Building a Crisis Communications Response

Crisis Communication
Crisis Communication

If you’ve been following me on Instagram at @LSue30, you might have come across Publicity Talks-my PR series filled with interviews, audio clips, tips and graphics on everything related to public relations. In parts 1 & 2 of my Publicity 101 interview, I talk about the differences between advertising & public relations and how to develop a media kit. For part 3, I focus on how to develop a crisis communications framework.

A crisis communications plan is needed to help companies navigate situations that can potentially damage their reputation. NOT every negative situation is a crisis, however, a negative situation can BECOME a crisis if not managed properly.

A tidbit on handling a negative situation (ie. a bad customer service experience), once the issue comes in, make sure to privatize any communication. If it comes in through social media, talk to the customer through private messaging, email or on the phone, DO NOT attempt to resolve the situation on your Facebook page or Twitter feed. Keeping these conversations public will allow other voices to chime in and make the situation convoluted. Talk to the customer privately and resolve the issue (ideally by making the customer happy & creating more customer loyalty because of the professional & respectful way you handled the situation).

A couple of things right up front about a crisis plan: your crisis communications framework DOES NOT need to be 100+ pages long. But you DO need to keep it in a central location, such as an internal Google Drive, so that everyone know where to find it, if something should happen. If your company is big enough to have multiple departments, it’s also good to update the framework every 3-6 months, in case key personnel have switched departments or have left the company.

Now that you know it doesn’t need to be super long and that it should be stored in an easy-to-find location, here’s what absolutely SHOULD be a part of all crisis communications plans.

  1. Number 1 Action Item: Pause/Stop ALL Scheduled Social Media, E-mail, Text, Sales Promotions

No matter where or when a crisis starts, this should be the absolute FIRST action item on your list to do.  You don’t want to give your customers the impression that it’s business as usual or worse, that you’re ignoring what’s going on. Allowing any scheduled content to be posted during a crisis situation is liable to make the situation even worse.

  • Determine Who’s Part of Your Crisis Response Team

Depending on how big your operations are, you probably don’t need every member of the team on your crisis response team. To help you figure out who should be part of the team, you can start by asking yourself these questions: Who will be handling any/all media inquiries? Who’s going to be managing the customer service side of things? Who’s doing to be drafting the messaging that you’ll be sending out about what’s going on?

Chances are, you would definitely need to have a member of senior management (ie. the CEO or COO, or the owner if they happen to be the same person), who would be the one handling all of the media requests (ie. interviews or a press conference). You’d also probably need a senior member of the customer service team (ie. a customer service manager) to debrief the rest of their team on the situation and how they’ll be managing it (ie. the type of messaging they’ll be sending concerned customers).

You might also need to have the head of your sales department debrief their team in case the crisis situation may impact current or future sales accounts that may be open.

Crucially though, you’ll probably need everyone in the marketing department involved in developing the messaging. Your marketing manager or director of marketing will have to oversee the team, including the copywriter, graphic designer, email/digital marketer and social media marketer. This is the team that will draft the messaging for each part of the crisis situation: media/social media/email statements to explain the team is investigating, statements that provide updates on the ongoing situation and finally, statements that indicate when the situation is resolved and how your company will do things differently moving forward.

  • Develop Different Crisis Scenarios

When you’re dealing with potential crisis situations, it’s pretty rare that you’ll only have one type of situation to deal with. Based on your company & industry, it would be helpful to come up with a few different scenarios. Examples can include a workplace injury, financial mismanagement, customer service issue or online security breach. Developing these different scenarios will help your team become prepared for each one. In addition, depending on the scenario, you may need to switch out members of your crisis response team as certain departments might be needed more than others.

  • Plan The Emergency Meeting(s)

As soon as a crisis situation hits, you’ll need to call an emergency meeting to get everyone on the crisis response team updated. To streamline the process, your crisis framework should have the meeting place confirmed and also who’s leading the meeting. My suggestion would be to have the person who first discovered/was alerted to the crisis situation to lead the meeting because they have the most up-to-date information. Depending on the severity of the situation, you may need more than one emergency meeting and the person who leads the meeting may change based on who has the most relevant information during the investigation.

  • Make a Record of Internal Communications Channels

These days, many companies use different tools and platforms to stay in touch. Everything from Zoom meetings to Slack and Facebook Workplace is definitely in use. The crisis communications plan is a great place to make a note of all the internal communications channels the company uses, as a reminder to send internal updates out to the rest of the team. Yes, the executive team members that you have on your crisis response team will probably debrief their own teams but it’s important to have the messaging sent out to the entire company via official channels as well, so everyone knows what’s going on.

  • Create Messaging Templates

Depending on the crisis situation, the messaging will be subject to change. But the last thing you want to be is caught unawares and starting from scratch when a situation hits. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a few templates for social media, media statements and email, so you at least have a base to work from, edit and add to when crisis happens. The messaging should be drafted by the marketing department but approved by the executives on the crisis response team, particularly in the case of media statements.

Does this breakdown make a crisis communications plan easier to understand? Here’s a graphic below that might help break it down further. Have any questions? Send them to me & as always follow me for the latest on marketing, social strategy & PR on Twitter @LSue23 and on Instagram @lsue30.

Crisis Communications Plan Checklist
Crisis Communications Plan Checklist
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