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How to create a crisis comms plan

Learn why a crisis communications plan is essential for small businesses.

Jon Davis · June 7, 2024
How to create a crisis comms planHow to create a crisis comms plan

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As a business owner, navigating unpredictable challenges is part of the job - and we don’t just mean navigating your average bottleneck in business. Crises can arise suddenly and without warning, making it crucial to have a comms communications plan.

Whether it's a natural disaster, a public relations emergency, or a sudden economic downturn, the ability to swiftly and effectively manage these situations can significantly influence your company's resilience and reputation.

For any business, large or small, the importance of a robust crisis communication plan can’t be overstated. These plans are vital in ensuring the safety of employees and minimizing disruptions to operations. A well-structured and effective crisis communication strategy not only helps to manage the immediate fallout of an emergency but also safeguards your business’s continuity in the long term.

A comprehensive crisis comms plan is a non-negotiable element of any modern business strategy. These plans equip you to respond with precision and assurance to any incident, helping to mitigate the impacts of a crisis.

By preparing in advance, you can ensure your business maintains stability and continue operations under even the most unprecedented conditions.

A well-designed crisis comms plan serves multiple functions. It’s a key part of project management. It doesn’t just address immediate concerns during a crisis - your crisis comms plan will also lay the groundwork for sustained recovery and stability.

Effective internal communication during a crisis can help preserve your business's reputation, maintain customer trust, and ensure that stakeholders are informed and reassured throughout the ordeal.

In this guide, we'll walk you through the steps of devising a detailed and effective crisis comms plan. We'll explore various strategies employed by successful businesses and provide practical examples to illustrate how you can tailor these approaches to suit your needs.

We want to offer you a crisis communications plan example and arm you with the knowledge and tools necessary to enhance your readiness for any crisis situation - read on and get ready to put your crisis communications plan in place!

What is crisis communication?

Crisis comms are a strategic approach businesses take to handle significant disruptions effectively.

Having a solid crisis comms strategy ensures that organizations are well-equipped to manage almost any emergency, thereby protecting their operations and minimizing the long-term adverse effects on the business.

A crisis can stem from diffrent incident types, potentially impacting how stakeholders view your business. The perception of a crisis is crucial—sometimes, just the possibility of an incident can trigger a crisis.

Managing a crisis effectively involves addressing stakeholders' concerns and responding appropriately to their perceptions about your business. Proactive communication is essential in maintaining trust and stability during uncertain times.

What is a crisis comms plan?

A crisis comms plan is a strategic blueprint used by an organization to prepare for, respond to, and recover from any unexpected event that could threaten the organization's operations, reputation, or stakeholders. It’s just as - even more - important than your general business plan or marketing plan.

A well-put-together plan should include guidelines on how to communicate during crises, including identifying the key messages, stakeholders, and channels for effective communication.

Crisis comms plans aim to minimize damage, manage the flow of information, and maintain transparency with the public, clients, and internal staff.

This should help the responsible parties to facilitate a swift and efficient resolution to the crisis.

The plan often includes predefined roles and responsibilities, communication strategies, and procedures for updating and informing everyone involved or affected by the crisis.

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When is a crisis comms plan needed?

There are a range of scenarios where a business might need to put a crisis communications plan into action. Examples of real-world crisis scenarios requiring crisis comms plans include:

  • Extreme weather warnings - floods, storms, heavy snow, extreme heatwaves and more may affect the day-to-day operations at your business, hold up supply chains, or force you to close temporarily
  • Financial emergencies - sudden layoffs, bankruptcy, branch closures and other financial emergencies call for clear and effective communication with staff and stakeholders
  • Illegal malpractice - if a member of your personnel is found to be acting illegally or committing a crime from within/relating to your company, stakeholders and key players will need to be informed
  • Public safety risks - local or regional public safety orders, such as the COVID-19 lockdowns, could seriously affect your business operations
  • Security breaches - both real-life and digital security breaches affecting your company require swift action and clear communication

These are just a few instances where a crisis comms plan is essential for the smooth and effective handling of a tricky situation.

Even if some of these examples seem unlikely to happen to you in your business, it always pays to be prepared.

Outlining your crisis comms plan

When you’re looking to craft an effective crisis communications plan, you need to take a careful and strategic approach. It’s vital to think through each step methodically, ensuring that your plan is comprehensive and leaves no stone unturned.

As you develop your strategy, you should consider all potential scenarios and the necessary responses to each. It’ll take time and effort but this foresight will enable you to act swiftly and efficiently, minimizing damage and confusion during a crisis.

Remember, the ultimate objective of your crisis communications plan is to equip you with the tools to respond promptly and effectively to unexpected events.

