Fire, flood, storm, scandal, faulty products – when things go wrong you need a plan to keep your business in a positive light while communicating key information to the people who need it.
In a crisis every second counts. As a small business, you often have several groups that you need to communicate your message to. Your employees, customers, vendors, and the public all need to from you, but each group has different informational needs.
This is especially relevant in today’s climate with the COVID-19 pandemic and protests. These are uncertain times and when your business is affected you need to get the message out. Whether you have a policy change such as requiring masks for all guests and employees, or your hours of operation change, communication keeps things running smoothly and ensures everyone is on the same page.
A crisis communication plan allows you to communicate with each group, providing the information that they need. A couple of posts on social media won’t cut it. All of your stakeholders need to hear from you in a timely manner. How you do that will play a large part in determining how well your company manages the crisis
What is Crisis Communication? Why do You Need it?
When your company’s operations are interrupted due to a crisis, timing is crucial. You need to communicate quickly with both internal and external stakeholders. Depending on the crisis, you will need to contact one or more of these groups, the people who are directly affected.
- Your employees – Need to know how their roles are affected.
- Your customers – Need to know how your operations are affected (their access to your products or services).
- The media – Need to know the details of the event so that they can relay them to the public (the media can also be a valuable partner in your crisis communication plan).
- Your vendors and suppliers – Need to know how the event will affect your requirements for their services or products.
- Members of the community – Need to know how the event within your business affects them.
- Other stakeholders – Have specific information that relates to them, such as your insurer will need to know the details of the event.
Without a plan, your brand’s reputation could be damaged, your stakeholders could be put off or upset, you could incur legal liability and financial damages, and you could even be forced to close. There’s a lot that can go wrong and in the heat of the moment, you want to be in control of all the information that is going out. When you lose that control, it could be detrimental to your company.
Phases of a Crisis
The best time to establish a crisis communication plan is before a crisis occurs. This allows you to create the plan and work through the steps, tweak if necessary, and do drills so you can make sure it serves you well.
There are four phases of crisis communications. Each phase has different requirements.
- Readiness – This stage is more about awareness of potential threats. Of course, you can’t anticipate every single thing that could go wrong, but you can identify some and plan accordingly. From there, you can run through various crisis scenarios to get a feel for what could happen – and what could go wrong.
- Response – This stage is crucial and requires a response to the crisis that is accurate, quick, and thorough. Accuracy is very important because inaccurate information can lead to rumors and panic. It is important that you don’t delay your response.
- Acknowledge the crisis
- Avoid vagueness
- Acknowledge the impact of the crisis and who the victims are
- Take ownership of any wrongdoing or neglect on your company’s part
- Investigate the situation
- Measure your words, don’t say things just because you think it’s what people want to hear, or it is right to say
- Be transparent
- Share any corrective action that your company is taking
- Respond on several channels such as Facebook, Twitter, your blog, your website, and the media
- Reassurance – Once you have responded to the crisis, you need to move into the reassurance phase. This is where your social media and content marketing become key. You need to draft your initial response, but then create a campaign that focuses on relaying information. Facebook is good because you can update quickly and frequently. The same goes for Instagram and even Twitter. This is the point where you reassure people. If you are responsible for the event, apologize and move on.
- Recovery – This is the final phase of crisis management. There are two types of recovery, long term and short term. Long term involves exploring how your brand will adapt and change to come out better after this experience. Short term involves an immediate response with as much accurate, fast information as possible. Lessons learned come at this point in the crisis.
Dealing with a crisis is inevitable in business. Understanding these four stages will help you plan and respond quickly, accurately, and with authority.
Elements of a Crisis Communication Plan
Entire volumes have been written on putting together a crisis communication plan. This guide will obviously provide a little more of a high level view, but it will give you enough information to get started.
- Crisis communication team – When there is a crisis, this team will move into action collecting information, working with the media, identifying key messages, and assembling talking points. They monitor the crisis, response efforts, and of course crisis communication including press releases. The point is to control the flow of information both in and out to prevent rumors and false information from being reported as well as keeping everyone informed with factual information. Clearly each team member’s role or roles and conduct drills to keep the team functioning smoothly when an actual crisis occurs.
- One single spokesperson – When you have a single spokesperson communicating with the media and reviewing all information and messages flowing out, you have less chance of misinformation being released. This keeps messaging consistent. In short, all messaging should flow through that one person and it is the team’s job to make sure that person has all available information.
- Procedural checklist – When the crisis communication team is activated, they should have a checklist in place to guide information gathering, communication with internal and external stakeholders, team member roles, and other points of the response as appropriate.
- Detailed Plan of Action – This is also known as Standard Operating Procedures, or SOP. Where the checklist gives the high points of the response efforts, the detailed plan of action gets in the weeds and explains every aspect of each team member’s role. It should be so detailed that anyone could pick it up and step into any of the roles and be able to perform well.
