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
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
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
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
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
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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