Crisis communications are critical when emotions run high and there is a very real risk of panic setting in during a crisis. The problem is that many companies only put their crisis communications plans into action when the crisis has already begun. Because one can never truly predict when something big will affect a company and its employees on a regional or even global scale, it pays to be prepared.
What is a crisis?
A crisis is defined as any event or sequence of unwanted events that have a strong impact on a local or even global scale. It can be anything from a natural disaster, an outbreak of some disease, or generally anything that can cause physical, mental, and psychological disturbance to your workforce and business operations. It also brings with it the potential for escalated panic and worries when not properly addressed and dealt with.
Why it’s important to have a crisis communications plan
The key watchword is “preparedness”. When a crisis hits and hits hard, your employees are going to react like any reasonable person would: with fear and confusion. This can escalate into a full-blown panic—especially when there isn’t a word coming from their leaders within a company. Regardless of the specific type of crisis that you’re dealing with, having a strong crisis communication plan in place and ready to go ensures that you are able to mitigate even the worst of circumstances.
The challenges of crisis communications
In order to come up with an effective crisis communications plan, you need to first identify the specific challenges inherent to this particular aspect of internal communications. There are five that you need to focus on.
A flood of information
Major crises often come with a deluge of information—and not all of this can be reliable or verifiable. It can quickly become overwhelming when it first hits. If you aren’t discerning and careful in sifting through this information, you won’t be able to effectively condense things in a meaningful way. The key is to think ahead about where you’ll source your information from. This, of course, should mean going to credible first-hand sources depending on the specific crisis.
For instance, outbreaks and diseases will fall under the purview of the World Health Organization. Localized economic crises are likely to be monitored by your local financial authorities. It might seem like a lot to think about but it’s far better to have these listed well in advance so when a crisis hits, you’ll know exactly who you should be listening to. It helps to have a centralized dashboard where all this is organized and accessible to all so you can turn to them at the very onset of a crisis.
A lack of information
Some crises are so subtle in their buildup or so mysterious in their origins that you might face the contrary to the above challenge. Either that or you don’t have an effective means to disseminate information and it’s your employees who find the information lacking. For the former, it’s all about clear organization and having a far more comprehensive list of sources. For the latter, it’s ensuring that you have the best channel mix at your disposal and the proper management of each of these channels.
Crises often come unexpectedly and can create waves in your workplace. Certain channels might become less viable than others and you want to make sure that you have effective backups to stay connected with your employees. Social media is one of the most reliable and popular means to share information, but you should also consider SMS or even in-office newsletters which would be effective should your internet connectivity take a hit.
Inadequate contact information
If you look at your employee contact list, you’re likely to find all their work contact details, naturally. While that’s great for the day-to-day operations of your business, it could prove to be inadequate in a crisis. Apart from their work email, you should at least get one other email and a number that they can be reached via your crisis communications. This allows you to reach your employees in the event that their work email becomes inaccessible for whatever reason.
Most companies have their databases stored securely, often in the cloud, for easy access. This is a smart way to go, but you should also have at least one printed-out hard copy just in case. You can never tell what kinds of disturbances a crisis will bring, and it pays to have your contact databases on-hand to ensure that your communications aren’t disrupted. This should be given to specific people responsible for internal comms at a time of crisis.
By default, crises are unpredictable—not just in their arrival, but also as they run their course. This might make planning seem like an impossible task. While it is difficult, it isn’t impossible to be prepared. You can take a look at historical crises that have hit us in the past as a more or less comprehensive guide as to what you can expect down the line. After all, there are several categories that have cropped up over the century that cover everything from financial meltdowns, viral and disease outbreaks, and even terrorism.
As a preparatory measure for your crisis communications plan, companies should craft placeholder messages that address your company’s policies for each incident. If you don’t have those yet, then they should form a central part of your overall planning efforts. These can then serve as templates down the line when a crisis of an identified nature actually strikes. These should be written with clarity in mind—detail where you stand, what employees should expect, and even who is in charge of ultimately disseminating official information.
Crisis communications isn’t just about sending the message out. It’s just as important to remain visible. A company’s visibility in a crisis can serve as a strong anchor that panicked or worried employees turn to for strength and comfort. Make sure that you have a dedicated channel in which your employees can direct their questions or even just vent their fears and frustrations. Your leaders should also take point in a crisis because employees draw a lot of strength from them.
More than that, you need to more closely monitor the effectiveness of your crisis communications. You want to ensure that there is full understanding of what you send out especially if there is some desired response that you are expecting. Analytics will be particularly helpful here for both distribution statistics and readership. Complement these with follow-up inquires to ensure that your employees got the message completely.
