Confusion, speculation and fear during and after an incident often cause people to overreact. Without reassurance, the human imagination can run wild and assume the worst. As such, one of the most critical aspects of responding to a disaster situation is implementing efficient and effective crisis communications to both reassure stakeholders and minimize reputational damage.
Crisis communications is the capability of an organization to immediately and effectively communicate a crisis situation and subsequent organizational response to internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, and the media, utilizing the most appropriate mediums, timing and messaging for each group. Because we live in a real-time reporting age, it is naïve to assume there will be time during and after a disaster to prepare statements, train personnel and identify the appropriate methods of communication before your role in (or responsibility for) the situation is determined for you by the media or your competitors.
Like any other aspect of crisis management and emergency response, crisis communications requires significant thought, planning, testing and review. Unfortunately, many organizations often ignore or don’t pay enough attention to this essential aspect of business continuity planning.
While many organizations have communications activities built into their crisis management plans, a full crisis communication capability goes beyond basic activities to address a strategic approach to communications with all stakeholders. The following section depicts the common elements of a crisis communications plan, which could be integrated into an existing crisis management plan or a separate communications plan.
Critical Elements of a Crisis Communications Plan
A number of critical elements exist in an effective crisis communications plan. To start, the introduction to the plan should identify:
- The scope or purpose of the plan;
- Communications objectives (employees feel reassured, stakeholders feel confident in the response, media reports are accurate, etc); and
- Key stakeholders, including:
– Internal “audiences”, such as employees, employees’ family members and
– External “audiences”, such as customers, vendors, business partners and
community leaders; and
– The media, including print, TV and online methods of outreach – in particular,
online media should be reached out to immediately, as ~40% of adults report
getting a majority of their news from online sources, and quick turnarounds lead to
almost immediate reporting.
A crisis communications plan should also identify roles and responsibilities for communications personnel, as well as capture individuals and contact information for each role. Defining roles and responsibilities ahead of time enables a more immediate and complete response. Some roles to consider when creating a crisis communications plan include:
- Crisis Communications Team Leader
- Internal Communications Lead
- External Communications Lead
- Government Liaison
- Legal Representative
- Media Coordinator
- Media Coverage Monitor(s)
- Online Media Specialist
The size of your organization will determine the number of roles (or blending of roles) appropriate for your organization; however, all plans should contain a media-trained team lead to act as the spokesperson for the organization. The individual assigned to this role should be tasked with conducting press conferences, coordinating a “common message” and ensuring all communications occur as they should.
Once roles are defined, the crisis communications plan should outline specific communications objectives and strategies for communicating with specific internal and external stakeholders. These strategies should include processes and procedures to follow in developing communications, methods to reach out to stakeholders, and the frequency of each communication.
Communications with internal stakeholders should include facts about the situation, the response initiated by management, ways employees can report in to their managers, employee assistance programs offered, and how the event might affect operations over the next few days. Some tools to utilize when communicating with internal stakeholders include email, crisis hotlines, notification services, call trees, “ghost” websites and public media (radio/TV/internet). Redundant methods of communication should be defined, and employees should be aware of how they may be contacted (or how to obtain up-to-date information) in the event of a crisis.
Communications with external stakeholders should include facts about the situation, what the company is doing to resolve the incident and what each stakeholder can expect as a result of the incident (how it may affect them). Other appropriate information may include expected event duration and open issues that management continues to investigate (“unknowns”). Some methods to use when communicating with external stakeholders include email, press conferences, public media (radio/TV/internet), print statements and direct calls. Ultimately, the method of communication is often determined by the content of the message.
In order to reduce the time it takes to generate statements following an incident, companies often develop holding statements, which are pre-written statements drafted for a variety of scenarios (natural disaster, fire, explosion, public health event, workplace violence, or a privacy concern). Developing the majority of a statement ahead of time, leaving blanks for facts that can only be known after an event, increases the likelihood that all relevant information is provided quickly and accurately. Holding statements should identify the primary audience, the optimal delivery time, suggested method of delivery, as well as who should (and who shouldn’t) deliver the message. Some statements may include expected follow-up questions by the audience.
After the crisis communications plan is developed, it is essential to incorporate it into your crisis management plan. Often, the Crisis Communications Team Leader will also be a member of the Crisis Management Team, which helps integrate management decisions into communications content and ensure that senior management is aware of what is being communicated to key stakeholders.