By having a well-thought-out plan, you'll be able to communicate with clarity and purpose, addressing the needs of your stakeholders and guiding your team with confidence through turbulent times.

This proactive preparation helps to mitigate risks and maintain your organization's integrity, no matter what challenges you face.

The process of putting together your own crisis communication plan, should look a little like the ten-step process below.

1. Build a crisis management team

You can’t control a crisis alone. For effective crisis management, it helps to have a skilled and knowledgeable crisis management team in place, with every member of the crisis communication team assigned to play a specific role in a crisis management scenario.

Your crisis management team should include key personnel at your business, including:

  • CEO
  • Senior management or executives
  • Head of PR or communications
  • In-house legal counsel
  • Heads of departments

If you don’t have an in-house PR or legal team, you should consider hiring consultants or outsourcing your PR and legal services.

It’s important to ensure you have representatives with this expertise on-hand in the event of a crisis.

Make sure that every member of your crisis team is equipped with an understanding of the different types of crises you might encounter. Entering into the situation with some background knowledge will be helpful to everyone involved.

2. Nominate a spokesperson

In a crisis, you need to have a designated spokesperson who serves as the public face of your organization.

This individual is tasked with delivering crucial information to the public, stakeholders, and media and managing how this information is presented.

The spokesperson must communicate your organization's messages clearly, effectively and confidently.

Your spokesperson should be:

  • A skilled communicator
  • Appear empathetic and authentic
  • Knowledgeable about the crisis at hand
  • Resourceful and able to think on their feet
  • Confident in making quick decisions relating to communications

The rest of your crisis management team needs to be able to support the spokesperson throughout the process, offering round-the-clock advice so that the spokesperson can relay timely and accurate information to all affected.

Remember, good teamwork is key to any successful crisis comms plan.

3. Outline potential areas of crisis

You can never predict the exact conditions of a crisis, such as when or how it might occur. However, you can identify potential crises based on past incidents within or outside your business.

Putting some time into identifying which crises could potentially happen within or to your business will be extremely useful when putting together your own crisis comms plan.

This is known as premortem analysis. It’s the process of outlining how a hypothetical crisis could unfold and asking and answering questions related to it.

A basic premortem analysis should answer the following questions:

  1. What is the hypothetical crisis in question? Is it related to the actions of anyone within your organization (E.g. illegal activity), others outside your organization (E.g. a security breach), or factors entirely beyond your control (E.g. a public health crisis)?
  2. Who are the first people that need to be informed?
  3. Do you need to release a statement to employees? What information do they need to know? Can you have someone on hand to answer employees’ concerns?
  4. Do you need to release a statement to the public or the media? What questions might they ask?
  5. How can you be transparent with all parties involved without releasing sensitive information?

You should repeat this process for any hypothetical situation that your organization could encounter. This is an invaluable opportunity to prepare yourself as much as possible.

4. Identify key players

Identifying the groups that could be impacted by a crisis is crucial. It's essential to communicate with both internal and external stakeholders quickly and clearly.

Start by compiling a comprehensive list of those who need to know, which typically includes employees, investors, business partners, customers, and the broader public, like social media audiences.

Each of these groups should be promptly and appropriately informed about the nature of the crisis.

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5. Know how to adjust your crisis comms strategy

Your crisis comms strategy needs to be tailored to the specific groups impacted by the crisis, giving careful consideration how and to what degree they’re affected.

For example, in a crisis involving public health, communication should be primarily targeted towards the local community who are directly affected.

They should be fully informed about the situation's specifics, the measures taken to address the crisis, any potential impacts they may face and if/how you can support them.

6. Put crisis monitoring systems in place

Having a crisis comms plan in place will help you to respond promptly to a crisis when it occurs but having effective monitoring systems in place could help you to pre-empt crises beforehand. This can be invaluable as far as damage control is concerned.

Some potential issues are more predictable, particularly those closely tied to your industry or past experiences. For these, setting up a monitoring system can provide early warnings.

For example, monitoring your brand's online presence can help alert you to unusual activities that may indicate emerging issues, drawing attention on social media and news outlets.

You should also monitor issues affecting other companies within your industry or local area.

For instance, if there have been break-ins at businesses in your area, you’ll know to step up your security measures to avoid the same happening to you.

Consider setting up relevant news alerts or alerts for relevant content on social media.

If you have the capacity within your business, you could hire an employee dedicated to monitoring this information and noting down the potential for a crisis. This way, the relevant parties can be informed ahead of any such incidents.

7. Anticipate questions and know how to answer

In the event of any comms crisis, different groups will have a range of questions for you. Knowing what they might be and how you’ll answer is a key part of any crisis comms plan.

