Considerations for Developing Crisis Communications Plans

In 2010, news editors identified 7,378 “newsworthy” crises, according to the Institute for Crisis Management’s (ICM) (www.crisesexperts.com) 2010 Annual Crisis Report. The BP oil spill, the earthquake in Haiti and Toyota’s recall issues were among leading headlines.

While many businesses will never have to face the enormity of these crises, even “small” crises can trigger financial aftershocks that can tumble a business. It has been said that solid reputations can be ruined in minutes of poorly handled negative events. And, studies have shown that many business owners fail to spend as much time and effort protecting their businesses as they did building it.

The ICM defines a business crisis as “Any problem or disruption that triggers negative stakeholder reactions that could impact the organization’s financial strength and ability to do what it does.”

Crises can range from relatively small events, such as an upset customer to large-scale natural disasters. Now with social media and the 24/7 news cycle, there is an even larger forum for complaints and issues to reach unprecedented audiences.

“Crises can be communicated in real time by reporters, emergency/first response personnel and even passersby and not always accurately,” said Jennifer Milikien, owner of Local Color Communications in San Antonio. “That makes your crisis communication plan that much more important, as a lack of organization and preparedness can lead to misinformation, chaos and unnecessary confusion.”

Leading indicators of success in a crisis situation include a solid reputation in the community and an established plan of action.

“A company will face its biggest public relations challenge in a crisis if there has not been any work done to communicate with key audiences prior to the crisis,” said Carol A. Scott, Principal with Kailo Communications Studio (www.kailocs.com) in Corpus Christi. “Businesses must invest in a sustained, planned effort to engage audiences well before a crisis occurs.”

Many times, developing the communications plan identifies weaknesses and opportunities that the company can use to strengthen risk management plans and sometimes even identify smoldering potential crises before they occur. Businesses can develop effective crisis communications plans by starting to identify the possible crises.

Milikien said. “Certainly a business should have a plan in place for disasters it has already faced, but it’s also a good idea to look at those faced by competitors and business partners. Learn from their mistakes lest you’re doomed to repeat them.”

Milikien provided an outline for a standard crisis communications plan, including:

* Stakeholder list – people, companies and individuals who have the most to gain or lose from a crisis within your business.

* Primary target audiences – Creating a list of people your business needs to communicate with will help you stay on target with messaging during a crisis.

* Identify Key Spokesperson(s) – it’s important to identify subject matter experts who are already media/camera trained or can be quickly trained to ensure you create a face and voice that can be trusted during the crisis. This may or may not be the CEO/top executive and can change based on the crisis at hand.

* Details/Responsibilities of key staff – establishing these responsibilities beforehand ensures that there is no duplication of effort and that important tasks don’t “fall through the cracks.” For example, know who will initiate the call tree, where the ideal location for a command center will be and what methods of communication/media will be used to communicate messages.

* Call tree – Establishing one is vital so that all key staff members are notified and kept informed during a crisis. Create and share with all key staff a branching call tree to make the process efficient.

* Follow up/After action – once a crisis is over it’s important for the leadership to meet soon after to discuss what went well and what needs improvement.

Scott emphasized that training is critical in the planning process.

“The media spokesperson, for example, can quickly get overwhelmed if not trained properly, and all employees should be trained on communications protocol,” Scott said. “Training and practice ensure you are ready when the time comes.”

Training also allows for early decision making.

“Trying to make all these decisions once in the midst of the crisis is stressful and can lead to bad decision making,” Milikien explained. “These plans are by their very nature working documents and should never be considered ‘set in stone,’ as each crisis has its own distinct personality. Regularly review and update your plan, as staffing and company procedure/policy changes on a regular basis.”

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to not respond at all, Scott adds.

“There will be a story aired or written about a situation, and when you don’t respond at all reporters will find someone to fill that airtime or space,” Scott said. “Respond with what is factual, with compassion and with concern for the individuals affected by the crisis but respond quickly.”

Kelly Morris, APR, Principal at Kelly Morris Public Relations in San Antonio added that there are many examples of companies “that, in the middle of a crisis, tried to conceal information or flat out dissembled, and there are examples of companies who stood up straight and were able to communicate what needed to be communicated.”

Sharing an example of the appropriate way to communicate with an audience, Morris described a healthcare system that had to lay off several hundred employees; however, the company knew they had to quickly answer several basic questions for its audiences, including “What happened? Why did it happen? What are you doing to fix it and what are you doing to keep it from happening again.”

“The healthcare system stepped up to the plate and released the news in a direct and thoughtful manner. In the media, it became a one-day story, and then they went back to the business of taking care of their primary stakeholders, including the employees who were being laid off and those who were being retained,” Morris explained.

This company followed the basics of not only having a communications plan in place but knowing the questions they would need to answer quickly to get back to the business at hand.

Starting a communications plan can be daunting, so Milikien recommends talking with the American Red Cross. Their breadth of understanding of various crises enables them to provide solid advice and counsel and offer example plans.

For both operational risk management and communications management, experts advise working with a professional.

While some crises can not be avoided, how crises are managed can be planned thus minimizing damaging outcomes. Investing early in crisis management is much like purchasing insurance toward a businesses reputation and ultimately a company’s financial security.

By Lisa Cruz ( lzcruz@msn.com)

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