do you have a crisis communications plan yet? Do you have one that works?
Will we perhaps watch your organization's failures play out on the news
because you don't have a functioning crisis communications plan?
Few things in corporate communications are needed more, yet get less
attention than the crisis communications plan. The same is true for
schools, hospitals, government agencies and non-profit organizations.
Here are my thoughts on what a crisis communications plan should be, what
it should not be, and how to get the time and/or budget you need to write
I think one of the hardest things to do is to find a good format for
writing the plan. Because most plans are written by consultants, each
guards his or her template and plans. Crisis experts make their living off
of their plans, so getting free advise and a peek at the
"jewels" is a rare event.
The next difficulty is defining what a crisis plan is. I'm often asked to
review crisis plans for companies. Usually I'm greatly disappointed to
find out the company invested a lot of time and money creating a
complicated policy manual that sits on a shelf and collects dust.
My rule is a crisis plan should not tell you how to behave in a crisis,
but it should tell you what to do in a crisis and when. A crisis
plan should not be a complicated rulebook that no body reads. Rather it
should be a simple fill in the blank system that walks you through each
hour of the crisis, telling you what you should say, who you should say it
to, and when to say it. It will also direct you as to what communications
tools you should use, whether it be a news conference, e-mail, text
messaging, a posting to a website, an employee meeting, etc.
My first rule is your crisis plan should be "Idiot proof." That
means the plan should be so simple that anyone who can read can execute
it. Too many plans are centered around the perfect scenario in which a
trained communicator is executing the plan. Such an assumption is flawed
because often the crisis happens when the trained communicators are out of
Bench strength is the secret to great athletic teams - it should be the
secret to your crisis plan. The more people capable of stepping up to the
plate to execute the plan and communicate with it during a crisis, the
better off you'll be.
Parts and Pieces
Different consultants will tell you the plan needs 12 parts, or 7 parts,
etc. My friends, it's all perspective. I'll tell you that you need four
Step One is the vulnerability audit or assessment. This is
when you spend time interviewing people within your organization to ask
them what might go wrong and why. Your interviews should range from top
executives, to managers, to line employees. You should be prepared to ask
them a few simple open ended questions, including, "What do you think
might go wrong here, that would result in a crisis?" You'll want to
consider likely crisis, worst case scenarios and delve into the bizarre
possibilities. I used to get great pushback from executives when I asked
about the bizarre, until they witnessed terrorists fly airplanes into
buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.
When considering the scenarios, you should also consider that a crisis
isn't always a fire or explosion, but may be something internal, often
referred to as a smoldering crisis. The Institute for Crisis Management in
Louisville Kentucky says a smoldering crisis is twice as likely to happen
as a sudden crisis.
At a minimum, you should be prepared to invest a minimum of 25 hours
conducting interviews and compiling your findings, but be prepared to
spend from 50 to 100 hours on this segment of the plan. You'll want to
make an extensive list of the scenarios that have been identified, and
then rank their probability of occurring. You'll want to deal with the Top
10 most likely to occur first, and then proceed down the list accordingly.
Step Two is creating the template that will become the heart
of the plan. This is the part of the plan that coordinates notification of
key leaders during a crisis, notification of the media, employees,
customers, the community and other key stakeholders specific to your
This heart of the plan should contain a pre-written, pre-approved first
critical statement template that will encompass the words you'll
communicate to all of your audiences during the first critical hour of any
crisis that goes public.
The heart of the plan should also prepare you for news conferences and
what you'll say in the subsequent hours of the crisis.
At a minimum, you should be prepared to invest 100 hours in crafting a
plan that truly serves your needs. I actually spent more than 500 hours
developing the heart of the plan that I use, because I would write it,
then tear it down to make it simpler, then tear it down again to make it
Step Three requires you to return to the vulnerability
assessment you did in Step One. You should go down your list of possible
crisis scenarios and literally write out what you anticipate you would say
to your critical audiences in the event that each of these events happens.
