The earthquake in Japan and dangerous situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant reminds us of how quickly and suddenly disaster can strike.  Compounding the terrible human tragedy is the sense that people do not trust the information they are receiving and feel that the power company is not telling them the truth.

Crisis communications planning — detailing how an organization communicates during a crisis — is as important as the actual actions to respond and alleviate the crisis.  Is your company or organization prepared?  What if an employee embezzled large sums of money?  What if your organization is involved in litigation? What if a fire struck your building? What if your organization were charged with mismanagement of public or donor funds?  What if your company is perceived as not acting appropriately or has not been providing accurate information on a key issue?  The way you handle a crisis can make or break your enterprise.  Think BP.

Unfortunately, bad things do happen.  And far too many companies and organizations are unprepared.  A little planning and foresight can go a long way to helping you respond to disaster.  Here are a few tips.

Planning for a Crisis

1) Identify a Crisis Management Team.  It is essential to know who are the people within your organization who can best respond to and manage a crisis that may occur.  Typically, this team would include your CEO or Executive Director, Head of Public Relations, CFO, legal department and senior managers of various functional areas.   This team might also include your Board Chair or another member of the Board.  Designate a point person for the team–it might be the Public Relations Director or another senior manager, who will be responsible for activating and coordinating the team.   Create a list of home and cell phones of all members of the crisis team as crises don’t always occur between 9 and 5 and make sure that everyone has that list.

2)  Create a Crisis Plan. Determine procedures for how you will gather information, mobilize and communicate with staff and formulate a response and take action.  The plan should include strategies for how you will communicate with key stakeholders from customers/clients to investors/funders to Federal and state agencies to partners to the media.  Think about who could provide additional resources.  If you work with outside PR, legal or HR counsel, make sure that they are part of the crisis planning and solicit their input and ideas.  Write the plan down and make sure the key players all know and understand the plan.

  3) Designate a key spokesperson as well as back-ups and make sure they all receive media training.   Typically spokespeople would include the CEO/Executive Director  or COO and the Head of Communications or Public Relations.  Other spokespeople could include a member of the Board or a Senior level Department Head or Program Officer.

4)  Scenario planning.  Identify the various kinds of crises that could arise for your company or organization.  While no crisis ever happens as you think it might,  thinking through likely scenarios will be helpful in preparing people for the real thing.

5) Be committed to sharing information quickly and honestly.  It is important that during a crisis, your organization not hide.  That does not mean rushing to share unsubstantiated information, which is irresponsible and will do more damage.  It does mean getting out there and letting people know that you are working to address the crisis, sharing what information you do know and letting them know what the next steps are.   It is also important to let the public know that you care deeply about responding. If you do have negative information, it’s better that it come from you rather than from others.

The time to think about a crisis is when things are calm.  Waiting until a disaster strikes is often too late.

Recommended Reading:

Harvard Business Reivew on Crisis Management

Ongoing Crisis Management by W. Timothy Coombs

Crisis Communications:  A Primer for Teams by Al Czarnecki