It’s 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and a crisis is unfolding. A reporter has heard that your CEO is about to be indicted for embezzlement.  Or there has been a terrible accident at one of your offices and someone is gravely injured.  Does your company or organization have a crisis communications plan and does everyone in your organization know what it is and how to spring into action?

If yours is like most companies and organizations, you may indeed have a plan, a huge binder that sits on a shelf that no one has looked in a while. And if you haven’t done any crisis communications planning at all, then you may find yourself in a world of hurt.

When a crisis hits, panic, fear and confusion reign making it difficult to react.  Many times senior management who would typically be the ones to deal with the crisis may themselves be the cause of it or simply unavailable. Even in the best run organizations, unexpected events from severe storms to workplace accidents to bad behavior happen. And before they do, it is good to think about those scenarios and develop a crisis communications plan for action that makes sense for your organization.

What should you be thinking about for a crisis communications plan?

Identify the Crisis Leadership Team

The first thing is to identify who in the organization will take the lead on managing the crisis and then define the specific roles and responsibilities of each team member.  Typically this team would include CEO, COO, VP/Director of Communications, General Counsel, and key division heads who are responsible for specific lines of business, programs or services.  Make contingencies for team members who might be unavailable during the crisis and understand who could fill those critical roles instead.

One way to communicate this information is through a flow chart with brief bullets that provide name, contact information and description of phone numbers.  Make sure it is not overly complicated.  It needs to be easy-to-read and follow because your team will be under duress.  Include home, work and cell phones as well as email addresses, twitter handles. If there is a natural disaster or storm, there may not be power or Internet making typical forms of communications impossible.

Develop Crisis Response Protocols

The crisis response protocols offer a guide for what to do and how begin to manage once a crisis ensues. Because no crisis is textbook, these protocols provide a series of action steps and questions that need to be answered. Sample protocols might include:

  • Determine what happened, where and when it happened, and who is involved.
  • Determine whether there are any life safety issues and ensure that affected individuals and divisions are safe.
  • Assess the threats to life, to external partners, clients, etc. and to the company’s reputation, finances and well being.
  • Identify key spokespeople and make sure that only those authorized to speak about the crisis do so with employees, the media and external audiences.
  • Determine who needs to be informed about the crisis immediately.  The “who” might include police, fire or other emergency responders; outside attorneys, family members if there has been an accident, employees, subcontractors, key partners or investors.
  • Determine all of the audiences with whom you will need to communicate throughout the duration of the crisis and beyond.
  • Determine when, how and by whom information is shared.

Develop Checklists

Many crisis communications plans are simply unusable because they are so complicated and the essential information is difficult to find.   Instead of writing volumes, consider developing checklists of tasks and/or key questions that various crisis team members need to answer to move forward.  Keep the language simple and short.

Create Lists of Emergency Numbers

Develop one pagers with not only key numbers of your own team but numbers for police, fire, ambulance, utility companies, key regulatory agencies (i.e. OSHA, state inspectors, etc.); key personnel at neighboring businesses, lists of key clients and partners so that it is easy to contact the resources you may need.  Consider laminating or putting these sheets in plastic covers so that they can be easily carried and used.  A back-up on the computer and company shared drive is a good idea but in the event of a power outage, it may be impossible to access them.

Develop Protocols for Communicating With Key Audiences

Once you have dealt with the initial crisis, determined that everyone is safe, and have some understanding of what has happened, or at least how you are figuring out what has happened, you will have to communicate with employees, partners, clients, and the media.  It is important to develop protocols for how to communicate:

  • With family members/next of kin if someone is gravely injured or dies while on the job
  • With employees and be clear about how much and when to share information about the crisis (remember that an all employee announcement is essentially a public announcement).  Also know what guidance to give them on how they should communicate with their family, friends and colleagues about what has happened.
  • With clients, investors, donors and others who may concerned about the health and well being of your company or organization.
  • With the media who may already be on-site asking questions and may have already talked employees at your company or organization.

As part of your crisis communications planning, identify all of the key audiences you may need to reach and create lists of key individuals with their contact information.  Identify who will be the lead spokesperson and who will be responsible for drafting statements, press releases memos, tweets and other communications.  It will also be important to identify the appropriate method of communication.  For some key audiences such as family members, key clients, the communication may be best done by phone.  For others, email may suffice.  If you are without power, you may need to find someone in another location to help you get the communications out.

Draft Sample Press Releases and Other Communications

While you can’t predict what the unexpected will be, creating some scenarios of likely incidents will be helpful in crisis planning.  Developing samples statements, press releases, backgrounders about likely and imagined scenarios that could thrust your company and organization into crisis will be helpful. While they may not match the specific circumstances, it will provide a starting place.

Update Your Plan

Once you have developed your plan, make sure you update contact lists and other protocols.  It is a good idea to review your plan at the very lease on an annual basis more frequently if you are in an industry where there may be higher levels of danger such as construction or international NGO’s or companies working in hot spots around the world.

Crisis communications planning is akin to developing a personal will.  No one wants to think about it but when it happens, you will be very glad that you have thought through how to react and what to do.  Having a crisis communications plan will make resolving a bad situation much easier.