What Just Happened? Understanding the Elements of Crisis Communications Plans

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During a crisis situation, being able to navigate through an emergency and develop a crisis communication plan is crucial, whether you’re the leader of a company, the leader of a nation, or a health official trying to handle a pandemic like COVID-19. Handle messaging incorrectly and you might ruin your brand’s reputation, leading to concern from key stakeholders.

Leaders throughout history have mastered crisis communication planning and response by focusing on a “to-do” list of crisis communication points. You can remember these points thanks to their starting letters: 5 “Ws” and 1 “H”. Let’s break down essential message principles to remember and that you can implement in your emergency crisis training policies.

Communication plan tips from Brian Murnahan.

The Key Factors in a Crisis Communication Plan

Why – The Goal of the Plan

The “why” of your crisis communication plan is arguably the most important of all elements of a crisis communication plan. Any communication plan you develop should align toward a specific purpose, such as informing and reassuring major stakeholders, correcting misconceptions by the public, and reestablishing trust in your company or brand, and don’t forget to get the message back to your core business goals.

Who Does the Talking

Having a confident, trained, and well briefed spokesperson is a critical element to effective crisis communications.
Having a confident, trained, and well-briefed spokesperson is a critical element to effective crisis communications.

When developing your plan, you must also consider who will be sending primary crisis communications, such as a communication representative, a spokesperson, an executive or CEO, or someone else entirely (preferably with media training or public relations talent).

A single entity or spokesperson on your communications team should handle all key messages, whereas other parties can send out secondary communications on other communication channels. Make sure they follow the broader crisis communication plan as set up by management for your business. It should go without saying, but be sure that those in the media know how to reach you in a timely fashion as well.

In any event, your spokesperson should have lots of media training and skills with public relations. A professional spokesperson can help your business navigate the tricky elements of crisis management and play an essential role in your communications team.

Bottom line: a bad spokesperson can sink your crisis management efforts, put your best foot forward. This is no time to see if your nephew is as good on camera as he thinks he is.

~ Brian Murnahan

What – The Content of Your Crisis Communications Plan

Naturally, your crisis communication plan should also go over what you mean to say to the public, stakeholders, or even government officials. All communications you send out should be transparent, accurate, and empathetic most of all.

Furthermore, what you communicate should demonstrate competence, leadership, and confidence as you resolve whatever crisis situation started the entire issue. Spend time crafting solid and sustainable messages before beginning your crisis response.

Your crisis management strategy members should develop both internal and external key messages as part of the planning process. Internal and external messages are important to prevent team members from speaking out of turn and muddying the waters, particularly on social media. Remember, whatever you say to employees will be on the news, so be consistent in your messaging.

Where – Where You’ll Speak

Knowing the proper channels to communicate is essential to reaching your target audience
Knowing the proper channels to communicate is essential to reaching your target audience

Consider where you’ll be doing most of your communications in terms of the messaging format. This information should be in the communication plan as well, so anyone reading it knows where messages are meant to be voiced or posted.

For example, many companies publish electronic media, such as newsletters, videos, and more. But you should also consider the role of social media in crisis communication, as this can be an effective way to get news out quickly and to communicate directly with the public.

Assign a single media channel like Twitter as the go to source of information during a natural disaster, so your employees don’t flood your phone trying to figure out if they have to come in. Perhaps the same channel is used for the media with pointers on your other channels reminding them to look at Twitter.

Even a single social media post, however, can be dangerous if team members don’t send out key messages that align with your crisis team and their strategy. Your crisis team should brief team members before they put out any social media messages or use other communication channels.

The “where” of your crisis response strategy can play a big role in how people receive your message’s content, especially if your crisis response has to address a particularly sensitive or hot button issue.

When Do You Communicate?

Communicate as soon as your organization can address the issues - don't wait for perfect responses.
Communicate as soon as your organization can address the issues – don’t wait for perfect responses.

Your crisis communication team and management should plan when you send out messages carefully. Sending an initial message immediately after your crisis management team develops a crisis response plan usually wise, but you should avoid putting out new information until you are sure it can benefit your position.

If you send out communications too early, you can seem unprepared or hurried. Send out communications too late, and your crisis communication efforts could seem distracted or ingenuine to audiences or to community members.

You have to balance the urgency of the event with the accuracy of the message. If you are in a crisis, really try to let people know, “this is what we know now, it may change in the future.”

“How Often” Do You Communication?

Last is the “H” of the above elements of a crisis communication plan: how often your plan calls for you to communicate with the press, the public, stakeholders, and so on.

In general, your crisis communications should be early, continuous, and timely relative to the beginning of your crisis event. It’s very difficult to over-communicate to audiences, a customer, or even the government during a crisis situation. Learn more about our recommended 7 Tactics to Overcome a PR Crisis.

For example, you should facilitate multiple ways for employees and the public to ask questions or voice concerns, and set up teams who can answer these requests quickly and while aligned with your broader communication plan. Your company’s contact information should be readily available, especially to the news (otherwise the news will find other ways to contact you or employees). Post a phone number or create a web page for your organization for the crisis’ duration.

Social media, once again, provides an easy way for your organization to speak to employees, key stakeholders, and the general audience due to how easy it is to post messages on social media.

Ultimately, if you follow each of the above points, your crisis communication messaging plan will be more likely to succeed as you overcome the issue.

Plan for Future Crisis Communication Needs

Brian is ready to help your business prepare or overcome your crisis communications.
Brian is ready to help your business prepare for or overcome any crisis.

Lastly, the best tactic for winning a PR crisis is to anticipate future ones and draw up plans ahead of time. If you have a crisis communication plan in place for any future situations, you’ll be able to address customer or regulatory questions and concerns rapidly and satisfyingly. Good communications lead to a better outcome all around.

If you need help formulating a future crisis communications plan or managing a crisis, public relations agencies and consultants can be a big help… Contact Murnahan Public Relations today for more information.

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