As the global Covid-19 pandemic has so clearly demonstrated over the past few years, every organization—no matter its size or industry—is vulnerable to the ever-looming threat of a crisis. These threats can range from security breaches and product recalls, to natural disasters and workplace violence incidents. As PR professionals, we understand that a company’s response during a crisis can either make or break its reputation.
Although many crises smolder for at least some period of time before eventually emerging in full force, few organizations actually take action to prevent or reduce their impact during these early stages. In fact, only 49% of organizations have a crisis response plan in place, and even fewer—just 32%—engage in crisis scenario training, according to a survey conducted by Deloitte.
While addressing a crisis head on can be a daunting and overwhelming task to undertake, the alternative of a delayed and/or disorganized response—or, even worse, ignoring the problem entirely—will only make the situation worse for the organization in the long run.
With the 24/7 accessibility of social media and other means of communication, news can go viral in a matter of minutes—and bad news travels even faster. Having a clear and tactical communication plan in place ahead of time is absolutely pivotal to whether the company’s reputation will bounce back stronger than ever, or be irreparably tarnished.
In order to successfully navigate a crisis, an organization must be ready to respond in a prompt, accurate and well-coordinated manner. By developing a crisis communications plan, you will ensure that all business representatives are on the same page when it comes to responding to a crisis—ultimately minimizing its impact and instilling public confidence in the organization.
Below are seven steps you can take to develop an effective crisis communications plan:
1. Identify Your Crisis Management Team
First and foremost, it’s important to identify the key members that will make up your crisis management team, which will be in charge of implementing your plan and responding in the event of a crisis. This team is typically comprised of senior-level representatives who have the authority and resources to help manage and expedite your organization’s internal incident response.
Depending on the nature of the crisis, team roles may include:
- Decision maker (e.g., CEO)
- Media spokesperson
- Communications expert
- Legal counsel
- Liaison to regulatory and emergency officials
- Customer relations executive
- Operations manager
- Technical advisors
- HR director
In the event of a crisis, this team will act as the “face” of your organization for all communications. This includes assessing the situation, developing appropriate messaging, delivering key information to the public, and addressing the concerns of stakeholders, media and customers.
2. Determine Your Key Audiences & Communication Platforms
In the midst of a crisis, misleading or inaccurate information can spread like wildfire—making it difficult to maintain control of the conversation. Your organization’s voice must be powerful enough to cut through all of this noise.
As the situation evolves, many different audiences will seek out more information—from customers and employees, to news media and other stakeholders. It’s critical that these audiences are hearing the initial facts and updates directly from your team. To ensure your messaging is delivered to the right people, you must first identify your key audiences and how they prefer to receive information, such as:
- Face-to-face meetings
- News release
- Phone calls
- Social media
For instance, alerting the organization’s internal team may require a company-wide email or an intranet posting, while important customers will likely prefer to receive a phone call directly from their sales rep.
3. Create a Dark Space on Your Website
When a crisis strikes, a company’s website is usually the very first place visited for more information. Given the urgency of a crisis event, there is simply not enough time to develop a crisis site from scratch. This is where a “dark space” comes into play.
A dark space is a pre-built web page that is hidden from the public eye, but can be quickly “turned on” in the event of a crisis. In a matter of only a few hours, your crisis management team can easily update this site with the most up-to-date, accurate information pertaining to the crisis, including:
- Available facts about what happened
- Special instructions for those impacted by the crisis
- Specific steps being taken to address the issue
- Relevant background information
- Contact information for news media and community members
- Ongoing fact- and action-based updates
One of the most critical tools to have ready during a crisis, a dark space positions your organization as the primary source of credible information—thereby minimizing any rumors and speculation as the situation unfolds. It also shows that your organization takes the matter seriously and intends to provide timely, accurate updates.
4. Assess the Situation
Your crisis management team will need to thoroughly and efficiently assess the situation and gather information from a qualified source within the organization. This will help your team better understand the scope of the situation at hand.
Below are a few questions that can be used to obtain some of the necessary information your team will need in order to develop key messaging:
- What is the problem? What is its cause?
