Crisis Communication: How to Plan, Prepare, Execute and Assess Your Next Crisis

Your crisis communication plan is an important part of your overall communication strategy, and it can help in several ways.

First, it can help prevent a crisis from happening.

By identifying potential crisis issues ahead of time, it allows the organization the opportunity to take steps for preventing them from occurring.

Second, it provides a playbook for both the organization leadership and the communication team on roles, responsibilities, and actions to be taken.

Third, it can provide a running start as soon as a crisis hits and help get you situated faster and ready to respond.

This article aims to help you plan, prepare, execute, and then assess a crisis communication plan.

I’ll look at how to develop an emergency communication action plan, what to do during execution if there’s been an incident, and how to assess the aftermath once it’s all over.

Planning for a Crisis

The first thing you should do to prepare for a crisis is to sit down with a cross-section of people from across your organization and identify the next crisis that will hit your organization.

One way to do this is to develop a Top 10 list, or the things that you and/or the team thinks will be the next crisis to hit your organization.

Some of the issues are universal like employee misconduct, employee terminations, or a data breach.

Some of the issues are specific to your organization’s industry, like the BP oil spill for gas companies, the VW emissions scandal for the auto industry, or the LinkedIn data breach for social media companies.

Regardless of the industry, the goal of the crisis communication plan is to identify those incidents that your specific organization is most likely to deal with over the coming years.

Once you have your Top 10 list, then work on some of the specifics for each.

You want to be specific enough with each incident to identify the most important details needed for each incident.

Some of the information needed for any crisis include:

• Identify the response team

• Identify communication team actions

• Identify organizational leadership actions

• Identify key spokespeople

• Key messages to be communicated

• Platforms to reach your primary and secondary audiences

• Identify the sequence of actions to be taken

• Internal communication requirements

• Media contacts required

Preparing for a Crisis

After your initial plan is developed, you can prepare for a crisis by documenting the plan, identifying some of the details, and rehearse.

Document the plans for each of your Top 10 crises.

If possible, get the organizational leadership to approve the plans.

This does two things.

First, it provides executive-level approval of the plan so that the entire organization understands this is an org-wide plan, and not something developed in a vacuum.

The second thing it does is familiarize the organization with the steps to be taken by all.

Once a crisis hits, people tend to become panicked and want to revert to either do nothing (sticking your head in the sand) or do everything as rapidly as possible.

By getting the organization familiar with the crisis communication plan ahead of time, you can help provide a sense of calm and preparedness so that the actions taken are thoughtful and appropriate for the incident.

You will want to put enough details in each of the Top 10 plans so that you have a good reference to pivot from.

It is unlikely that the specific incident will be exactly like the one you plan for, but the more planning you do, and the more you learn during the process, the better prepared you will be once the incident hits.

Finally, rehearse the crisis with your communication team and key personnel in the organization.

Set aside a morning to run through a fictional scenario similar to one of the incidents on your Top 10 list.

It needs to be familiar to the team, but not exactly as it was planned to replicate what will actually happen in a crisis.

Once the fictional crisis starts, have the team identify which scenario it is most like in your Top 10 list to provide that running start.

Go through the steps of identifying potential spokespersons, refining the general messages in the plan to be tailored to the specific incident, and agreeing on the roles, responsibilities, and actions to be taken by each representative.

Every rehearsal is an opportunity to learn and refine the plan and familiarize the team with the organization’s response.

Execute the Crisis Communication Plan

The time has come and a crisis has hit the organization.

If you have planned, prepared, and rehearsed, then you are less likely to be flustered and more likely to make the right decisions.

Go to your Top 10 list and see if the crisis at hand is similar to one of those that you have prepared for.

If you’ve done a good job identifying your most likely issues, one of the plans should provide that running start.

But what about the Black Swan event? The extremely rare, hard-to-predict event that comes out of nowhere?

Luckily, with all the planning you’ve conducted in the previous 10 incidents, that also gives you a running start.

Use that same bullet list in the Planning For a Crisis section, and start generating options.

You will still have to identify key spokesperson, messages to be communicated, the best platforms to reach your target audience, etc.

The thing to remember in the execution of a crisis is that the deeds have to match the words.

What do I mean by this?

If the organization says that it will be open, transparent, and quick to respond, it has to exhibit those traits.

If the organization says it is going to fix the issue, then it needs to fix the issue.

All organizations have crises, but how they respond in both their words and deeds will determine how that organization is perceived once the crisis is over.

Assessment

Once the crisis is over, it’s good to take some time and assess how both the communication team and the organization as a whole performed.

Look at where things went well and what can be improved.

Utilize data from your different communication platforms.

Create an honest assessment, objective, and helps the organization improve.

Your After Action Review (AAR) should be well documented so that you can integrate the lessons learned back into the planning process and prepare for the next crisis to hit.

 


This post may contain affiliate links. Click here for my disclaimer.

Mike Nicholson

I've spent my career working in a variety of Strategic Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Executive Outreach positions. With a history of planning, preparing, executing, and assessing communication strategies in the U.S. and abroad, I use this site to write, think and share lessons learned on organizational communications.

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