Although a crisis communications manual might look to be a complex contraption to the untrained eye, what the manual needs to accomplish can simply be condensed to two important things:
Putting the processes in place for the communication with stakeholders during a crisis, and organizing the internal processes that allow the first thing to happen smoothly.
The manual, just to give an example, will both make sure that the journalists receive the information they need to be able to report on the crisis, and that the person who communicates with the journalist has the right resources in place to provide them with timely and accurate information.
Over the years, I have audited a great many manuals and what I found is that very often the same mistakes are made. Here is a look at what will go wrong.
Illogical scheduling of people
It is good practice, when you staff the crisis communications team, to make sure that for the different roles not only different titular owners are identified, but also people who can serve as a back-up when the titular owner is not available. Here, things will often go awry. Somebody who is a titular owner will suddenly become also a back-up for another function that he can not possibly combine with the job that he is the owner of. Or somebody is put down as a back-up for a combination of jobs that he or she could never possibly combine.
Related to this, I almost never see corporate communications departments courageous enough to be consequential and prohibit that titular owners and their back-ups take time off at the same time. What is the use of a titular owner and a back-up if both are on a Carribean trip at the same time?
Can you over-templatize a manual? Are templates not what the crisis communications manual is all about? Yes, to some degree templates are important, but an over-templatized approach will often not make for the best results in a crisis. One area in particular where templatization is poised to yield less than efficient results are the press releases. “We regret that [X] people got hurt during the incident?” I regret that you are making sure your staff can not communicate in a tailored manner to the crisis at hand. There is really no use in a crisis for a template press release where communicators are expected to fill in the dots.
Some crisis communications manuals are filled with well-intentioned information on the company values, crisis communications best practices (Situational Crisis Communications Theory explained in bullet points!) and the do’s and don’ts for communicating with the media. Clearly, is this copy is adroit, there is as such nothing wrong with it… except that it could be kept out of the manual just as well.
Crisis communications manuals are meant to be used to find back important names or phone numbers, to double check on a validation procedure, etc. – in other words: they are used for a quick view on information that is necessary to run through a process. Staff does not have time or the mental bandwidth to go over strategic or tactical best practice information at a time of a crisis. The assimilation of this knowledge needs to have been acquired beforehand, through a well designed and aptly managed training session. In the best scenario, the non-procedural information is never consulted. In the worst scenario, it is not only never consulted but used as an excuse to not organize the said training.
A scenario-driven approach
Some manuals will offer up scenario specific processes, but I see no advantages to that approach. What will you do when you have been rehearsing for a scenario A but are hit with a scenario B? And what is the next step when a crisis hits and the events that unfold are not covered by a single scenario laid out in the manual! (trust me, it will happen). A solid crisis communications manual will have processes in place that are scenario agnostic.
Does the lack of scenario-specific processes mean that every scenario will warrant the same allocation of resources? No, but the design of the processes can be made such that crisis communications decision-makers can use their discretion in whether and how they turn certain switches. For example, as explained in this article, the crisis communications manual could foresee that the head of the Crisis Communications Team assemble his or her team. By simply giving this person the liberty to call up as many team members as they want and allowing them to have certain team members combine certain tasks, you are allowing for the flexible execution of a single scenario-agnostic process.