VW. Chipotle. Target. What comes to mind with these names?

Defective emissions equipment? Or deception and fraud? Food-borne illness? Or mismanagement and stock price freefall? 100 million credit card records hacked? Or denial and inadequate crisis management plans?

Each of these examples represents a business crisis that damaged reputations, hurt sales and negatively impacted the bottom line, and continue to do so well after the worst of the crisis has passed. What do they have in common? The financial damage could have been mitigated with an effective, well executed crisis communications plan, honesty and transparency. 

Related:  Crisis Communications – An Interview with Mike Lawrence

ICM’s mantra:  It is much easier (and considerably less costly) to prepare and prevent crisis, rather than repair and repent after crisis hits.

Don’t have a plan? Where do you start?

  1. Identify the crisis team.  Think about who needs to have a seat at the table to represent all key aspects of your organization- operations, management, employees, customers, community, volunteers, investors, legislators, regulators and other stakeholder groups. This team will make decisions and spearhead communication, so it will probably include the risk management leader, communications leader, legal counsel, HR, and the leaders of operations or departments that may be impacted. Create and maintain a contact list of these individuals and keep it handy (electronically and on paper).
  2. Select and train spokespersons.  Who will be the official “voice” of the organization in the event of a crisis? Keep in mind that this person may vary depending on the situation. Who is the designated back-up for these persons? All should participate in media training at least annually.
  3. Develop communication processes and protocols.  This is the heart of the plan. You will need to communicate online and offline. Identify the channels you will use to communicate in real time and who is responsible for making updates. Identify the chain of command. Who reviews and approves communications? What do you do if the story breaks before you can respond? How do you proceed if you identify a smoldering crisis? Having approved procedures in place IN ADVANCE is critical to responding quickly, calmly and protecting the brand.
  4. Don’t forget social media.  The web and social media have dramatically changed how communicators and managers respond to a crisis. Social media can create a reputational crisis that would never have occurred “pre-internet”, demanding fast, honest, transparent communications and not “corporate-speak.” As you develop the plan and procedures, identify the channels used by your stakeholders. Are customers talking about your company on Twitter? Facebook? Monitor the channels and be prepared to respond quickly if an issue gains momentum. Have initial statements for various scenarios written, vetted and approved well before they are needed.
  5. Practice and Drill. Revise. Practice and Drill Again.  Identify the most likely crisis scenarios that could occur in your organization and prepare crisis management templates to address them. Conduct drills to help team members get used to moving quickly to activate the plan. When you drill, use your templates, actually draft communications and conduct mock interviews.

Smart organizations have operational crisis management / emergency response plans, business continuity plans/ protocols and a crisis communication plan in place. The three plans should work together to help the organization prepare, prevent and mitigate the crises that will inevitably occur and the damage they can cause.  Communication is arguably the most important element to every crisis response. Be prepared to do it right with an effective crisis communication plan.

Resource:  Introduction to Crisis Communications Plans – eLearning Course

Guest blogger:  Deb Hileman, CMP, President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management

About Deb Hileman

Deborah Hileman, SCMP is President and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a consulting firm specializing in crisis management and communications planning, training and consulting services. Founded in 1990, ICM clients include public and private companies, non-profit organizations, education and religious institutions, government agencies and other organizations in North America and across the globe. A certified strategic communication management professional (SCMP), business leader, coach and consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in public and private companies and non-profit organizations, her most significant areas of expertise include strategic communications planning and crisis management, media relations, change management, employee engagement and training. She has taught hundreds of professionals to develop effective crisis strategy and messaging and to handle difficult media interviews with confidence and skill. Known as a voice of calm amid chaos and crisis, Ms. Hileman has earned a reputation as a trusted communication strategist and advisor to board members and C-suite executives, operations leaders and other organizational stakeholders. She has developed and implemented successful communication strategies for numerous business issues, including natural disasters, labor strikes, workplace violence, wrongful death, food safety concerns, harassment and abuse investigations, social media attacks and cybercrime, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, closures and layoffs, controversial development plans, criminal prosecutions and federal civil investigations, employee malfeasance and investor litigation, among others. A regular writer and blogger on business communication topics, she is the author of “Attorneys as Allies: Balancing Stakeholder Needs with Legal Concerns During a Crisis”, published in the Writer’s Guidebook, Vol.2, PR News Press; "Building a Crisis Early Warning System by Empowering Employees to Speak Up", published in The Book of Employee Communications Strategies & Tactics, vol. 5, PR News Press, and "In a Snap: 15 Tips for Faster, More Effective Employee Communications in a Crisis", published in The Book of Crisis Management Strategies and Tactics, Vol. 8, PR News Press. Contact Deb at dhileman@crisisconsultant.com.