I had an interesting call from a PR colleague today that sparked an idea for a post. My colleague has a client who wanted her to find them a crisis communications “workbook” or fill-in-the-blank template to create a crisis plan. Apparently the client company was not anticipating any issues, but rather wanted to check a task off their corporate ‘bucket list’.
My colleague rightly believed that such an approach was short sighted and she was working to bolster her argument with opinions from other subject matter experts.
I am sure an internet search would quickly turn up some templates. I have looked at a few that colleges and associations have posted, for example. However, my counsel was that while such tools were out there, I could not recommend them as the be-all and end-all of crisis planning. Here’s why.
Every organization is unique. Even those that provide the same kind of goods or services as many competitors, each has its own unique culture, history, customers, and stakeholders. As such, each has its own unique set of vulnerabilities and most likely potential crises to prepare for.
What’s more, no two crises are alike. Although a company may suffer the same kind of crisis more than once, for example, a data breach, each event will unfold differently and will require its own strategy and messaging.
Having said that, yes, there are a lot of checklists, structures and processes in an effective crisis communication plan that will be used in the same way regardless of the type of incident or adverse event. But no off-the-shelf workbook will address the myriad organizational personalities, processes and policies already in place that have a direct impact on how a crisis plan will function. A template or workbook might be a good starting point to build a crisis communication plan, but it cannot provide the kind of end product that will ultimately be most effective when the need arises. And it will arise.
At ICM, our approach is to start the planning process with a vulnerability study to determine our client’s unique areas of risk and the most probable kinds of crises it may face. We use the results of that effort to build a crisis plan and strategy that addresses specifically the most likely issues that company needs to be prepared for.
Working closely with management, we craft a plan that incorporates current company policies and procedures into the communications strategy and crisis team structure. Once the plan is complete, we conduct a training session with members of the crisis team to prepare them for their individual responsibilities should the plan be activated. Finally, we recommend that the plan be exercised at least annually, and more often if possible.
Research suggests that only about half of companies have any kind of crisis plan in place. Given the fresh crop of incidents and disasters that hit the news and social media every day, I can only recommend that EVERY organization—whether business, non-profit, educational or religious institution, and government agency— should start the crisis planning process today. If there is already a plan, dust it off and make sure it contains everything needed to address crisis communications in the age of instant news and social media. Then, run a drill to find the bugs and fix them. Plan. Train. Execute. Evaluate. Fix and Repeat.
The investment made in a crisis communications plan will pay for itself quickly when the inevitable occurs. It is always easier (and much less costly) to prepare and prevent, than to repair and repent.