Key Fundamentals of a Crisis Communication Plan

We live in a time when stories can instantly appear and through Google stubbornly remain in the public eye for years. Sometimes a story surfaces through social media like when a bloody United Airlines’ passenger was dragged off a plane or they are driven by professional journalists such as the New York Time’s expose on deadly Takata airbags. And sometimes, a crisis instantly becomes a major story through breaking, unforeseen events.

Unforeseen events carry a high degree of risk because they happen so quickly that it is difficult for an organization to organize itself and respond to the story. The recent shooting of the Republican Congressional Baseball team was a tragic event and thrust the YMCA next to the ball field into the national spotlight because building was sprayed with gunfire and the shooter had been using the facility. Xenophon Strategies is one of the nation’s leading crisis management firms and was hired to assist the YMCA within a day of the shooting. Of course, the YMCA was a victim in this incident, but they had the systems in place to bring the necessary resources to help manage the hundreds of covering journalists.

  Whatever the issue, the key to a successful crisis communication response is comprehensive, fast and accurate communication.

Whatever the issue, the key to a successful crisis communication response is comprehensive, fast and accurate communication. It takes leadership and planning for an organization to engage effectively in a crisis. To achieve this, a company needs to understand its ability to respond to the media and stakeholders, whether it is through the press, internal or through social channels. The execution of fast, meaningful, communication depends on the advance identification of issues that can slow down a public response — be it lack of preparation, crisis communications infrastructure or insufficient planning between a company’s leadership, communication, legal and technical functions.

The purpose of crisis planning is to enable the company to react quickly and to be at the center of defining the situation and themselves.  

The purpose of crisis planning is to enable the company to react quickly and to be at the center of defining the situation and themselves. Effective crisis communication is complex, but there are several elements at the core of an effective planning process: risk assessment; organizational planning; policy review and the creation of a narrative and key messages. All of these elements then need to be captured in a written, highly actionable, crisis communication plan and periodic training should be done to ensure that everyone knows how to execute the plan before the crisis occurs.

Risk Assessment

Anticipating where a company could have a crisis is essential to effectively handling any situation. The first step in crisis planning is to conduct a risk assessment to identify a company’s strengths, weaknesses and potential threats. Issues identified in the risk analysis might include a violent action or attack, human resource issues, facilities breaches, cyber security, claims of financial impropriety, litigation or other scenarios. Areas of risk are highly specific to individual organizations and industries, so a process of identifying them is critical. The result of this process is a written analysis highlighting specific areas of risk.

 Organizational Planning

Many serious issues cannot be identified in advance; they just spring up like the Cyclops at one of Odysseus’s islands. However, solid organizational structure with defined procedures always allows a company to respond more quickly and with better results than ad-hoc efforts. Good organizational planning means that a company will have the resources, materials and policies in place to react quickly and effectively.

Policy Review

The risk analysis almost always reveals issues which are not addressed by existing policies, ones that need to be updated or areas in which the company is already well protected. For example, in our experience many companies do not have effective social media policies in place or their employees do not understand that when they engage in personal social media that it can have a negative impact on their employer.

Message & Narrative Development

After new policies are developed and existing policies are better clarified or understood, it is possible to then write generic public-facing messages that address each of the issue areas. And, it will set up opportunities to develop proactive communication plans or efforts. The concept here is not to try and message every possible situation, but rather to create a base of public facing messages that reflect the company’s values, can be used in a variety of situations and are well understood by employees.

The culmination of crisis planning is a written crisis communication plan with a defined crisis control team who can quickly begin managing any situation. This crisis communication plan is the framework for public facing communication including press, online, social media, stakeholders, internal audiences and vendors. It also outlines what needs to be done in preparation of a crisis including advance identification of technology needs, issues that can slow response, coordination between the communication and legal departments and adequate and scalable outside resources. It lists all of the resources needed in a crisis and gives direction on where to find them, including the policy document and messaging described above.

A crisis communication plan is complex, but begin with small bites and start with these four fundamentals.

– By: David Fuscus – President & CEO |

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