4 Steps to Creating a Crisis Communications Plan

A crisis communications plan is a document many organizations know they need to have, but often procrastinate in creating or updating. Even as we navigate life in a pandemic, and all the crisis communications involved, there are lots of businesses and organizations that are still without a current or relevant crisis communications plan.

So why is that? I believe it is fear based.

Fear of not knowing where to start. Fear of getting it wrong and being held accountable. Fear stemming from being overwhelmed and not wanting to think of yet another emergency.

But here’s the thing — emergencies don’t wait until it’s their turn. Right now, communities are experiencing flooding, the beginning of forest fire season and other emergencies while also dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. Nature doesn’t pause because we already have one crisis on our plate, waiting for it to clear before adding a new crisis.

I know many of you are thinking, I cannot add one more thing to my plate. I don’t even want to think about creating or updating a crisis communications plan.

If you don’t take the time to plan for a crisis, you will be chasing the crisis versus leading your communications.

So, what is a crisis communications plan and why is it important? It is different from your emergency plan, which likely outlines emergency response procedures. A crisis communications plan is all about HOW you are going to communicate to your stakeholders (ex. staff, customers, public) in an emergency.

While a crisis communications plan can be as big or small as you need it, these are the 4 key pieces it needs to contain:

1. Media Relations Plan

This plan outlines your media relations policies and procedures (which should be consistent with how you communicate with the media in a non-emergency). For example, are staff authorized to speak to the media on their own (hopefully not) or are media calls to be forwarded to the communications manager, plant manager, CEO or CAO?

Make it clear who your primary spokesperson is as well as secondary spokesperson. For government organizations, you would likely have two spokespeople — one elected official and one staff member. For other organizations, it would be a senior staff member who has media training.

Include contact information for your local and regional media (making sure it’s current) as well as other media relevant to your organization.

I also recommend including media interview tips in this section, to remind your spokespeople of how to get their message across.

2. Pre-Approved Messaging

This is essential!!! Working on your top three most likely emergencies, write speaking notes, facts sheets, press releases and key messages.

For example, I live in an area where forest fires are a real threat. I would expect our local government and fire departments to have pre-written and pre-approved messaging on shelter-in-place, evacuation orders, air quality warnings and any other information that is regularly communicated during a forest fire.

The joy of pre-approved messaging is it allows staff to have content they can use quickly without going through the sometimes-lengthy approval process. This should also contain some public education messaging to fill airtime while you’re busy figuring out the emergency.

3. Roles and Responsibilities

We often assume people are clear on the role they are assigned. But here’s the thing. In an emergency you may need to rely on people from outside of your organization to pitch in and help.

I’m a big fan of bullet points or checklists. Basically, you are creating a to-do list for the various communications functions. In small emergencies, one person may wear multiple hats. However, in large emergencies you may have more than one person in each role.

· Public information officer — managing the overall communications

· Media monitor — monitoring traditional and social media

· Website and social media editor — posting information to your sites

· Copywriter — writing press releases, speaking notes and other relevant communications materials

· Liaison — talking to media, elected officials, key stakeholders and relaying needs or concerns to the public information officer

4. Contact Information

This is about knowing who to call when an emergency hits. Who are the staff members that will be part of your communications team? What outside resources do you need to call? Consultants? Stakeholders?

You likely know how to reach them on a Monday morning, but what about after-hours emergencies? Do you know if they have their work cell phone tied to their hip or do they still have a home phone? Do they know what their role is in an emergency?

I advise going beyond a list of names, phone numbers and emails. Take the time to go for coffee (or zoom call) with the key people on this list. Talk to them about your crisis communications plan, your top three risks and the role they play (even if it’s just an FYI).

I have found the relationships I’ve developed prior to an emergency have been key in how I’ve responded during the emergency.

Living Document

Once you’ve written your crisis communications plan, don’t file it in your computer or put it in a binder to collect dust. Rather, this needs to be a living document. Ideally you are pulling it off the shelf, reviewing it and practicing it once or twice a year.

And when you’ve had an emergency, in your debriefing (yes you must do this) go back to your crisis communications plan. What worked? What didn’t? What needs to be revised?

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This article also appears as a blog post on How to Communications.

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Changmaker + communications expert

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