- Call down list and activation procedures – A call down list, or cascade call list, is simply a list of employee numbers that ensures all of your employees are safe and accounted for. When it is activated, the first person on the list, usually someone on the crisis communication team, calls the next person on the list. That person calls the next person and so on. If someone can’t reach their appointed call, they are to report to the person who activated the list so they can activate the next person on the list and find out why the missing employee could not be reached. If you have a larger company with several sections or branches you may want to create a list for each one, but it is still activated by the appointed person on the team.
- Key messages and talking points – The best time to identify key messages related to a crisis is before the crisis occurs. Try to plan for any event that may affect your organization and create messaging that relates to it including possible questions posed by the media and your responses. You can build templates that include this information:
- Identify the crisis
- Cause of the crisis
- Description (brief) of what happened
- Disclose if there are victims (no PII, no names or identities until the family has been notified, no numbers unless you know for absolute certain)
- Timetable for future actions, recovery activities
- Communicate compassion for anyone affected, victims, etc.
- Public or employee response if appropriate (i.e. social distancing, wash hands, wear a mask during COVID-1 pandemic)
If there are victims either harmed or killed, you cannot release any personally identifiable information, or PII, without authorization from the individual or their next of kin. This is a matter that you should run through your legal team before going public.
- Internal communications procedures – This explains how you will communicate with your employees, managers, owners, and business partners.
- External communications procedures – This explains how you will communicate with your customers, the public, vendors, and the community.
- Other audiences – This includes survivors who have been impacted by the crisis, families of employees, and families of victims.
- Social media protocols – This explains how you will manage social media, including timelines, messaging, responding to social media comments and messages, channels, and identifies the team member or members responsible for social media.
- Website protocols – This explains how you will update your company website to keep visitors current on your response efforts. This could be a banner at the top of the page with information or directing visitors to a separate page. It could also mean noting closures, changes in hours of operation, branch closures, new policies (i.e. mask requirements for all customers and employees), changes in production, product recalls, and other relevant information.
- Media protocols – This explains how media will be contacted and who is responsible for communicating with them (usually just one or two people). How talking points will be created, updated, and communicated to the media (will you allow media on the property? In the facility? Calls and email only?).
- Media list and key contacts – This should be in both electronic and hard copy form. Include all media contacts with the outlet, phone numbers, email, and other contact information if available. The same for key contacts while may include company owners, business partners, mayor, state governor, EPA, USDA, local universities, and other individuals, government officials, government regulators, and agencies that may have a stake in any specific crisis. You don’t want to be scrambling for phone numbers when every second counts.
- Templates and key company information – Most of this is information that you will use during any crisis, such as:
- Media query log (document media calls and responses)
- Fact sheets
- Company information and history
- Biographies and profiles for each administrator and the owner, partners, etc.
- Communication checklists for all audiences
- Press release template
- Media briefing template
- Social media policy
- Media policy
- Crisis communication team list
- List of all employees with contact information
- Call down list
- Training material – All training material, which may include your SOP, should be included so that transitioning someone onto the crisis communication team is a smooth, organized process.
Crisis Communication Best Practices
Every crisis has its own set of challenges and unique features that will affect your response. It is impossible to create a cookie-cutter response that is applicable across the board. However, there are some crisis communication best practices that can help ensure the most favorable outcome possible.
- Respond quickly. Try to have an initial response within an hour of the event. A quick initial response sets the tone for how your organization is perceived and can help alleviate panic.
- Provide frequent updates even if there are no real new developments.
- Make accuracy a top priority and carefully check all your facts before you release them.
- Appoint one crisis spokesperson in order to maintain consistency.
- Keep your crisis spokesperson informed of all crisis events and keep a steady stream of key message points flowing so they are as current as possible.
- Make employee and public safety a top priority.
- Utilize all of your available communication channels to keep everyone informed, including your website, social media, email, intranet, SMS, phone, media briefings, mass notification systems, etc.
- Always express concern for any victims and give condolences/sympathy to their families.
- Keep your employees in the loop at all times and make sure they are the first to know of the crisis. They should always be a part of your initial response.
- Be prepared to provide grief, trauma, and stress, counseling to employees, victims, and their families.
A crisis communication plan is something you hope you never have to use, but when you do need it you are glad you prepared. This is not something you can gloss over or do halfheartedly. Lives could hang in the balance and your company’s reputation could be at stake. No matter the size of your business, large or small, you need a plan of action in place that will help you navigate crisis situations.
When you are ready to create your company’s crisis communication plan, Writer Access has experts who can help you do it right. Contact us today to get started. This is too important to put off another day.
Stephanie M. is a writer living in southern Louisiana. She provides a customer-centric approach to her work, crafting each piece with the care and attention that results in professional, polished, SEO rich content that engages readers and does its job.