In addition to incorporating crisis communication processes into the crisis management plan, all crisis communications programs require education, maintenance and exercising. When educating employees about what they can expect following a disaster, include information such as where they can get information after an event occurs. It is also important to remind employees that only media-trained personnel should speak to the media.
The crisis communications plan must be updated on a regular basis to ensure it is suitable for new or changing threats (i.e. terrorism). As part of the maintenance process, the plan should be exercised to verify it is complete and accurate. In addition to conducting a table-top scenario exercise, consider conducting staged/mock press conferences with video cameras to better prepare spokespersons.
Supporting Internal Information Sharing and Communications
In addition to the crisis communications plan, it is critical that all individuals responsible for implementing response activities know what actions have been taken by the Crisis Management Team members, as well as what messaging is being communicated out during a crisis. Many companies utilize online software tools that capture key leadership activities and situation monitoring through a situation report, enable document sharing and discussion board postings, and provide guidance to response personnel on responding to the incident.
An additional method some companies utilize to speed the delivery of messaging is an online notification tool with multiple communication channels (email, phone, SMS, fax, etc). Such a program enables organizations to maintain up-to-date and easily accessible contact information in a central location, as well as organize and store holding statements for use during an incident.
Avalution’s The Planning Portal (TPP) SharePoint-based software platform supports both of these capabilities. With a user-friendly and familiar interface, TPP enables users to quickly gather and share information with other company responders in a central location. The notification tool facilitates prompt communications with internal and external stakeholders using stored contact lists and “from scratch” or “modifiable template” notification messages.
Key Points to Remember During and After an Incident
As the crisis communications effort is the most visible element of the response and recovery process, there are a number of key points to remember when developing the strategy and responding to an incident.
- Weigh desire for information against the need to issue a statement
It is easy to want to delay issuing a statement until more information is gathered/confirmed, but as mentioned earlier, waiting too long can enable fear and speculation that can damage your organization’s reputation with customers or perception in the financial community. As crisis communications specialist Richard Levick frequently states, every story is Shakespearean – there’s always a hero and a villain, and whoever acts first in responding to a story often gets to determine which role they play. Crisis communicators must weigh the desire for more information against the need to issue a statement quickly with the best information available – always erring on the side of communicating promptly.
- You will not know everything immediately
It is also important to accept that ambiguity and uncertainty will occur, especially early in the crisis. In any case, it is better to issue a statement that admits to unknowns than it is to remain quiet until all information is gathered. While it may seem pointless to issue statements with many unknowns, it can be reassuring to stakeholders to know that something is being done and confirm that they will be kept informed.
- Give them what they need to know in the most appropriate method possible No matter who the audience is, it is imperative that the message is tailored to what is important to them and what they need to know. Getting answers to the questions that matter most will appease their anxiety and reaffirm their faith in the organization’s ability to handle the response effort. Communications specialists should also consider which communications method is most appropriate, as the message may be perceived differently using different media methods; for example, a message designed to be read out loud may come across as cold or uncaring in print. How a message is delivered can overshadow the message itself if the delivery method is wrong for the content.
- Don’t let the delivery overshadow the message
When dealing with recorded media, such as cameras, tape recorders or radio, it is vital that the spokesperson be media-trained. As mentioned above, how a message is presented is at least as important as the message itself. In addition to remaining calm, the spokesperson needs to come across as empathetic, caring, open, honest, in control and willing to accept responsibility (without admitting legal liability). It is possible that reporters will ask tough, “risky” questions – such as if the incident could have been prevented. Answering questions such as these require skill and practice, which is why it is so important that trained individuals give the response.
- Realize that the media is one of your best resources
Though it is easy to view the media as problematic or “out to assign blame” (especially when they ask questions like the one listed previously), if utilized correctly, the media can serve as a very powerful “tool” that enables you to reach out to a wide variety of critical audiences simultaneously. If responses are prepared ahead of time, updated and then presented by the appropriate person(s), the media can be the best way to reach your organization’s key stakeholders quickly. One step that can assist the media is developing packets with a fact sheet about your organization, including pictures and logos in multiple formats. This not only assures that the information they report is accurate, but it also helps them get the report to the public more quickly.
The development of a formal crisis communications program is an easily overlooked aspect of disaster planning, but companies that have experienced a disaster learn that the ramifications of neglecting it can be catastrophic. When handled correctly, crisis communications can reassure key stakeholders, internal and external, and ultimately lead to a strengthened brand.
Stacy Gardner, Consultant
Avalution Consulting: Business Continuity Consulting