“Always expect the unexpected” should be every communications professional’s mantra, yet more often than not companies appear blindsided by issues they should have seen coming (hint: using a crisis communications plan).

Extreme weather, for instance, is a predictable urgent issue. Yet, we frequently see companies caught off-guard and poorly handling customer service issues that stem from blizzards, flooding, hurricanes, and other hazardous weather conditions. While this extreme weather may randomly appear, the possibility of extreme weather, and its impact on your customers and team members, is entirely predictable.

A seasoned pro knows the value in developing and maintaining a playbook on how to address these issues, often in the form of a crisis communications plan. Your plan will not only save you from reinventing the wheel in seemingly endless fire-drills, but it could also be what stops an issue from becoming a full-blown crisis for your company.

Preparing for the Worst with a Crisis Communications Plan

While extreme weather is just one example, other recurring issues can regularly impact companies of all industries:

  • Website outages due to technical glitches
  • Delay in regular communications (i.e. monthly statements) because of unforeseen circumstances
  • Negative press articles
  • Issues related to team members, including workplace misconduct allegations
  • Issues related to the leadership team, including unanticipated departures or controversial statements
  • Social media issues, including inappropriate posts from brand accounts
  • Customer dissatisfaction due to product malfunctions

Any of these could become a crisis if enough momentum swells behind them and they are left unaddressed for too long.

It is your corporate communications team’s responsibility to envision any worst-case scenarios before they happen so that you can plan communications for all relevant stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, partners, and the general public) in a controlled and less time-sensitive environment.  

The first step in this process is a simple brainstorm. Picture every possible way that something could go wrong for your brand, and write it all down. With this list, you can then document how each individual stakeholder is impacted, and you then have what you need to start your playbook.

What to Include in Your Crisis Communications Plan

Your crisis communications plan should detail everything you need to address an issue and, ideally, stop it from becoming a crisis. The exact format of your playbook can vary (here is a great template created by Meltwater), but common elements will include:

  • Team roles: Determine who is responsible for what during an issue or crisis management process. Clearly define what each individual is responsible for handling in an issue to ensure that no duties go unassigned, and clearly identify the appropriate approval chain for any messages. You should identify individual team members for each of these roles:
    • Social media
    • Media relations
    • Internal communications
    • Executive review—the CEO or another leadership team member
    • Legal and compliance (if needed)
    • Communications counsel
    • Department/subject matter leads
  • Quick response steps: With your team roles defined, list out the steps that should be taken in addressing your crisis:
    • Step 1, Information Gathering: There should be an information gathering phase to first identify what is/is not known about the incident. Take inventory of the basics (who, what, when, where, why) and determine what the current sentiment toward the situation is and whether it is gaining attention in print, digital or social media.
    • Step 2, Team Assembly: The crisis comms team should be contacted and assembled to begin the communication management and message development phases. Brief your team on the facts of the situation, and follow the roles and assignments as detailed in your comms playbook.
    • Step 3, Comms Development: Using the templates (described below) you have ready, begin creating your communications for your variety of stakeholders. It is important to not spread misinformation, and you should let your audiences know when another update will be available (and stick to that timeline).
    • Step 4, Ongoing Management/Monitoring: There should be constant monitoring of the situation and external conversations to assess whether the issue is escalating or whether your team needs to pivot on its approach.
  • Communications templates: For each of the scenarios you brainstormed, craft various template communications for your multiple audiences. Use these as an easy plug-and-play format so that you can quickly fill in relevant details for your specific crisis and send to your audiences through the most appropriate channel. Plan communications for email, app alerts, your website homepage, social media, press releases, press conferences, and any other regular communications channels so you are prepared for any situation.
  • Corporate messaging and spokespeople: Keep an updated copy of your corporate messaging to ensure consistency in any word use or tone, and identify who will serve as spokespeople for various topics or issues.  

Ongoing Readiness

After you’ve faced your first issue, edit your playbook with your learnings and add in key details so that you are better prepared during your next issue.

Your crisis communications plan is a living document that you should constantly update as new potential threats are identified. Any time a competitor faces a crisis, make sure that your team is ready for a similar situation should it occur.

At a minimum, update your plan once a year to check for any team member changes or corporate messaging updates to reduce the likelihood of a last-minute scramble.

With your plan in place, you’re more likely to crush issues before they become a crisis, sparing your company from a potential downfall.

Next Step

For a deep dive into how media intelligence can serve you before, during, and after a crisis—or better yet, help you avert it altogether—read our comprehensive ebook on brand crisis.