crisis communication

How to create a crisis communication plan for your business should be taught in school – and early on. In today’s world, every person, organization and workplace is vulnerable to a crisis. In fact, every person and everyone will at one time, or another, face a crisis. It is no longer a question of: Will you face a crisis? But: When will you face your crisis and how will you handle it?

Because sooner or later, and often when we least expect it, we will find ourselves wedged between a rock and a hard place. Finding yourself in need of crisis management and crisis communications support is even more uncomfortable than it sounds.

Writing a crisis communication plan is a skill, and it takes time and experience to master it. Unfortunately, when you most need crisis management, there’s often no time to do anything but react. In these cases, most organizations naturally default to their highest level of preparation, which may, and likely may not, include crisis preparation. Most have no crisis plans in place and as a result end up in a mess of epic proportions.

What’s one to do? First of all, do not panic, which is easier said than done. And yet, no one has ever said: I’m so glad that I panicked.

After decades of experience and helping businesses, celebrities, and others through some of the stickiest situations they will ever encounter, our team of crisis PR experts has come up with instructions for how to create a crisis communication plan and crisis management plan. None of them include running away, burying your head, or waving a white flag in surrender.

You must face your problems head-on. Here are some instructions for how to do it with grace and grit, in the most strategic way possible.  These suggestions contain insider information on how to make a crisis communication plan and crisis management from our team of seasoned crisis professionals.

But first, let’s start at the very beginning:

What is a Crisis Communication Plan?

A crisis communication plan is a set of thoroughly thought-out instructions for a person or organization to follow in case of an emergency or unexpected event. For the sake of including as much information as possible, we will presume we are talking about a crisis in the workplace.

A crisis communications plan is a set of instructions that include specific calls to action by specific people, in a specific way, in a certain order. A crisis communications plan is a road map for a company or organization to navigate to safe terrain as quickly as possible. The crisis plan should include information on how and when to communicate with your workers, and what to say. It should reflect deliberate thought for addressing sensitive situations with your clients, the public at large, and the press.

How Do You Start Putting Together a Crisis Communications Plan?

To start a crisis communications plan, you will have to engage in the unpleasant task of thinking through all of the things that you hope will never happen. This part of crisis planning is not for the faint of heart. The most nervous people in your group will likely have the hardest time with this portion, but they also can be the most valuable when it comes to this portion of the crisis process.

As these worriers will likely tell you, there is always something for which you cannot prepare, a crisis that you never saw coming.  Something you didn’t know about, or could not have known. To prepare for a crisis is to prepare for a large number of projected variables – and many of these will be common sense and others more fantastical or unlikely. 

This is where enlisting a professional crisis firm for your crisis communication can provide tremendous benefit. At Red Banyan, we have helped guide many people and countless companies through excruciating situations. No crisis is the same, which is why having so much crisis experience proves to be a huge benefit. We know that not everyone will have the resources or opportunity to onboard a top crisis pr consultant, so we will gladly share our best tips to help you think ahead, imagine the worst, and plan for the best possible result should you find yourself in a crisis PR situation.

What Should Be Included in a Crisis Management Plan?

To decide what to include in your workplace crisis communication plan, gather a few of your core staff members and have them ruminate on potential troubles. To start, write everything down, even little things like “the printer won’t work when we need to sign a document” to much more serious situations, such as an “employee sexual harassment claim.”

Don’t worry about the order just yet; for now, just write it all down. Once you have a sizable and realistic list, try to group the issues together into disparate categories. A non-working printer and Internet woes would go under technology troubles. Employee harassment and work-life balance complaints would end up in your human resources category, or you may choose to put potential harassment claims under the category of legal.  The idea is to identify your unique challenges and then group them in clusters so that they will be more manageable.

Now that you have a list of everything that could go wrong, zoom in on anything that has the potential to go wrong more quickly. Pretend you’re working triage at a hospital emergency room. What conditions get top priority and need immediate action? Let’s say, you know that in two months you are losing your biggest client or customer and it will have a major ripple effect on your bottom line, and you will likely need to let some workers go. This is a more pressing challenge with a finite cadence. When you anticipate those crises that may arise, try to prepare as far in advance as possible, which will give you more time to get your ducks in a row.

Your crisis management plan will need to involve clear activations and activities. You will want to spell everything out, but first you must assemble your crisis management team and know who will be a part of the group.

How to Create a Crisis Management Team

Remember those staffers who came together to help you identify all the things that could go wrong? Now it’s time to select which of these individuals are best suited to form your crisis management team.

There are many ways to build your crisis team, and like with anything else, how you do it will depend upon the circumstances at play. Not everyone who helped you should be on your team; that is not meant to be a slight to anybody. Your team needs to be varied in terms of its makeup and areas of focus.

