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Why Some Crisis Plans Miss the Boat
Tips to plan ahead for rough seas.
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by Tim O'Brien
O'Brien Communications

It probably wasn't until I had experienced quite a few actual crises did I realize that the conventional way we have developed crisis communications plans was out of touch.  

I had often heard communications pros complain that their companies never seemed to use the crisis plans they spent lots of time and money developing.  Then it hit me.  They (company managers) are not the problem, we are!

More to the point, our crisis communications plans simply are not user-friendly.

The bottom line is that when there's a crisis, management expects that the chief communicator to take charge and handle it.  When a spokesperson needs to be involved or information needs to be gathered, processed and disseminated, management trusts that the communications chief is prepared.

In most of the crisis plans I have read, however, the process is never that basic.  It seems that in crisis planning, crisis communicators tend to create complicated processes that the whole organization is expected to follow during a crisis. 

Problem is, most of these processes are not consistent with the day-to-day operations of the company.  The processes in many crisis communications plans fail to accurately represent the real-world way in which things get done at the company.

Case in point: I once read a crisis plan that began with so much tutorial information on the role of communications that the table of contents only started on page 36!  Can you imagine any senior manager having the time or the patience to wade through the muck of that plan during a crisis?

So here are some tips if you want your crisis plan to be used and to work:

1. Do not use lengthy narrative to describe the role of communications and how it works.  That belongs in a PR text book.  Users of your crisis plan want simple, step-by-step instructions that clearly tell them what they must do and when, and what the responsibilities of their fellow managers will be.

2. Do not try to anticipate every possible scenario by developing prepared templates for such things as "Plant Explosion News Release," or "Chemical Spill Statement."  Most likely when a crisis actually does occur, the specifics of the situation are so unique that one of the first things you will do is trash the template and start from scratch anyway.

3. Build the process around having a hands-on communications chief involved throughout the process.  This sounds obvious, but too many crisis plans seem to be designed for implementation in the event the communications person "got hit by a bus."  Ironically, this may be the reason the plans are so cumbersome and awkward.  They try to make every plan user a communications expert.  Forget that approach, but build into your process the need to have a seasoned communications professional involved around the clock if necessary, and have back-up systems so that if the primary communications person is not available her back-up is on hand.

4. Concentrate on creating a modular system for communications that kicks in at the outset of the crisis and repeats itself for the duration of the event, even if the crisis takes days or weeks to resolve.  The plan should spell out how the team will be brought together, how they will communicate with each other, gather information, process it and approve it, and how the communications team will disseminate it.  From there the schedule should be set according to the priority level of the situation.

Of course, these tips just scratch the surface, but each one points to the need to make sure not to try to impress senior management with your crisis plan document, but rather, to impress them with how well you implement that plan during a crisis.

Tim O'Brien operates O'Brien Communications, a corporate communications practice based in Pittsburgh.  Before starting his firm, he oversaw IR and PR for a telecom firm.  Before that, he was at Ketchum.  He has served clients across several industries, providing corporate and crisis communications counsel.  He can be reached at

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