To prepare for potential crises, consider who might have questions, what their questions could be and how you can answer them the most effectively. You should put a good amount of time and thought into this exercise.

Below are a few examples to help you get started.

Who could have questions for you?

  • Employees
  • Investors
  • Clients
  • The wider public
  • Local or national media

What might they ask?

  • ‘How does this affect me?’
  • ‘What are you doing about it?’
  • ‘How or why did this happen?’
  • ‘Is there anyone I can call if I’m affected?’

As for how you can answer these questions, you’ll need to tackle each on a case-by-case basis, depending on which hypothetical situation you are dealing with.

In any case, your answers must be clear and informative, without divulging sensitive information or anything that could derail your crisis management team.

8. Decide how you’ll keep relevant parties informed

Again, every crisis is different. Some situations can be managed in-house and may only affect personnel within your organization, others might call you to address the wider public or media.

Within your crisis comms plan, it’s important to outline not just what you’ll say, but how you’ll divulge information to different parties.

Different groups should be kept informed in different ways, ensuring that everyone is on a need-to-know basis wherever possible, especially if you’re dealing with a situation that calls for the involvement of law enforcement.

There’s no exact rule of thumb when it comes to keeping people informed during a crisis - how you decide to do this will depend on who is affected and to what extent.

However, common methods of keeping stakeholders informed include:

  • Email - email is a great way to keep employees informed about a situation unfolding within your their workplace, especially in less serious situations
  • Company-wide meetings - if a situation is more serious, it can be more reassuring to inform employees by calling an urgent meeting and allowing key players to ask questions
  • Social media - social media is an effective way to address the wider public during a crisis, so it’s worth preparing a statement to post on your various social media channels - it can help you to stay in contact with customers the authentic way
  • Your company website - after social media, your company website is the second most likely place that public will check for information or a statement during a crisis
  • Press release - if your crisis affects the public or is of interest to the media, putting out an urgent press release is an effective way to get your statement out to plenty of people at once
  • Personal phone calls - keeping clients or key personnel informed via a personal phone call can help to maintain positive relations and provide reassurance during a crisis

As part of your crisis comms plan, you should prepare some sample statements and social media plans. This will save time when responding to a crisis when it occurs.

Remember, depending on the severity of a crisis, you may need to release multiple statements as the incident unfolds.

This requires adaptability and resourcefulness - you’ll need to react accordingly to changes in circumstances and know when to adjust your crisis comms.

It may be helpful to appoint a member of your crisis management team who can be on stand-by to answer concerns and provide ongoing reassurance, either via a support chat or phone line.

Not all businesses will have the capacity to put this into place but, if you do, it can go a long way in keeping parties informed and keeping their concerns at bay.

If this is a viable option, outline who will be responsible for this and how it will be implemented within your crisis comms plan.

9. Have contingency plans in place

Even the most strategic and detailed crisis comms plan could fall short in unprecedented circumstances.

Within your crisis comms plan, you should include a section dedicated to contingencies.

Consider the risks of different potential crises, going in-depth, no matter how unlikely they may seem. Going above and beyond when preparing for a potential crisis will go a long way in the event that such an incident occurs.

10. Keep your crisis plan updated

Once you’ve put in the work to create and implement your crisis comms strategy, you’re already far more appropriately prepared for any eventual crisis than you are without one.

However, an area where many businesses fall short is neglecting to keep their crisis comms plan updated over time.

It’s important that you regularly return to your crisis comms plan to make adjustments where necessary.

You might need to make changes to your crisis management team as personnel leave your company or create additional crisis comms plans as other potential situations arise. Chances are that many companies didn’t have a crisis comms plan in place for a global pandemic until COVID-19 took hold.

Protect your business with a crisis comms plan

As the old adage goes, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’!

Through this article, we’ve navigated the complexities and crucial steps involved in preparing for the unexpected, underlining the importance of a robust crisis comms strategy.

This plan isn’t just an administrative necessity - it’s a key strategic asset that safeguards your organization's reputation, maintains stakeholder trust, and ensures business continuity in even the most turbulent times.

Implementing a comprehensive crisis communications plan empowers your team to respond with speed and decisiveness, mitigating potential damage and reassuring your stakeholders through clear, confident communication.

The benefits of being prepared are clear: not only does it help you manage the immediate fallout of a crisis, but it also strengthens your organization's resilience against future challenges.

In an era where the unexpected can become the next day's reality, having a finely tuned crisis communications plan couldn’t be more important.

Overall, the important thing to remember in the event of any crisis, whatever its nature, is to deal with the situation calmly and professionally.

Knowing how to keep the relevant parties well-informed and reassured will go a long way in limiting damage and protecting your organization in the long run.

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