Have you ever played the game where you are assigned a fictitious job (ie. baker, banker, doctor, police officer, etc.) and you are in a boat that is sinking slowly with too many people aboard, so you need to vote people off? The idea is each person makes his/her case for why he or she should stay. You are more likely to keep a doctor onboard than a baker if the boat is about to capsize, projecting that your survivors may need medical attention to get them through the ordeal. You might want to keep a law enforcement officer who probably has a whistle or radio and may be able to summon help. A boat full of only bakers doesn’t make sense, even if you like their tasty treats during non-crisis times. Think of your business as that imaginary boat facing imminent danger.

Once you select your crisis management team, be specific with timelines, responsibilities, and results for your crisis communication plan. Who does what? When? What happens first, second, third, etc.? How do your workers know when one task is done, and the next task begins? Where will you save your plan? How will your employees be able to access it? How will you communicate with each other? Where is the list of cell phone numbers for safe keeping? Will you require your team to call one another during a planning session to store each other’s numbers on-the-spot to prevent typos and forgetfulness?  Will you have an auto-dialer or mass texting service for your staff and/or customers? Are you enlisting the help of an app? Perhaps the pending loss of a client, triggers increased and measurable attention to sales and acquisitions. What’s the emergency plan for that portion of this?

By identifying more immediate pain points and protocols, you can move into action more quickly while remaining in preventive mode. This is the time to discuss the many ways your business could be affected, so do not rush through this. In addition to taking a sudden financial hit, explore the unpopular possibility that you could lose many customers indefinitely, that your hard-earned reputation could be damaged, and that you will be forced to lay off workers, face fines, lose friends, and in the most extreme cases, lose your lifestyle. Use short sentences that have an action verb whenever possible. You are now on your way to developing a solid crisis response plan.

By now you have probably realized that your plan will need two parts: operations and communications.  Make your document as easy to follow as possible. Have people from work who were not part of any meeting(s) read and interpret the crisis plan to make sure they can explain to you what needs to happen and when. Not sure how to choose who within your organization should be on your crisis management team? Our crisis management experts have some suggestions for you. [Continue reading after related posts]

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Who Should Be Selected to Serve on Your Crisis Communication Team?

In nearly every case, your CEO will be at the helm of your workplace crisis plan.  But in some cases, it is advisable to handle the matter at a lower staff level so as not to involve the top executive.  You will also want executives or team leads, an in-house public relations or communications person, an external crisis management firm such as Red Banyan, legal counsel, a customer-facing representative, and anyone is involved in the actual crisis itself.

If you feel stuck when it comes to deciding who should be on the crisis team, then look at your list of potential crises. Pick one and divvy up the responsibilities it would take to successfully handle that situation. What expertise do you need? Who on your team has it? Does the assigned role require that person to leave his or her home at 3:00 a.m. and rush to a brick-and-mortar building? If yes, then ask within your group who can most easily and most reliably do this. The person you have in mind may have a small child at home or an elderly parent and not be able to leave at a moment’s notice without making arrangement at home, which defeats the point of assigning them as your go-to person during an emergency situation.

Pick Your Crisis Management Spokesperson

Now that you have a crisis team, you will need to select a spokesperson. This is a tall task. If this were a real emergency, who would you want speaking with stakeholders? With the media? With city agencies and politicians?

Heaven forbid an incident involving loss of life were to occur. Who within your organization could stand before a group and address this situation with heart and composure, with cameras and microphones in their face, all the while remaining on-script? Often, when Red Banyan is brought into a situation we are entrusted to act as the spokesperson for the organization. Our PR professionals include many former on-air reporters who are quick on their feet and highly composed and articulate on-camera. These are the qualities you will need in a spokesperson.

Other times, our crisis PR experts support the company spokesperson from behind the scenes. The spokesperson has an incredibly difficult role and should be someone you and your team trust implicitly to deliver for the organization. Ideally, this person will have received extensive media training in advance of any potential crisis.

Red Banyan’s media relations pros are available to train your spokesperson to be calm, cool, collected, and knowledgeable under immense pressure. Please note, that even if you are a great public speaker, spokesperson training is a different beast entirely. You are not just providing a status update at times of crisis or reading from a script.  You must also be cultivating relationships on-the-fly and carefully conveying the organization’s response to key stakeholders. In effect, your spokesperson is required to take part in an intellectual chess match with no margin for error.

Create a Reliable Crisis Notification System

It would be great if everyone who needed to urgently share information could simply climb up to their rooftop and shout it out to the world and be heard for miles around, including by those whom they most need to receive the message.  For better or worse, the reality is that this is just not how it works. Frankly, the person in that scenario would be lucky if even his or her neighbor even heard the message clearly. In the real world, you need to have a robust and realistic communications plan, particularly when your livelihood may be on the line.

