Crisis Communication Guide 2021 (including free template)
Your step-by-step crisis communication guide with a spreadsheet template included.
n. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point.
n. An unstable condition, as in political, social, or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change.
Before we begin. A complete crisis communication checklist/plan can be found on this public spreadsheet we created.
No matter the size, age or legacy of your company - it’s vulnerable to a crisis. Nowadays there are more and more data breaches or social media fallouts from events that seemingly requires a certain level of alertness and ability to react.
However, the issue right now is that many, many businesses are setting themselves up for failure by only being reactive to potential crises. I don’t want to be a fear monger but some of the key issues from a lack of proactive crisis planning can include:
- Operations will breakdown as no-one is a designated spokesperson.
- Stakeholders will not know what is happening or there will be a lack of clear messaging to address the situation - scared, confused and angry stakeholders are not great for business.
- From the outside in, you will be placed into ongoing lists of PR disasters or PR breakdowns of 20XX. Not a good image to have.
- Solving the situation will take longer and probably have some speed bumps along the way.
- Financial impacts will be far worse if you don’t stem the situation.
Below are just some of the basic steps needed to be taken to ensure you have the right crisis plan in place or have at least understood how much needs to go into one before putting it off for longer.
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Having recently read a great article titled - Why Nuclear Power Professionals Are Serious About Joking Around - I felt that it would really work well with this crisis communication guide, especially this specific pointer - anticipation of crisis.
In the article, the nuclear professionals spend the day on a company retreat with a twist:
Everyone has to play out the worst of the worst disasters and complete challenges, in groups, with the goal being to think up problems, test theories and have fun whilst combating a mock core meltdown with water guns.
So what’s the point with this? Not only are the nuclear professionals being proactive, they are encouraging interaction with the pre-listed scenarios in an engaging way. This sounds far more memorable than a 4-hour presentation that rattles off the consequences of the crisis.
Now you may not have the pleasure of team retreats with the sole purpose of team-building through crisis scenarios but you can certainly gather your crisis team together and spend time brainstorming problems and figuring out solutions.
With these brainstorming sessions you will probably find that some situations are preventable just on the basis of tweaking or changing current methods or practices. Also, when you are proactive, your responses already have foundations set with key information and data, as well as placing variables in a ‘script’ or ‘plan’ allowing for very easy and rapid implementation when needed.
But again that requires you to be proactive with your planning, not reactive. The goal of being proactive is to have a crisis response plan in place. However you do it, be proactive and get into the rhythm of anticipating a crisis.
Honestly, this doesn’t require too much thinking. You need to have the management team as a default in the crisis team and you need to ensure the owner/CEO is leading the pack.
Alongside the CEO/owner should be the PR Manager or whoever is suited and qualified to stand alongside and help manage the crisis in terms of what should be said and done.
It would be good to have social media managers and web managers in place too. They are on the frontline and understand what the mood and consensus there is in the public as well as amongst the stakeholders.
They can relay any spikes in online traffic or tone of messages to gather some insight into the real problems and hear what the public’s thoughts are - which may help steer the problem onto the right track.
I mentioned that you need a crisis squad, which is vital but something else that is also imperative to successful crisis management is to have the right spokespeople running the show.
What makes for the right spokespeople whittles down to 2 things:
- The right skills
- The right position
The Right Skills
First things first you need to figure out the assignments for the spokespeople (refer to this spreadsheet). Once you have assignments locked-in you need to start matching up the skills of your crisis team with the assignments of the spokesperson.
Whilst the CEO of a big corporate can talk-the-talk to a stadium, they may have issues with one-to-one interviews. Live TV may also be an issue.
Don’t leave this to crisis day to start finding out where your CEO lacks in terms of media training, it’s really not the best time to find this out.
The Right Position
As a company you need to spend time diligently looking to match up the right people with the right(?) crisis.
