Communicating in a crisis
Six steps to creating a thoughtful communications plan
No business is immune to crisis. Your next crisis could be as straightforward as a supply chain issue, as personal as a very public personnel dispute or as devastating as a ransomware attack. The good news is that creating a crisis communications plan for a variety of possible issues will prepare your organization for the worst-case scenario. A thoughtful crisis communications plan also is a gift to your fellow leaders and employees across your organization. Create a crisis communications plan now following these six simple steps.
1. Define your crisis communication goals and values.
Your communications goals during a crisis likely will be more precise than your everyday organizational objectives and could be quite different. When considering the values your organization would want to express, make sure honesty, consistency and authenticity are at the top of the list. Actionable goals and well-defined values will help those communicating have a solid foundation to guide them through their messaging.
2. Identify roles and responsibilities.
Designate a chain of responsibility for who needs to be notified when a crisis occurs and the role each person has in navigating the crisis. Keep in mind that the ideal person to lead your crisis communications effort may have a different role entirely on a normal day in your organization. Make sure your designated spokesperson has direct access to decision makers, email distribution lists and company social media accounts. Keep your attorney within arm’s length too.
3. Determine your target audience.
Some crises may impact only your employees. Others have far-reaching effects on your customers or clients, the public or other stakeholders. Narrowing your audience to the people who need to hear your communications will help your message have more impact. Who are the people you are trying to reach? What do they need to hear? How will they feel when hearing this message? How do you want them to respond to what you say? Who might hear your message outside of your target audience?
4. Prepare template messages in advance.
During a crisis, information needs to be shared quickly, so anticipate the most likely crises and the questions your audience will ask. Then answer those questions with brief talking points in advance. Message maps can help. Write the framework of news releases and internal email templates. Remember, both those communicating and those listening will be under stress, and people under stress have difficulty hearing, understanding and remembering information. Even statements regarding complex issues must be short, concise and in plain language. Choose three main points you want to reinforce and keep repeating those statements. Stick to the basics of who, what, when, where, why and how.
5. Create a communication tactics inventory.
Maintain a checklist of every possible communication method available to your organization, from social media to news conferences to internal emails to printed or electronic signs. That way, when a crisis occurs and your staff is under pressure, they will know they have covered all their bases. The primary communication tactic in a crisis is often social media because it reaches your audience quickly. But old posts also can become quickly out of date, so always link them back to a website where the most up-to-date information resides.
6. Include applicable policies, procedures and other documents.
Incorporate guidance documents that might be beneficial to those communicating during a crisis. These might include brand standards manuals, voice documents, organizational charts, a notification tree with phone numbers of leaders in the chain of responsibility, social media guidelines and more.
Once your crisis communications plan is finalized and approved, don’t leave it in a binder on a shelf to get dusty. Communicate it organization wide, and especially to those who will play a part in executing it. Practice and update the plan at least annually. When the next crisis occurs in your organization, you will be prepared and ready to face it head on.
Heather Hitterdal owns H Squared Communications, a consulting company specializing in communications strategy, social media planning, crisis communications and community engagement. Previously, she led the communications effort for the City of Sioux Falls from 2013 to 2018 and worked in health care marketing. Learn more at h-squared.com.