Part of this plan requires planning. If a large portion of your stakeholders are avid social media users, then you will need to be, too. Those social media people need to be communicated with where they are, using the platforms that THEY rely upon. So, if your investors or clientele are on Facebook and LinkedIn, that is precisely where you need to be now.

You need to corral them now, when everything is fine, and build up your following now.  It’s like the words of wisdom to dig your well before you are thirsty. Later, should you need to quickly disseminate urgent messages, have already connected with them and have the lines of communication open. You simply cannot wait until there is a crisis to create your profile, confirm your email account, attach a phone number, and one-by-one add hundreds, thousands, or millions of followers. If you lack a plan and the tools to execute against one, you are dead in the water.

You also need to have a backup plan for the backup plan. What if suddenly there were no internet to utilize; or at least no viable internet connection for you at a time of need.  Now what? The objective is to develop a foolproof notification system, not a channel of communication or two or a mere social media presence. Earlier, we touched upon how you might communicate with your staff and key people and brought up cell phone numbers. If you have cell phone numbers for all your people, then maybe you can utilize an auto-dialer. Maybe you need a system that allows members of your team, or your client base, to confirm they received a notification by pressing number 1 or replying with a specific word.

Perhaps you need to invest in an app that tracks who has responded, or one that keeps calling or pinging the recipient until he or she responds according to your preset measurable response. And maybe you need different sectors of your overall population to be notified in different ways with tiers and contingency plans. The idea is to have as many systems in place as needed, without cutting corners. There is a safety net built into the redundancy. It may cost more to implement a crisis back-up plan, but the peace of mind it affords can be priceless.

During a Crisis, Follow the News

In addition to creating a system to notify stakeholders, you will also likely need a system in place to track what’s happening as things unfold. This is another thing that seems it can be implemented when needed, but by then it’s actually too late.

Most businesses use Google Alerts or Talkwalker Alerts to monitor coverage of clients, stakeholders, and their own news items, but these free alerts can also provide a great way to manage your reputation. If you start setting up alerts ahead of time as part of a crisis communications plan, we would advise you to create a separate email for this. Not because of the potential long-term bottleneck of emails, but precisely because we want you to keep these alerts for an extremely long length of time.

Think of these messages, that at the time could be insignificant, as a goldmine of information. Each alert has links to articles or blogs from social media (if using Talkwalker Alerts) where you were mentioned, along with dates and times. Things have a way of disappearing online, particularly unfavorable social media comments, but sometimes you need proof that something actually happened or really existed. These timestamped alerts, that pinged a communications tower when sent and received, could save your neck. The accumulation of these alerts also creates your own historical database. Not to mention, if you want to know who might cover a story at a later date, then it will be easier to identify those writers. Perhaps someone on your team is already building a manual spreadsheet to record some key information.

In addition to alerts, consider utilizing a social media management system. There are many out there, from Hootesuite to Buffer to Sprout Social, and countless others. These platforms allow you to more closely and more quickly follow conversations by keyword.

Your plan might also include enlisting an outside media monitoring company. While these companies are paid to track information and notify you, they can be a worthwhile investment, particularly when you are in a pinch.

Create Holding Statements to Use During a Crisis Situation

Until an actual crisis erupts, you do not really know what will happen or what exactly to prepare for, but you do have an idea now of the types of things that could go wrong given the nature of your business. Your best move now is to prepare what crisis professionals call holding statements.

Holding statements, also known as standby statements, are messages designed in advance that you hold onto for later use. They are essentially pre-conceived, pre-considered, canned responses, that serve the purposes of holding or stalling the news while you you a minute to breathe and prepare your substantive response.

In most cases during a crisis or time of heavy scrutiny, you want to ensure the messages you craft show three Cs: Control, Credibility and Compassion.

For instance, imagine you own a bakery and despite being up to code with the latest safety measures, and having hired and trained a dedicated and cautious staff, as a bakery, there is always a chance that there could be a fire. It would be wise to have statements prepared in event of other incidents including a flood, robbery, accident, filmed encounter with an angry patron, etc.

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say your building were to become engulfed in flames. Your spokesperson is in a safe place, surrounded by a swarm of concerned reporters, and sobbing relatives, frantically seeking answers about loved ones who may or may not have been inside the smoldering building. You do not have to have faced this precise scenario to imagine the types of questions you will be asked: What happened? Where is everyone? Is anyone hurt? Are there fatalities? How could this have happened? When did this begin? Have family members been notified? The list, understandably, goes on and on.

Whether this is similar in nature (or not) to the crisis your organization could face, the formula for what to include and what to omit in a holding statement essentially remains the same.