I will say right now that the majority, if not all, of the crises your company goes through will command the attention of the CEO/owner and designation as spokesperson. That being said there may be some situations such as business finance that will require the CFO or head of finance to lead - but again only if they are suited with skills and abilities - so it’s again important to plan, designate and review consistently.
When I say notification systems, I mean tools that can ping you and your stakeholders with information in an instant.
This includes and by all means is not limited to: smartphones (probably multiple), chat apps (again probably multiple), social media (you get the idea), email (yup, multiple too).
Back in the day there was a phone, email, fax and website as a notification portal for your stakeholders, now people are expected to have answers via social media in an instant, they feel really cheesed off if you don’t have a blog post up about the situation and so on.
In this instance you need to clarify a plan that pushes out crisis communications to your stakeholders in the most efficient manner. Social media most probably being the number one method of notifications.
Now for monitoring systems. This can be as high-tech or low-tech as you want. It depends how quickly you want to know about the spread of a crisis within the media ecosystem.
Systems and platforms to consider include:
There’s also social media tracking, again this is where news spreads so pay attention to it, from free to paid platforms to test out. Have a designated user that is on top of all monitoring systems daily.
I know that any PR is good PR but in a crisis instance the term 'earned media' instantly takes a back seat.
Figure out who your internal and external stakeholders are. They need to be communicated to first, they need to have crisis messaging pushed to them first.
You also need to consider who that stakeholder is. The messaging and method of communication is different for employees as it is to shareholders. So work on your stakeholders list and develop communications that will resonate with them best.
A key tip here is that your employees should be considered your biggest and best stakeholders. Consider how many social media accounts there are collectively talking about your brand thanks to your employees.
1 employee with 100 friends is likely to have more of a ‘viral’ effect than your paid push via promotion channels so try to focus on using this method to communicate with real-world users of your services/products.
Employees can communicate and spread news and messaging amongst their peers which can, hopefully, result in the network effect where your news will be spread for free and word-of-mouth.
When crisis strikes there will be some time before providing a response, the facts and details need to be delivered to the crisis team so that it can be dissecting and swapped out with the variables you set in the planning stage.
This should be a rapid process with the proactive planning that you have been doing but a real-time statement release, in this case a holding statement, is vital to show stakeholders that you have acknowledged the situation and matter at hand.
In a crisis situation you can have pre-planned holding statements ready to go live inside your company’s online newsroom. Now this could be sitting in draft or it could be a dedicated crisis newsroom that goes live during a situation, either way you have an easy-to-access statement for anyone internally to access and set it live.
The purpose of a holding statement is to not grovel and plead for forgiveness but to simply acknowledge the situation, provide easy to access contact information and have a central location where updates can be added and viewed by stakeholders.
Need some inspiration? 👉 Find a press release example.
In the spreadsheet there is an additional tab for post-crisis review. It’s not lengthy, it’s not a soul-breaking process - it’s there to help evaluate and update processes. Most of us will shy away from this behavior because it means people, management, etc, are now scanning and looking for problems.
Assess, discuss and develop strategies around how to fix the issues witnessed and update potential scenarios that may occur.
This is part of being proactive too, you now have the facts and figures of how your company reacted, what the stakeholder reaction was, how the entire process was managed and what can be done to streamline the process.
You had your holding statements on standby - were they right for the situation?
- Did you need to adjust?
- If so, how much time was spent making changes?
- What additional statements should be created and why?
- Which journalists that mentioned the crisis need additional media relations work?
Once you have run through the assessment and review of how the crisis was handled, it’s time to implement changes and adapt your crisis communication plan to combat against any shortfalls you witnessed.
Assessment and review are all part of being proactive. It fine tunes your process and it helps your company deal with any crises in a far more efficient manner, limiting any fallout that would have otherwise caused additional damage.
Go into crisis communication mode in minutes, not hours
The crisis communication checklist can be found here and to save a copy and edit for your own needs simply click File > Make a Copy.