- Who and/or what is affected by the situation?
- Has anyone been hospitalized or shown adverse health effects?
- How widespread is the issue?
- Will it interfere with normal business operations?
- What information is publicly known?
- Is there a need for regulatory agency involvement?
- What are your audiences’ current attitudes and/or concerns about the situation?
- What actions will your organization take to address and resolve the issue?
- How can this be prevented in the future?
After the situation has been assessed, your team will need to assign an intensity level rating that can be used to inform other team members of its severity. This will help to communicate how critical and timely their response on certain action items needs to be.
Given its urgency, a level 1 crisis will require an immediate response, with all hands on deck. At a minimum, the organization should mobilize its crisis management team and activate the action plan, while closely consulting with the CEO and legal counsel.
In the event of a level 2-3 crisis, the organization will need to inform its crisis management team and activate the action plan in a timely manner. Although certainly important to address, this is a more manageable situation.
A level 4 crisis, on the other hand, can typically be addressed by a designated individual within the organization and doesn’t require an implementation of the action plan.
5. Develop Your Key Messaging
Next, your crisis management team will need to develop key messaging. Keep in mind that a single blanket statement will not be appropriate across the board, so be sure to tailor your message to each key audience.
No matter the intended audience, all of this messaging should include only confirmed facts and data. It’s best to organize your key messaging in an “inverted pyramid” style – with the most important, high-level information first, followed by supporting details in a descending order of significance. Be sure to stay “on message” at all times, and refrain from giving life to any speculation or conjecture.
Although the language and tone will vary on a case-by-case basis, effective messaging should include these five core elements:
- Express empathy and compassion as your initial statement.
- State the key facts.
- Follow up with supporting details.
- Summarize your key facts.
- List any next steps and provide contact information.
6. Deliver Your Message
Now, it’s time to spread the word. When delivering your message, it’s important to tailor it to each of your key audiences based on their preferred communication platforms. For example, a news release is often the best way to conduct media outreach in the event of a crisis. It can also include a link to your website and dark space for more information.
Below is an example of how your messaging matrix might look:
Facts should be relayed in a clear and concise manner to ensure your audiences are fully aware of the situation at hand—without inducing any undue panic or alarm.
7. Monitor & Evaluate
Although you’ve made great progress at this point, your job is still far from over. The last step is for your crisis management team to monitor the situation on an ongoing basis. Keep close tabs on media coverage, social media threads and activity on other online communication platforms. Tools like HootSuite and Google Alerts can help streamline this monitoring process. Be sure to address any feedback in a timely manner.
Next, keep a detailed log of all of communication efforts and audience sentiment. This should include any media coverage, social media engagement, and responses from stakeholders, customers and the community. If you notice your message is missing the mark, your team may need to adjust communication tactics accordingly.
Once the dust has settled, it’s time to evaluate the effectiveness of your approach. Did you present your main points? Did your message get across? What was the response from your audiences? Take a look at what worked and what didn’t work. Consider key lessons, and then make any necessary changes to your strategy.
By a nearly 2:1 ratio (54% vs. 30%), organizations that have a crisis response plan in place fare significantly better post-crisis compared to those that don’t, according to PwC’s 2019 Global Crisis Survey. In fact, some even reported revenue growth as a direct result of their crisis management. Plus, those that keep their crisis plans up to date and conduct crisis response training are 4x more likely to emerge on top.
If not handled properly, a crisis can irreparably tarnish your organization’s reputation, disrupt business operations, hinder financial performance, and even threaten the safety of employees or the community. By taking steps to prepare ahead of time, your organization will be equipped to successfully navigate any crisis that may come its way.
To access this information and related templates/resources in PDF format, download our 7-step crisis communications guide.
Brad Kostka is president of Roop & Co., a strategic communications agency that leverages the power of content and design to help B2B organizations achieve their goals. For nearly three decades, he has provided strategic communication counsel to organizations ranging from global, publicly traded corporations to local startups. His experience includes communications strategy, branding, content marketing, media relations, marketing automation, investor relations and event management.