Crisis! Picture it: There’s been a tragic equipment failure at one of your facilities, and media are reporting terrible news from the scene. Or, your servers are hacked, and customer data is fully compromised. Perhaps an otherwise-routine inspection at one of your manufacturing plants has inadvertently caused an environmental disaster for an entire community. Lives hang in the balance.
Quick! What do you do?
The middle of a media storm is the worst time and place to create a crisis communications plan. People are hurt, and property is damaged. Executives are calling and the board of directors wants twice-daily status reports. Reporters, photographers, videographers and even passers-by with mobile phones are reporting, broadcasting video or sharing images from the scene of the incident. Your organization’s name or logo appears prominently in every story and picture.
These situations are never easy, but they can be managed effectively and with a good heart if you’ve planned ahead. A solid crisis communications plan isn’t necessarily one that covers every possible scenario and outlines every step of a response. But preparing a plan ahead of an emergency does force your organization to ask tough questions early enough that you can anticipate basic communication needs and be ready to respond quickly and professionally to the real-life situation as it unfolds.
I’ve been on both sides of this equation. As a reporter, I covered multiple stories that required companies, city officials, government agencies and prominent citizens to respond to my questions, help me get the facts out in the open and, in their case, help minimize damage to their reputation or brand. As a corporate communicator and media specialist, I’ve helped organizations develop crisis plans to address everything from avian flu to data breaches to active shooters.
Crisis communications plans are not easy to create or maintain, but they are necessary. And that’s the first step of any plan – to acknowledge you need one. Then, be sure to secure buy-in for the plan across your C-suite, from the president, to your general counsel, to the head of facilities and to each member of your information security team.
Your plan should clearly outline the resources you’ll need to assemble when a crisis breaks. Know who among your leadership team should be notified and when. Appoint authority figures and points-of-contact for your organization. Have contact lists ready to go and make sure they’re accurate.
Next, consider locations where you intend to set up media briefings and have the contracts and legal agreements in place that you’ll need in order to set up and activate a crisis center on short notice. Then plan for a back-up location just in case. (Seriously, when you start thinking about a crisis, consider the worst, and then dial it up another three notches.)
As you create your plan, consider multiple scenarios that seem plausible for your organization. Then create specific plans to address each one. Again, you won’t be able to cover every contingency, but the experience of planning for some of the biggest threats will allow you to create a template and to improvise in other situations, however implausible they seem at this moment.
Once your plan is in place and approved by the powers-that-be, save it and share it. Make sure every player has a copy. And then review it every six months. You’ll want to keep it fresh, replace people who leave the organization, and keep each scenario top-of-mind. If you have the luxury, test the plan with a tabletop exercise or dry run. This will help others visualize the experience and identify gaps in each response.
When the crisis arrives, you and members of your leadership team will have an extra boost in confidence knowing they have a plan to respond. Improvisation will be necessary, of course, but you won’t have to start from scratch. And you’ll be better prepared to get out front and control the message.
Good luck, and be careful out there.
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