenge. Increasing violence on college campuses. The dramatic rise in mental health crises. Unprecedented hate crimes and bias incidents. The boom of cybercrime. Active shooter incidents.  

In today’s interconnected world, it is crucial for organizations to have an up-to-date, formal crisis communications plan that has been built with the leadership team. The communications plan complements an organization’s Safety Protocol Plan. Both are critical and require anticipation, preparation and response. Not having a plan can result in potential financial and reputational risk.

The speed at which word spreads organically and online and the severity of the consequences of getting it wrong are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Information is shared instantly, and transparency is the demanded new normal. Saying “No comment” to a reporter opens the door for more digging to find someone who will comment. This is the challenging environment in which organizations must be equally adept at preventing crises before they happen, and at minimizing damage, when they do occur.

 

The impact of social media

Social media is fast, direct and interactive. In many ways this is a great way to communicate quickly to multiple audiences. That said, negative news travels faster on social media than through traditional media channels, a reality that can quickly flip a situation for those not prepared.  Consider these recent examples exposed on social and needing a response:

• A grade-school student and a teacher engage in a fist fight in the school cafeteria. The scene is live streaming within minutes.

• A high school teacher hugs a student. The student relays the uncomfortable encounter to a counselor, and to their parents, at the same time. As texts about the interaction spreads through the student body, the parents send an email demanding answers.

• The driver of a company-issued vehicle collides with a motorcyclist in the early morning hours. A local TV crew shows up on scene and calls the company asking for an update and response. It is the first the company is hearing of this tragic news. 

These situations underline the importance of anticipating and preparing for any and all potential situations. There are two things we teach when responding to crisis situations: respond quickly, especially when social media accelerates reactions, and put your audience first when responding.

Components of a Crisis Communications Plan

A good crisis communications plan provides steps for a solid but flexible response process. It also compiles all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.

1. Crisis Communications Team members: Identify the crisis response team. The first thing you need to do is document who’s in charge during a crisis, who’s on the team and what their role (not their title) is on the team.

2. Risk Assessment and Crisis Identification: Map potential situations and challenges that may lead to communications issues. This exercise isn’t only reviewing incidents that have happened but also situations that could happen. Be careful not to dismiss situations because “it would never happen here.” No one could’ve predicted the events at the Capitol in January, but it is a reminder that we live in an unpredictable world.

3. Communications Channels: Determine communication workflows for the identified situations. Each may require a different set of tools. Establish the protocol of when to use social channels versus issuing statements or press releases. Build templates for each channel. In a crisis situation response times impact how an organization is judged. Develop internal and external comms protocols and pathways.

4. Developing the Plan: Draft clear and concise messages for different scenarios. In most cases, messaging to internal audiences will be different than to external audiences. Ensure the company values lead the way for communication responses. Also, consider that responses will be divided into proactive and reactive approaches. Once the plan is agreed to, it is critical to have a complete roll-out with trainings and simulations.

5. Implementing the Plan: Determining when to activate the crisis communication plan. We map situations in a red-yellow-green chart each with a specific communications protocol. When a red situation occurs the comms rollout is much different than the protocol that may fall in the green or orange category.  Whichever bucket, understanding what to do in what order and with what tools is essential.

6. Real-Time Monitoring and Adjustment: In the heat of the moment, it’s critical to have a team dedicated to monitoring public response across all channels. It enables real-time adjustments to be made accordingly. Tools for social listening and media monitoring are essential to effective public relations programs but are critical during a crisis situation.

7. Legal Considerations: It is important to work with legal counterparts during a crisis – whether that is outside counsel or your internal legal team. You want to ensure compliance with legal requirements and have them aligned on the communications being released.

8. Post-Crisis Evaluation: Companies or organizations often don’t debrief after events take place, but this is a necessary step to build into your plan. Assessing the effectiveness of the crisis response, getting feedback from all involved, evaluating for efficiency, impact and duration is necessary to learn and improve the plan. It is a good idea to test the plan and update based on new risks or business changes.

Having a well-structured plan that is reviewed and tested regularly through mock drills is essential. As Warren Buffett said, "It takes twenty years to build a reputation; and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently."

Invest the time and resources to build your plan. You can’t afford not to.

Ready to plan in advance for the unexpected?

Let us help you develop your company’s crisis communication plan - contact Erin Foster for a free consultation today.

Ready to plan in advance for the unexpected?

Let us help you develop your company’s crisis communication plan - reach out for a free consultation today.

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