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5 tips for building a crisis communication plan

A crisis communication plan is a set of steps and procedures that outlines how a company should communicate with its employees, stakeholders and the public during an emergency.

Communication is critical in any emergency, but it is an often-overlooked aspect of a company's overall crisis management plan. In today's COVID-19 health crisis, clear, accurate and up-to-date communications are critical. Companies must effectively communicate policy and procedure changes to employees, as well as manage the preparation and delivery of messages to third parties, the public and the media.

In this article, we'll describe the elements of a crisis communication plan, discuss why it is an essential part of crisis management planning, and offer guidance on developing and implementing this plan.

Importance of crisis communications

Without a crisis communication plan, employees and their families will not know how a company is responding to the crisis. Stakeholders and other third parties will not know what is happening, and government agencies, first responders and other emergency services will not know how the crisis is progressing. In short, lack of communication about the crisis can be almost as serious as the crisis itself.

During the coronavirus pandemic, one of the key concerns has been the accuracy of information delivered by the U.S. White House and its various emergency agencies. Several spokespersons emerged as the go-to people for accurate and timely updates on the number of confirmed cases, fatalities due to the virus, developments in vaccines and other remedies, delivery of COVID-19 test kits and, perhaps most significantly, difficulties the healthcare system experienced in getting needed critical supplies and equipment, such as face masks and ventilators.

The primary goal is to keep communicating, even if nothing has changed.

A crisis communication plan defines the overall strategy and methodology for communicating information about the crisis to everyone who needs to know. The plan's success, especially over a protracted time, will affect the overall perception of how the crisis was handled. This can also help ensure the company's reputation is preserved, and possibly even enhanced. Stories abound, such as the Tylenol scare in the 1980s, where poor communications -- both internal and external -- had a dramatic effect on Johnson & Johnson's reputation. The Tylenol crisis is also a case study in how a major organization used communications to turn its fortunes around and exit the crisis stronger than before.

1. Preplan for crisis communications

Before an organization can develop a communication plan, management needs to establish and approve several components. These components may include:

  • membership of the crisis communications team;
  • leadership of the crisis communications team;
  • identification of authorized company spokespersons;
  • training and preparation for spokespersons;
  • overall crisis communications strategy;
  • approach for managing the TV/radio/print media;
  • approach for managing social media; and
  • approach for communicating with families and other key entities.

Many books and articles have been written about crisis communications. Examples include, The Manager's Guide to Quick Crisis Response: Effective Action in an Emergency and Executing Crisis: A C-Suite Crisis Leadership Survival Guide, both from Rothstein Publishing. These can be helpful in getting started and as handy reference guides as needed during a crisis.

2. Identify potential audiences

Crisis communication plans affect many different people and organizations. Among the most important are employees and their families; stakeholders, shareholders and investors; clients and B2B customers; members of the company supply chain; government at all levels; and the general public via traditional media and social media. Where plans often fail is that they do not reach all the relevant consumers of information about the crisis. Therefore, company leaders must define message recipients in the planning stages.

3. Gather technologies and resources

Aligned with a crisis communications plan are various technologies and resources that help deliver messages to appropriate parties. These can include:

  • prewritten messages, such as press releases, that can be updated and distributed as needed;
  • blank templates that can be formatted into whatever message needs to be sent;
  • emergency notification system (ENS) technology, which can quickly distribute messages to employees, stakeholders, third parties and others quickly and accurately;
  • an externally hosted ENS, if possible, that can reduce the likelihood that the system is disrupted by the crisis;
  • internal collaboration platforms, such as SharePoint, that can be accessed by employees and other authorized parties for message distribution;
  • a phone system all-page feature, in which all phones can be used for message delivery using their embedded speakers; commands can be entered into the switch to broadcast a message to all phones equipped with a speaker;
  • audio and video conferencing systems, whether on site or via the internet, to facilitate timely meetings and other crisis management activities;
  • social media, where messages about the crisis can be posted to provide updated information, quash rumors and post brief stories on how employees have been coping with the crisis; and
  • a news media briefing area, equipped for delivering status reports, answering media questions and keeping audiences informed.

4. Develop a crisis communications plan structure

Following is an outline of a crisis communications plan template that can be used to initiate a plan or update an existing one.

Introduction, purpose and scope
These sections provide the overall foundation for the plan. Include a revision table and a place for authorized signatures, as well as a list of employees and departments that are responsible for crisis communications.

Policy and procedures
Describe the company's policy toward communicating in a crisis, resources it will use, frequency and type of message, and who will deliver messages. Procedures are typically delineated by pre-crisis, during the crisis and post-crisis.

Crisis communications teams
Identify primary and alternate members of the crisis communications team. Identify primary and alternate company spokespersons.

Crisis communications strategy and approach
Describe how the company will approach the provision of communications to a broad spectrum of recipients. This can include press releases, news media briefings and use of ENS and similar technology to deliver messages. Define the type of information that can be released and how much of it.

Crisis communications resources
These are the tools used to deliver messages to defined audiences. Certain approaches, such as live press briefings and ENS delivery of crisis updates to employees, may be better for some audiences. Due to the need for rapid dissemination of news, electronic technologies are probably most appropriate.

5. Outline steps for each stage of the crisis

Communication must remain a priority through all stages of a crisis to keep decision-makers and stakeholders informed. Organizations should identify how to communicate during each stage of a crisis.

Activities can involve preparing message distribution systems, such as ensuring all contact databases, call trees and other lists are up to date. Prepare general press release templates that can be quickly edited based on the crisis and train the employees you've selected as company spokespersons to deal with the media. Establish or identify social media accounts where official communication will occur. Train employees on what to say to external parties during a crisis.

During the crisis
The primary goal is to keep communicating, even if nothing has changed. It is better to communicate too often than not enough. Conduct periodic meetings or conference calls with business leaders to ensure information to be distributed is accurate and current. Keep in contact with crisis management teams and keep senior management informed of new information. Ensure that senior management -- or whoever is designated to authorize releases -- approves any new or updated information.

Once the crisis has subsided or, at least, is being managed effectively, conduct meetings with all communications team members and spokespersons to discuss how well the crisis communications plan worked and lessons learned. Prepare a report to senior management on crisis communications.

Like any plan dealing with emergency situations, be sure to review and update your crisis communication plan periodically and exercise it to ensure that all players know their roles and responsibilities when a crisis occurs.

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