Five Steps to Develop the Crisis Communication Plan

VW. Chipotle. Target. What comes to mind with these names? Defective emissions equipment? Or deception and fraud? Food-borne illness? Or mismanagement and stock price freefall? 100 million credit card records hacked? Or denial and inadequate crisis management plans?

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Each of these examples represents a business crisis that damaged reputations, hurt sales and negatively impacted the bottom line, and continue to do so well after the worst of the crisis has passed. What do they have in common? The financial damage could have been mitigated with an effective, well executed crisis communications plan, honesty and transparency.
ICM’s mantra: It is much easier (and considerably less costly) to prepare and prevent crisis, rather than repair and repent after crisis hits.

Don’t have a plan? Where do you start?
1. Identify the crisis team. Think about who needs to have a seat at the table to represent all key aspects of your organization- operations, management, employees, customers, community, volunteers, investors, legislators, regulators and other stakeholder groups. This team will make decisions and spearhead communication, so it will probably include the risk management leader, communications leader, legal counsel, HR, and the leaders of operations or departments that may be impacted. Create and maintain a contact list of these individuals and keep it handy (electronically and on paper).
2. Select and train spokespersons. Who will be the official “voice” of the organization in the event of a crisis? Keep in mind that this person may vary depending on the situation. Who is the designated back-up for these persons? All should participate in media training at least annually.
3. Develop communication processes and protocols. This is the heart of the plan. You will need to communicate online and offline. Identify the channels you will use to communicate in real time and who is responsible for making updates. Identify the chain of command. Who reviews and approves communications? What do you do if the story breaks before you can respond? How do you proceed if you identify a smoldering crisis? Having approved procedures in place IN ADVANCE is critical to responding quickly, calmly and protecting the brand.
4. Don’t forget social media. The web and social media have dramatically changed how communicators and managers respond to a crisis. Social media can create a reputational crisis that would never have occurred “pre-internet”, demanding fast, honest, transparent communications and not “corporate-speak.” As you develop the plan and procedures, identify the channels used by your stakeholders. Are customers talking about your company on Twitter? Facebook? Monitor the channels and be prepared to respond quickly if an issue gains momentum. Have initial statements for various scenarios written, vetted and approved well before they are needed.
5. Practice and Drill. Revise. Practice and Drill Again. Identify the most likely crisis scenarios that could occur in your organization and prepare crisis management templates to address them. Conduct drills to help team members get used to moving quickly to activate the plan. When you drill, use your templates, actually draft communications and conduct mock interviews.
Smart organizations have operational crisis management / emergency response plans, business continuity plans/ protocols and a crisis communication plan in place. The three plans should work together to help the organization prepare, prevent and mitigate the crises that will inevitably occur and the damage they can cause. Communication is arguably the most important element to every crisis response. Be prepared to do it right with an effective crisis communication plan.

Deb Hileman, CMP, is president and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management, a crisis management training and consulting firm based in Denver, Colo. She has more than 20 years’ experience managing difficult business issues and a variety of crises, from natural disasters to criminal investigations and humans behaving badly. Her work spans public and privately held companies and non-profit organizations in a variety of industries. Known as a voice of calm in the midst of chaos, Deb has earned a reputation as a trusted strategist and advisor to C-suite executives, operations and other organizational stakeholders. She has successfully managed strategic communications for business issues including natural disasters, labor strikes, criminal prosecutions and federal civil investigations, workplace violence, executive malfeasance, investor litigation, wrongful death and patient abuse investigations, mergers, acquisitions and corporate bankruptcies, among others.

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