Over the past eight months alone, I’ve had an opportunity to review and provide recommendations for more than a dozen crisis communications plans. Although they represent a diverse range of sectors and potential risks, clients all had the same fundamental question—are we prepared? In many cases, crisis communications support an operations or emergency response plan. While no two plans are the same, here are some observations and suggestions for the basic ingredients that make an effective crisis communications plan.
Yes, I’m a proponent of sweating the details. Is this a controlled document? How many copies exist? Who has hard and soft copies? Where are they located? When was the last time the document was updated? Where can the crisis plan and appendices be located on your shared drive? Prepare the opening of your plan as if someone new to your organization could follow and run with it.
Your crisis communications plan should be a living, breathing document that is easy to use. The plan overview is important to setting the context and guiding principles of how your organization will respond in times of crisis. Succinctly identify your purpose, scope, objectives, guiding principles, and plans for evaluation and measurement. NATIONAL typically recommends a quarterly review, with plan testing once a year. Post-incident evaluations are also critical to assessing plan performance.
Crisis Plan Activation
Clearly articulate the difference between an issue and crisis for your organization. Not all issues will trigger the need to activate your crisis communications plan. I’ve seen many different approaches on crisis escalation protocols. For operations, it is typically assessed by level of risk to people, environment, and assets. For reputation, it is typically assessed by volume and influence of media and public attention. A matrix with risk levels and key indicators takes the guess work out of assessing the need for crisis plan activation. An activation check list is very helpful in a crisis.
Roles and Responsibilities
Clearly defined roles and responsibilities helps assess team requirements and provides clarity of purpose. Applying structure during a crisis is key. Many organizations are adopting the Incident Command System (ICS) structure for emergency response. A clearly laid out organizational chart and defined roles provides guidance for information flow and a clear path for communications.
Contact lists and check lists are the focus of this section. Think ahead to all of the logistical needs of your crisis response. This includes contact information for crisis response teams, executives, board members, meeting locations and alternatives, press conference hosting, website and social media management, media monitoring services, and translation services. Is your building secure? How will you get passes for your team if something happens on the weekend? Thinking ahead about these details creates efficiencies in your crisis response.
No one knows your business better than you do. Think about those incidents that keep you up at night. What are the triggers or early warning signs? What early actions should you take? Who are the stakeholders that need to know? Who would be your spokesperson? What are your messages? How will you share them? Mapping out each scenario answering these key questions will help guide your thinking and planning process.
Make a list of any type of documentation you may require and have a well-organized templates and resources section. Personal activity logs, press conference checklists, corporate key messages, news release templates, approval forms, and media request logs. Basically, anything that you could be asked to write or document, have the templates prepared in advance. This saves precious time and ensures consistency in your crisis response.
Don’t have a crisis communications plan? Preparation is essential to a well-coordinated and timely crisis response. Given today’s 24-7 communications environment, the potential for issues to escalate quickly is a greater challenge today than ever before. NATIONAL has a team of expert crisis communicators across Canada and around the world that would welcome an opportunity to discuss your plan. Are you ready?