Developing the plan
Crisis communications plans can be painstaking and time-consuming to undertake. The thing though is that they ultimately will save you time, resources, and even energy when a crisis does strike. So, any efforts put into making one are truly worthwhile. The key is to approach it thoughtfully. Here are the most essential steps that you need to take to make sure you have a smart crisis communications plan.
Form a crisis communications planning and execution team
The very first thing your need to do is create a crisis communications team. Apart from planning, they’re the ones responsible for the eventual execution of the plan when a crisis hits. Your comms team should be core members of this team, but it should also include a human resource contact, representatives from each department and team. You should make sure to include a senior leader also.
This crisis communications team should take time to consider the challenges mentioned in this post and craft at least a working outline of your crisis response plan. To start, you need to clearly state the goal of your plan. You should detail your expectations of the plan and what exactly are the desired responses when they’re executed in a crisis. This doesn’t just guide the rest of the planning effort, it makes the plan easier to execute by anyone else in the organization should the crisis communications team be indisposed.
List your affected stakeholders
The next task for your crisis communications teams is to identify all the stakeholders that you wish to keep informed in a crisis. You should also list the hierarchy and priority order with which communications is going to flow. This activity allows you to designate other point people to facilitate faster dissemination of information. More than that, it allows you to more easily identify which stakeholders are more affected by one crisis or another.
That said, it’s best to create hierarchy and lists for the different types of crises out these are each one is unique. Viral or disease outbreaks are likely to concern much of your employees, for example. Financial crises might affect your leaders and investors more initially. Terrorist attacks might affect a particular region where they take place. The uniqueness of many crises means that you can’t get it all right at the get-go, but having a framework makes it easier to adapt down the line.
Create holding statements for fast crisis communications
Placeholders are critical to crisis communications because they allow for a more expedient response just as a crisis hits. This expediency doesn’t just comfort your employees, it also imparts in them a sense of confidence in your ability to get them through a crisis. Again, it might be very difficult to anticipate every potential crisis out there, but you can at least craft general policies as a response to the chaos and uncertainty that a crisis brings.
With the recent NCoV and COVID-19 crisis, Google has enacted work from home measures to keep its employees safe against exposure to the virus. It’s an effective move and one that is worth considering for other potential crises or disaster. Other policies can cover things like evacuation procedures, company support for affected employees and the like. You can craft whatever works for you, just make sure that the messaging is detailed, understandable, and clear.
Select your emergency channels and educate your employees in their use
While there’s nothing wrong with using the most effective channels that you use day-to-day, you should consider that crisis communications might take place in a drastically affected world. Common communication tools like social media, the intranet, and even employee apps are sure to be affected by crises that cause the loss of internet connectivity. Old-fashioned SMS messaging can work as a great backup in a pinch.
Even then, being dependent on technology, it can still be vulnerable to failure. You need to be ready to distribute printed fact sheets that detail your stand in a particular crisis and steps that your employees might need to take. Support these with in-office bulletins. Remember: as effective as online communication channels are, they’re very vulnerable to disruption. List offline channel options in your crisis communications plan as a contingency.
Identify the biggest risks depending on a crisis and craft potential policy responses
It will help your planning efforts to identify the biggest risks to your company and your employees. Again, this might seem like an overwhelming task in the beginning but there are some common threads that you can study. Business continuance is a big one and has to do with how you keep the company operational and functional depending on the scenario you face. The health and well-being of your employees are equally as important—as is their income and job security.
When you start to realise the many risks inherent to crises, you can start by thinking up the appropriate responses to combat the risks. This task is best done with the participation of your decision-making leaders as well as your human resources leads. You might even end up with lasting solutions that you can actually implement when a crisis does hit down the line. You should be as comprehensive as you can in this exercise, making sure you cover as many potential crises as possible.
Test run your crisis communications plan
Before you wrap up your planning session, it’s very important that you test it in action. A quick dry run with a few employees—paying particular attention to simulating the speed by which information is spread through your chosen channels—should reveal how effective your crisis communications plan is. Make sure that you collect a lot of data. Analytics from the channels themselves should show some critical information regarding distribution and readership.
In addition, you should get feedback from your leaders. Their input can be invaluable in refining key parts of your crisis communications plan especially when it comes to response policies that you came up with. Get feedback from your employees as well, especially when it comes to the ease by which information is delivered, how clear information is presented, and even what they expect from the company during the crisis. All these details should go into revisions if necessary.
Face the future
To say that crises are unpredictable is an understatement, but there is no excuse to be unprepared. A proper crisis communications plan will ensure that your business and your people stay on their feet no matter what hits. Yes, there are a lot of challenges that will be faced as you sit down to think things out. In the long run, it’s all worth it as it can ultimately save you in time, resources, and effort. A great plan lets you face the uncertain future with confidence and preparedness and also help calm your employees and their fears.