5 steps to crisis communications preparedness.

This is one of the most important questions that I ask a company’s leadership team: Are you prepared for a crisis, and could you effectively navigate a media storm with your reputation intact?

It’s not a matter of if, but when a crisis will impact your organization—and your preparation now could determine the result of that crisis. This isn’t to say that you have to go to work each day on ready-set-go to confront a crisis but working through the steps outlined below will be a good start to preparing you for that eventual day when a crisis occurs. 

Here’s a small sample of crisis situations that I’ve encountered as a public relations professional:

  • A governor found unresponsive in his hotel room due to a massive stroke.
  • A nun found murdered overnight in her residence; followed by a several-day FBI manhunt for her murderer.
  • Gang violence situation in an emergency room.
  • A pediatric nurse sexually abusing patients.
  • Wire fraud at a financial institution.
  • Countless sex abuse allegations in the Catholic church. 

Just last year, I spent about six months working with a Catholic diocese in the midst of several sex abuse lawsuits, an ongoing criminal investigation involving a well-known priest, and its bishop being reassigned to another diocese (all at the same time!). I worked at a quick pace with the leadership team to implement a public relations program that included ongoing media training, crisis planning, message control, and developing new relationships with the local and regional media.

As a result of those efforts, the diocese gained a reputation with the media and public as being transparent and ethical—and, in fact, received positive coverage about their handling of very serious subject matter.

I’m offering these five steps with the hope that you can work through these in your organization—either as an opportunity to reevaluate your current efforts or to establish some crisis communications best practices for the first time. 

1. Anticipate the Crisis

Take pen to paper and list out possible crisis situations that could impact your organization. These might include:

  • Fire, explosions, or natural disasters that could result in serious or fatal injury
  • Major crimes including hostage-taking, abduction, rape, or homicide
  • Property damage that requires discontinuation of business
  • Lawsuits or on-site picketing
  • Bomb threats / evacuations
  • Fraud
  • Death or suicide
  • Employee controversy

Again, this list would consist of incidents that your organization could face in the future, so spend some time with your leadership team to develop and think through this list. As you write these out, include some notes on how they could financially or reputationally cause harm.

2. Develop a Crisis Communications Team

Once a crisis emerges, your crisis communications team would be activated throughout the duration of the incident to handle all media and public relations efforts.

Here are the roles that I typically assign:

Crisis Communications Coordinator: This is the team leader who has overall responsibility for the crisis and is the ultimate decision-maker. Your president or CEO would usually have this role—with some delegated responsibilities given to your marketing or PR director.

Internal Communications Coordinator: Responsible for communications distributed to employees and internal audiences (boards, other leadership, etc.).

External / Media Coordinator: Responsible for communications distributed to the media and other external audiences (police, city/county leadership, etc.)

Legal Counsel: Reviews statements, messages, and materials for legal implications.

Support Staff: Assign a couple of employees to help with administrative tasks throughout the crisis—a HUGE timesaver.

Digital Coordinator: Coordinates messaging via your Website, intranet, social media, and email.

3. Establish Media Guidelines

This is really the soul of the crisis communications plans that I develop for organizations, so you’ll want to see these specified in the template that I have posted for free download on my Website (link provided below).

These guidelines are your essential one-page worksheet to get everyone in your organization on the same page during a crisis, and they include:

  • Designate a single media contact: Ensures effective and consistent media handling and prevents employees from randomly being quoted in a story.
  • Do not issue any statement to the press or answer any media questions until cleared with the crisis communications coordinator.
  • Keep a log of all media calls and visits to the property related to the emergency or crisis; record what was said to each reporter and relay information back to the crisis communications coordinator (more on this below).
  • Establish contact with appropriate civic officials: police, fire, city/county offices.
  • DO NOT speculate on the cause, results, or any facets of the crisis. Provide ONLY information that has been VERIFIED. Do not use descriptive words such as devastating or catastrophic.
  • DO NOT estimate damages.
  • Follow any policies or legal precedents on relating information (e.g. HIPAA).
  • DO NOT discuss anything off the record. (I’m a huge believer that nothing is off the record.)
  • DO NOT allow members of the media to be on your property unescorted, interview employees without permission, or take photographs.
  • Keep employees informed.
  • Locate a safe haven to be used by those involved in or impacted by the crisis.
  • Know your property. Have a fact sheet available that includes your organization’s history and facts about your facilities.
  • Be sincere and concerned.
  • DON’T APOLOGIZE. Especially when the facts may not be fully known. Apologizing can be an admission of guilt and have legal implications.

4. Develop Your Action Plan

In today’s media environment, it can be a matter of minutes before steps need to be implemented to ensure effective handling of a crisis. There’s no telling to what degree or how long a crisis may last, but your action plan will help you control messaging throughout the crisis.

Here’s an action plan outline. (Again, this is included in the template provided as a download on my Website):

  • Step 1: Notify the CEO, board chair, marketing department immediately.
  • Step 2: Obtain as much information about the incident as possible. Obtain name and contact information for all key individuals involved (including local authorities) to review all statements and verify facts.
  • Step 3: Activate the crisis communications team & report to the designated crisis room immediately.
  • Step 4: Crisis communications team determines the action plan and begins preparing a statement(s)
  • Step 5: Crisis communications coordinator discusses the plan with leadership team/board chair
  • Step 6: Inform employees, send out media policy reminder immediately
  • Step 7: Establish separate media and family/friends/employee staging areas

5. Develop Media Inquiry Form & Contact Lists

I hate to sound like a broken record, but these forms are also included in the template that I have available for download on my Website, so you don’t have to recreate these—just copy and paste in the template.

You need to have three primary forms and lists during a crisis:

  • Summary Form for News Media Inquiries: You’ll use this to document ALL media inquiries that come in during a crisis. This is critical to keeping track of how, when, and what type of media requests and questions you’ve received.
  • Call List: Have your board, administrative team, and employee phone numbers (including cell) listed out for easy reference. You can also partner with a vendor to implement text-message notification.
  • Media Contact List: This is something you definitely want to develop now and update at least monthly. Have all local and regional media contact information available, including email and office and cell numbers. 

The Bottom Line

Being prepared for a crisis could save your reputation and organization.

Develop a crisis communications plan now and plan and train for a crisis at least bi-monthly. Take opportunities throughout the year to review your plan, make sure everyone is comfortable with their assigned role, and keep employee and media contact information up to date.

A few disclosures:

While I’ve used these steps and crisis plan template to guide my PR efforts for over a decade, I created these by researching other plans and information over the years, including material available through the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

The plans and guidelines that I’ve found through my own research are often very lengthy, so I’ve distilled into one brief template effective and actionable guidelines any organization can implement during a crisis.

This post or the crisis communications template available on my Website is not intended to be legal advice. And, I would strongly encourage you to begin a relationship with a public relations professional who might advise you during a crisis. 

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