Holding statements typically include:

  • Date and time of the incident
  • Basic details of the incident that you can credibly confirm
  • Actions you are taking that you can make public
  • A strong sense of heart and compassion, whenever appropriate

Holding statements should not include:

  • Any type of speculation
  • Any response to unsubstantiated information
  • Any kind of blame
  • Any names of victims/fatalities

Here is an example of what someone could say on camera with the cameras rolling:

“My name is John Doe—spelled D*O*E* and I’m the owner of ABC Bakery.

“I’m going to read a brief statement, but will not be taking questions at this time.

“At approximately 4:30 a.m. today ABC Bakery experienced a fire at our Main Street location.

“At this point we cannot accurately tell you the extent of the damage other to say that the fire started in our kitchen area before spreading to the entire facility. 

“As a result of the fire, four individuals were evacuated to receive medical attention. I have no current updates on their conditions, nor will we be releasing their names since we are in the process of notifying their families.

“The XXXX Fire Department arrived on the scene shortly after the incident and we are assisting them in every way possible and will be cooperating fully with their investigation to get to the bottom of what took place.

“The well-being and safety of all of our employees is the top priority for ABC Bakery, and we will be providing updates at a later time when appropriate.  We expect to issue a statement via our website and social media during the coming hours.

“Members of the media should stay in touch with Jane Smith at XXX-XXX-XXXX, who can provide you with more details when additional information becomes available.”

Get Your Crisis Plan in Writing

You can have the best plan in the whole world, but if it is not in writing and saved in an accessible location, then it is utterly useless. You need a document that you can share that has everything clearly delineated; otherwise don’t bother considering it a crisis plan. You also need this document saved in a secure place, but one which everyone who needs to get to it can easily access.

Keep it simple.

In a time of emergency, your crisis management team must be able to gain access to the file quickly. This means your document must be in a shared location. Keep in mind, in a real crisis, your crisis team will typically be under immense pressure. Keep the plan secure, but don’t make it impossible to remember how or where to find it.

Do you use Box or Dropbox or Google Drive? Make sure your crisis team can log in. Challenge your crisis members to log in from their phones, their home computers, their work computers and tablets. Can they do it without fail? What are the pain points? Do you need to adjust the font sizes? Are the sections and responsibilities clear? And not just clear to you, but clear to the person in charge of that task or section. It is also important that your document live somewhere in a shared space where version control can be maintained. 

Put Your Crisis Plan into Practice

You have now spent weeks—or even months—crafting a solid crisis communication plan. Now the time has come to practice the execution of your crisis plan. Much like a fire drill, you need to hold crisis drills. Remember the bakery example? Run through it with a fire, a flood, a robbery, a client who choked, etc. Is your spokesperson ready? Are your holding statements sincere and sufficient?

Was everyone able to access your crisis communication plan remotely? What were the problems accessing the information, if any? Where can you improve upon the processes and procedures detailed in the plan? Did you find you needed to adjust the plan for different scenarios? How can you best incorporate that information into the current plan?

Our crisis communications experts suggest incorporating all of this into one plan with multiple sections, as opposed to having multiple documents.  Invariably,  some things will change, and it will be most efficient to know the information is uniformly updated.

Are you able to test most, or all, of your notification system? You will want to ensure this works efficiently, although you do not want to scare anyone or needlessly alarm them.  Communicate clearly in advance that this is a test so that they are expecting it. You will likely have to investigate the best way for your specific company to proceed with this crisis communication plan.

In the end, crisis communication, crisis preparedness, and business continuity plans should be revised and re-evaluated regularly. One way to ensure this is done is to make the review of your plan part of your quarterly meetings, or schedule test runs for daylight savings time periods. In this way, there is a set cadence to ensure your disaster response plans are in tip-top shape. This also allows you to verify that only current employees are on the plan, update any phone numbers and emails, and such. You will also want to review your holding statements and expand sections with Q&A responses, as appropriate.

Planning for the worst case scenarios is not a fun task but it is a necessary one. If you are unsure where to start wit your crisis communication, or overwhelmed by the prospect, you can always contact us for a complimentary crisis communication consultation.

Frequently Asked Questions on Crisis Communications Plans

What is a crisis communication plan for a small business?
A crisis communication plan is a strategy that’s in place before you need it. A crisis communications plan protects your business in the event that there is a crisis. At some point in time, often when one least expects it, there will be a crisis. By having a crisis strategy for your business. you are able to communicate and act, with care and intent, at a moment’s notice.

What does a crisis plan look like?
A crisis plan can vary in length but in general, a well-laid out crisis plan is thorough and precise and leaves little to no room for misinterpretation. A great crisis plan also accounts for the unpredictability of life and while meticulous, affords flexibility to react according to what is actually happening in the moment, and not merely what you or your crisis team predicted might be happening in a given moment.

Does every business need a crisis document?
Yes, you need to have a crisis communication plan for your business. A crisis is an eventuality and when it strikes, it’s often too late to create a strategic plan.