How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan? Step One: Identify What Could Go Wrong?

By Gerard Braud

(Writer’s note: Every day in March we’ll have a fresh, free, new article on this topic. If you’d like to dig deeper, you may wish to purchase a recording of the teleseminar called Social Media & Crisis Communications. Here is your purchase link.)

The decision to use social media for crisis communications is not a decision you should Gerard Braud Audience 11make independent of considering your holistic approach to crisis communication.

Social media is only one set of tools that may be in your communications tool box. All tools must be considered, including very traditional approaches, including news conferences, news releases, e-mail and your website. In the workshops I teach and at the conferences where I am asked to speak, I often tell the audience that “tried and true beats shiny and new.” And helping you understand the pros and cons of social media in a crisis and what is the best approach for your organization, is the purpose of this series of articles.

My goal is for you to decide what the “right fit” is for you, rather than perhaps the “force fit” that I see many people using.

But before we go further with our discussion of social media, we must lay a solid foundation for crisis communication with a solid Crisis Communications Plan.

If you want to write a successful Crisis Communication Plan, you need to start with the end in mind. This is a two-fold process. Part of the process is to know every crisis your company, school, hospital, chemical plant, refinery, electric company non-profit, or government agency may face. Another part of the process is to imagine how each of these crises will unfold and what you will be called upon to communicate during the crisis. What will the media want to hear from you and when? What will your employees want to hear from you and when? What will your other stakeholders want to hear from you and when? Should social media be part of your crisis communications strategy?

Step one in writing a Crisis Communications Plan is to conduct a vulnerability assessment. I have two different approaches I use with my clients, and you can use either of these approaches where you work. You can either do this on your own or call me for assistance.

Approach one is to schedule visits with many individuals throughout your organization to ask them what they fear may go wrong and cause a crisis. It is important to visit with people from all layers of your organization. What your top executives experience every day will shape their perception of what might go wrong. But there are many people in middle management and entry level jobs who see risks every day that you need to be aware off.

As you gather their thoughts, compile them in a spreadsheet so we can evaluate them further. Cluster them by types of crises, such as natural disasters, criminal, business operations, financial, technical, computer/IT related, or executive misbehavior.

A second approach I use is to facilitate a group meeting with people from each department within the organization. I segregate them by departments at round tables through the room. Each group is lead through a facilitated discussion about what defines a crisis. Next, the groups are asked to discuss and list all of the potential crises within their realm of responsibility. Each group then presents their list of potential crises for the group, so we can engage in discussions about how to deal with these crises. In some cases, we come up with great ways to eliminate problems and change policies or procedures in order to lesson the chance that a specific crisis might happen.

In both approaches, I define a crisis as any event that may affect the reputation and profits of the institution, which may also affect the institution’s ability to serve their customers.

A few words of warning: Risk managers often offer to let you use their vulnerability assessment. The problem with the vulnerability assessment from a risk manager is that they base their responses on high, medium and low probabilities of a crisis happening. In communications, the risk probability is irrelevant. Your job is to communicate any time a crisis happens.

Another warning is that risk managers and emergency operations directors often focus only on production related crises, such as the products made, the services offered, the equipment used, or the direct threats to human health or the environment. Absent from their lists will be things like sexual harassment, discrimination based on race or gender, or embezzlement.

Please don’t let their approach overshadow the approach you must take to plan for and exercise your communication functions.

Please recognize that if there is a fire and explosion, the Risk Management Plan, the Emergency Operations Plan, and the Crisis Communications Plan, will all be executed simultaneously. We call this type of crisis a “sudden” crisis. But if an executive is accused of sexual harassment and the case is getting public attention, neither the Risk Management Plan, nor the Emergency Operations Plan will be triggered. But the Crisis Communications Plan is triggered and must be used. We call this type of crisis a “smoldering” crisis.

A final word of caution: Don’t let the people who use the Risk Management Plan or the Emergency Operations Plan convince your executives that they have everything covered, because they may call their plan a “Crisis Plan,” and confuse it with your “Crisis Plan.” Truth be told, everyone should stop using the term “Crisis Plan” and use 3 specific names for their plans: Risk Management Plan, Emergency Operations Plan (sometimes called an Incident Command Plan), and Crisis Communications Plan.

With that said, we’ll stop for the day and your assignment is to begin your vulnerability assessment.


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