When completed, these statements will form an appendix in the plan. You
should have a fill-in-the-blank portion that allows you to add the who,
what, when, where, why and how, followed by a complete script that you or
a spokesperson can say verbatim during the crisis. These are usually used
in the second hour of the crisis.
I use this format because one of the great frustrations I had, as a
reporter for 15 years, was when no one could make a statement to me during
a crisis because they were waiting for language to be approved by the
legal and executive staff.
My approach is to have everything pre-written and blessed by legal and
corporate leaders well in advance of the crisis, so you can communicate
quickly and effectively on the day of the crisis. These should include
statements for events ranging from weather emergencies to workplace
violence to fires and explosions.
As you write each set of key message, you should be prepared to invest
5-10 hours to cover both the writing and approval process for each event.
Each event will likely cover 2-3 pages. That means your Top 10 scenarios
will take 50 to 100 hours to write and re-write.
Step Four is testing the plan. If you don't test your plan,
then it may likely be a crisis waiting to happen. A test lets all parties
become familiar with what's in the plan and make sure it works as planned.
Even the best plans have a flaw here and there that can be exposed and
corrected during a drill. Some flaws turn out to be in the personalities
of leaders or responders. The drill also lets you test the quality of your
spokespeople. Video tape their performance for evaluation, and be sure to
schedule media training if it is needed.
Many organizations have emergency response plans for coordinating police,
fire, rescue and EMS during a crisis. Often the security director or risk
manager will schedule regular emergency drills. However, many fail to
include communications in their drill, resulting in responders and
managers being overwhelmed when the media is demanding interviews during
an actual crisis, and while employees and their families begin making
demands for information.
The drill can be a tabletop or real time drill. It should have live
role-players portraying members of the media who show up on-site with
cameras, plus an off-site team that works to overload switchboards with
You should be prepared to invest a minimum of 25 hours to plan, coordinate
and execute the drill.
Budget & Time
Based on the nuggets I've given you, to write a plan yourself will take
200 to 400 work-hours. That scares a lot of people to the degree that the
task seems overwhelming, so they never begin. Others do the quick math and
determine that to hire an agency or consultant to write such a plan,
they'll need to budget $20,000 on the low end and $150,000 on the high
Budget and time are two of the biggest reasons so many organizations don't
have a crisis communications plan. That's why I created a workshop to help
people write a crisis communications plan in two days. But even at a
greatly reduced price, some managers will still not allocate budget or
So let's address how to get either the time, or budget you'll need.
If you are going to write the plan yourself, start by setting aside a
certain amount of time on certain days of the week. Maybe you can set
aside every Wednesday, or afternoons on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What ever
it is, load up your calendar with your writing days and stick to your
schedule. In 4, 6 or 12 months, you'll have your plan.
If hiring a consultant is your choice and you need to get budget approval,
spend some time doing case studies within your industry. Chances are you
can find a similar company with a crisis that resulted in huge financial
losses because of their failure to properly handle a crisis. Collect
several case studies that show losses ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 or
more. Then it is up to you to make the argument that your plan can offer
financial protection to your organization. One lawsuit resulting from poor
communications far exceeds the price of a crisis plan.
Time and money — those are the biggest obstacles. Your greatest
challenge is not to feel defeated or overwhelmed. There's an old adage
that says you don't eat the elephant in one bite; you eat it one bite at a
time. Take the first bite and get started. Be patient and be realistic
that this is an ongoing process. It can be done and it should be done.
After all, how long has it been since Hurricane Katrina? How long has it
been since the events of Sept. 11th? How long has it been since the last
school shooting? Do you really need any more reasons than that?
If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.
Braud is an international speaker and coach, specializing in media
training, crisis communications, employee communications, presentation
skills training and video/audio production. Since 1994, he has practiced
his craft on four continents. Gerard has pioneered a system for writing an
entire crisis communications plan in 2 days: www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com
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