The old rule of thumb was that a crisis never happened on Monday at 10:30 AM. No, crises always seemed to happen between Friday at 4:30 PM and Monday at 6 AM. Since we started the agency, we’ve handled some doozies – a premeditated murder at a store, salmonella-based recalls, e-coli-based recalls, activist shut-downs, sexual harassment allegations  – the list is long. 

For us, the level of crisis is determined by the answers to two questions: 1) is there any blood? and 2) could there be? We move to Defcon 1 with yes answers. 

Then Twitter changed the game, and crises now emerge all the time, indiscriminate of the orderly weekly schedule. Today, roughly 20% of our work annually involves some sort of crisis communications – management of or preparation for. And we’re here to tell you that every company or organization needs a crisis communications plan, so that you know what to do and how to act when something that puts the company, its people, its partners, customers or consumers at risk, sideswipes you.

Why a Crisis Communications Plan?

The purpose of a crisis communication plan is to prepare for a range of hypothetical situations so that if they happen your company has a jump start on how to respond. We don’t assume that the real-life scenario will run just like the plan. No, the purpose of the plan is to understand where you should be at any point in the situation if everything was running perfectly during your worst moments. 

What you do and say important; so is doing and saying appropriate things in a timely manner. Time starts ticking as soon as the news hits, and how quickly and well your team responds predicts how much negative impact the crisis can have (in degrees based on what Defcon level you’re dealing with, of course) on your business. 

5 Elements To Include In A Crisis Plan

(Several good textbooks and other guides to give an exhaustive look at crisis communications planning, including this one and this one.)

  1. Name the different potential crises your organization may have to deal with. Depending on what industry you’re in this could range from safety breaches to data privacy breaches, death or illness by or through your products, criminal acts on your premises dangerous foreign objects inside packaging, or sexual harassment charges.
  2. Identify the core team who would need to be involved in each scenario. Make sure you have executive, product management, operations, IT, sales, legal, communications, and customer service represented at the table. Does everyone on the core team know each other? Have each other’s corporate and private phone numbers? If one of the core team is on vacation, who is the back up? This team should not be meeting each other for the first time when the $%& hits the fan. 
  3. Lay out the different scenarios and who and what would the organization have to do to a) verify the situation, b) understand the situation c) rectify the situation. How long will it take to get from a to c? What are the different steps to take? Who are the different people to notify and involve?  This can be painstakingly detailed depending on the business you are in. 
  4. Develop a draft communications protocol for each scenario. If something emerges on Twitter that is Defcon 1 or 2, when do you notify the company? Customers? What is the script for customer service? Who is the spokesperson? Who approves statements? How will you monitor public and media interest and sentiment? Draft statements for each scenario. Of course these will need to be changed during any crisis. The point is that you’ll have a starting place and won’t be in full creation mode when you need to act quickly and accurately.
  5. Practice, practice and then practice some more. The core team should practice “working a crisis” when there isn’t one. How we respond in any situation is a lot of muscle memory, and if you never exercise those muscles, you’ll pull a hammy when the real thing happens. Practicing the protocols always improves the plan. 

Murphy’s Law says that once you have a crisis plan you won’t need one. If that’s true then you have no excuse but to make developing a crisis communications plan a top priority for your company.