No two emergencies are the same.
Yet many crisis communications factors remain constant from situation to situation. While proper planning may not address all situations and circumstances, developing a crisis communications plan before a crisis occurs is a worthwhile undertaking for your organization or business. In the middle of an emergency, when the focus is safety for all, your immediate response and prescriptive approach will help keep your stakeholders calm and informed.
Below you'll find 10 tips for developing a basic crisis communications and response plan.
Put one person in charge of developing and implementing your crisis communications plan. It will be this person’s responsibility to immediately respond to emergencies, gather and organize the communications team, and lead the team to develop key messages and a response strategy.
This tree includes the hierarchy of who needs to be notified, how initial contacts will occur and who is responsible to contact who. There are services and software available that can help automate this process.
The spokesperson may change depending upon the crisis, severity of the crisis, or as the crisis proceeds or changes, but it is important that there is one person who serves as your spokesperson. Make sure that your spokesperson has the necessary training to communicate clearly and respond under pressure. Before your spokesperson makes a statement, consult your legal department if there is loss of life or potential liability of any sort.
Prior to an emergency, identify a command center — whether a physical location or virtual — where your team will gather. In the event of emergency, the crisis communications team will immediately know where to gather, call or login. You will want to immediately discuss the situation, the extent of damage and losses, and any potential damage and risks on horizon. The most important discussion is the loss of life and the safety of others.
Understand in advance when, if and how you will use email, local media, automated telephone messages, automated text messages, internet/website and/or social media to communicate your response. A severe emergency may require a news conference and regular updates to keep stakeholders informed. Discuss options for monitoring external communications and social media about your event and develop a method for citizens or customers to ask questions and provide feedback. Keep in mind the immediacy of today’s communications, and remember that video and mobile posts will likely be some of the first forms of communications to spread regarding the crisis.
In any emergency, there are resources that you may need to call upon immediately — printers, sign companies, public relations services, graphical resources, and rental agencies for tents, generators, wireless microphones (in the event you hold news conferences outside where power may not be immediately available). Know these sources in advance.
Discuss with your team example emergency scenarios including flooding or other acts of nature, a break in a water/sewer system, pollutants in water, loss of life, major fires, explosions or accidents, strikes or protests, damage to infrastructure that impacts safe travel, criminal acts that shake a community or impact safety of others. Identify who the stakeholders may be and develop a sample crisis communications response plan including key messages, channels and resources for each scenario.
Your website should include key information about your organization. This is helpful in emergency and non-emergency situations. This will eliminate the need for news outlets to obtain this information from you during a crisis. This is also the web location where you can upload news releases, emergency updates or other key information to disseminate through area news channels and social mediums.
Discuss your crisis communications plan with key leaders and all departments to help ensure everyone understands their role.
In the event that your computer or network is damaged or key team members are unavailable, you will want your crisis communications plan to be located in more than one place and available to the entire team.
One extra tip. If you have a crisis communications plan with all of the above included, be sure to review your plan on a regular basis to verify that all of your information is accurate and current. In the event of an emergency, an up-to-date crisis communications plan will help guide your ability to respond calmly and immediately. Also, it will enhance your reputation as an organization that cares and responds effectively when it matters most.
Dawn Williams is a communications professional with experience helping cities, counties and state organizations as well as private clients develop and implement strategic communications. Throughout her career, Dawn has helped organizations be prepared to communicate during an emergency, and also directed communications in crisis situations.