How to Write a Crisis Communications Plan? Start With the End in Mind

(Writer’s note: Every day in March we’ll have a fresh, free, new article on this topic. If you’d like to dig deeper, you may wish to purchase a recording of the teleseminar called Social Media & Crisis Communications. Here is your purchase link.)

By Gerard Braud

Using social media for crisis communications is still our primary discussion. But we needDSC_0159
to discuss one additional aspect of the crisis communication planning process before we dig deeper into social media.

While every crisis is unique, how you communicate during each crisis does not need to be unique. A hospital crisis is different than an oil company crisis. Each would have unique issues identified in their vulnerability assessment. The hospital crisis may range from a wrong site surgery to a pandemic. An oil company crisis may range from an oil spill and water pollution to a refinery fire and explosion. Yet these, and every other organization, could face a crisis such as workplace shooting, a mass injury, a bomb blast, a fire, executive misconduct, embezzlement and a variety of other crises.

In the end, regardless of the crisis, effective communications must take place. Employees will be chattering and clamoring for information. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube may become social media forums for rumors and ranting. The media may be waiting for you to issue a statement or hold a news conference.

My goal for you is that you should be able to issue your first official statement in one hour or less of the onset of the crisis, if it is a “sudden” event. In the age of social media, this is really a long time, because social media chatter will start immediately. The faster the better, but never longer than an hour.

The rules are initially different in a “smoldering” crisis, such as a case of executive behavior, which may be known to internal decision makers before it is made known to the public. All of the rules are the same once the executive behavior becomes known to the outside world.

Either way, the secret to writing a great Crisis Communications Plan is to start with the end in mind. The crisis begins with what I’ll call a flashpoint. What must you do in order to issue your first critical statement to all of you various audiences in one hour or less? How do you gather the information you need? How do you craft the statement quickly? How do you get approval to issue the statement? How to you get the first critical statement out to your audiences?

If there is a school shooting, a workplace shooting, a shooting at city hall or anywhere else in any other type of business, the crisis will unfold the same way. The event will happen, a call will go out to 911, employees and witnesses will begin to communicate via e-mail and social media. Cell phone photos and video will be posted to the web. The media will arrive in about 30 minutes or less and until they arrive, they will be taking photos and videos from the Internet, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. You will need to communicate quickly and accurate and the clock starts running right away.

Let us assume that on your best day, you can have a statement ready for the media in one hour or less. This means you have written your news release and your Crisis Management Team has marked it up with a red pen, demanded changes, and you have made those changes to their satisfaction.

You know on a clear sunny day that this will happen, so take the necessary steps on a clear sunny day to figure this out. The worst time to figure this out is in the throes of your crisis, when emotions and anxiety is high. That is why in yesterday’s article we offered the solution to hold a writing retreat so that you have both pre-written and pre-approved statements.

The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared.” I’ve lived that approach every day of my life. My strategy for writing a crisis communications plan is to make it far more thorough than any plan I’ve ever seen anyone else produce. It’s in my nature to go above and beyond the ordinary. I’ve witnessed too many mistakes in too many crises to not be fully prepared on a clear sunny day for what will happen on the darkest day. It is what makes my plans unique and guarantees communications success by the organizations that hold a license to use my plans.

What I’ve learned through decades of research is that most Crisis Communications Plans are flawed. They simply state, “gather information about the crisis,” rather than going the extra mile to list specific questions that need to be asked. Yes, I can’t make that up. They really say, “gather information about the crisis.”

The plans I write have a detailed list of precise questions you will want to ask in order to a) inform your Crisis Management Team and b) begin to fill in the blanks on your First Critical Statement and get it issued. This will also help you to further customize the pre-written communications templates in the addendum of your plan, that matches the particular crisis at hand.

After you gather the initial information, you must confer with your leadership team, i.e. Crisis Management Team. So, your Crisis Communications Plan needs to contain detailed information about how you will reach the team members. Most Crisis Communications Plans are flawed. They say, contact… and then they have a long list of job titles with no names, phone numbers or e-mail addresses. What a hug flaw. Your Crisis Management Team should only be 4 or 5 people and you need to know every way that you can contact them. And it needs to be in your plan with great detail.

Once you have gathered the facts and consulted with your Crisis Management Team, you need to write you first critical statement, i.e. news release… and get approval from your Crisis Management Team. Your Crisis Management Team needs to approve your pre-written templates for fast release, without major re-writes.

If it is a sudden crisis and there are many facts that are still unknown, but base facts that are known, you should use your First Critical Statement for your first release to the media, your employees and other stakeholders. If it is a smoldering crisis, you may be able to bypass the First Critical Statement, turn to the addendum of your plan, and customize one of your more specific pre-written statements and use it as your release to all of your audiences.

Once the statement is approved, how you release it depends upon how much attention your crisis is already getting. In many circumstances, you may need to call a traditional news conference.

If a news conferences is required, I suggest you follow these steps and outline them carefully in your plan.

1) Begin reading your statement to the media, but do not give them a copy of the statement until after the news conference is over.

2) As your spokesperson begins to speak, publish the statement to your organizations primary website.

3) As soon as your statement is published to the web, e-mail the statement to all of your employees and include a link to the website in the e-mail.

4) If necessary, send identical e-mails to various stakeholder groups.

5) Make posts to social media that include a link to your statement.

Yes… there it is, the priority list. Notice social media is fifth in the suggested line of priority. In this list, tried and true beats shiny and new.

If your crisis is an event that is still unfolding, you need to prepare to issue your next statement. Your goal should be to issue your next, more detailed statement within one hour or less. Therefore, your Crisis Communications Plan must very specifically outline all of the steps you must now take.

It is for this second release that I rely heavily upon my pre-written communications templates.

How detailed should your instructions be in your Crisis Communications Plan?

1) The goal of every one of the plans I create is to be so thorough in directions that nothing is forgotten, overlooked, or falls through the cracks.

2) My goal is for the person executing the plan to read the plan as they go and do exactly what the plan tells you to do. This is a different approach than most people take, but when anxiety and emotions are high, this approach insures communications success.

3) This approach also insures that if a veteran communicator is unavailable to manage the crisis communications, that anyone who can read and follow directions can skillfully execute the plan and issue the necessary communications.

So to recap, you’ve now identified your vulnerabilities, you’ve evaluated your audiences and how they want to receive information, and you’ve studied a three part approach to writing an effective Crisis Communications Plan.

In our next article, we go deeper into our core topic of social media to assess whether it is a viable communications tool for your employer, as well has how social media may be the source of your crisis.

 

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