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Why Every Company Needs a Crisis Communication Plan

Crises that can seriously damage a company’s and/or brand’s reputation are happening more frequently than ever, and thanks to the lightning speed of Internet communications, the news spreads fast. In spite of this, the majority of small and mid-size companies we work with have done little or no advanced planning to help get through a crisis. In addition, many very large international corporations are equally unprepared. Foreign companies are typically less prepared for crises in the U.S. than their domestic counterparts.

Why? My own opinion is that senior executives don’t like thinking about the bad things that could happen. In addition, the thought process about budgeting for crisis planning tends to be, “Sure, this is important, but there are many urgent expenditures that we have to put first.”

In other words, an expense for something that’s happening right now is given priority over an expense for something that might or might not happen in the future. It’s comparable to purchasing insurance. No one wants to spend a sizeable amount of money on an “if,” and most of the time, nothing goes wrong, but when things go south, they’re glad they did.

However, what seems important to fund right now could pale in comparison with the havoc that a full-blown crisis can wreak. Even though a company’s management feels there’s a low probability of a serious crisis occurring, if and when it does occur, the consequences can be devastating.

Foreign companies in the U.S. have a special set of challenges to deal with in crisis communication planning. PR in the U.S. is not the same as it is back at headquarters. In many countries, the media can be dealt with much more easily than in the U.S. For example, a company that has a big ad budget can be quite influential in pressuring the media to spare the company from the worst publicity, something that can’t be done in the U.S. Many foreign company’s overseas headquarters staff don’t understand the differences in the media and the culture and aren’t supportive of efforts to do American-style PR planning.

To help shed more light on the need for a crisis communication plan, this blog post will provide a list of frequently asked questions and comments we hear about crisis communications. You can also read about our 7 Crisis Management Tips for Startups.

Q: How do you define a crisis?

A: All crises share certain common elements:

  • It is unexpected and unpredictable.
  • It requires a quick response.
  • It disrupts a company’s day-to-day business.
  • It can damage a company’s or brand’s reputation and sales.

The basis for a crisis could be any of a thousand different situations. To name a few:

  • Products that turn out to be harmful, even if the harm came from product tampering, and wasn’t the company’s fault
  • Senior executives caught in compromising situations, such as bribery, fraud, sex scandals
  • Opposition by consumer groups to a company action or policy, such as shutting down a plant and putting people out of work or using animals for product testing
  • Deceptive corporate practices that come to light
  • Discrimination in hiring and/or promotions
  • Violent acts against the company, such as a rogue gunman shooting people
  • Damage to the company’s offices or plants by a hurricane, tornado or fire
  • Major cyber breach
  • This list could go on and on.

Q: What is a crisis communications plan and what role does it play?

A: It is a detailed blueprint for how to respond and communicate during a crisis, with assignment of specific responsibilities to specific individuals.

Q: Since crises are unpredictable, and each focuses on a specific set of circumstances, what’s the use of creating a crisis communications plan?

A: Even though you can’t predict a crisis, you can come up with some likely crisis scenarios and plan how the company should respond in each one. Even if none of those scenarios are the basis for an eventual crisis, simply thinking through them is good preparation for dealing with an actual crisis:

  • Senior management can establish certain policies that apply to all crises (for example, “Only members of the crisis team can talk to the media during a crisis or select a spokesperson for the whole company.  Individual employees are not allowed to speak to the media or make comments online about a crisis.
  • The company can also prepare some generic communications materials that can help in quickly communicating the company’s point of view.
  • The company can decide on a team that will handle communications in a crisis and train the team in best practices for managing a crisis.

Q. What are some of the elements of a crisis communication plan?

A: Here are just a few of the key elements:

  • Appointment of a crisis communications team with assignment of specific responsibilities to each team member (for example, Suzy Smith will be responsible for overall management of media announcements and questions. Sam Jones will be responsible for employee communications during a crisis, Henry Anderson will give media interviews and be the company spokesperson at news conferences, Sally Weiss will lead the team and be responsible for prioritizing actions and issues, etc.)
  • Contact information for each team member (home phone, cell phone, home address, etc.) so they can be reached quickly no matter what time of day or night
  • Clear empowerment of the team to make decisions without getting senior management approvals in advance on each one
  • Drafts of press release templates that can be easily and quickly used
  • A template for a letter to clients to keep them informed

Q: What kind of staff should serve on the crisis management team?

  • CEO and CEO’s closest advisors
  • Department head(s)
  • Board Members
  • Senior public relations staff
  • Human Resource Department executive

Q: What are some general tips on how to prepare for crises?

A: Here are just a few:

  • Consider all types of crises and the kinds of problems that could arise in those circumstances. For example, if the crisis involves a fire, all of the electronic equipment would be down, so there should be a plan for how the team would manage and work under those circumstances.
  • If you don’t have an online news room on your website, add it now. It’s very convenient to have, anyway, and it’s important to have one you can use in a crisis to inform both the media and the public.
  • Prepare a list of all important stakeholders the company needs to be in touch with in a crisis and appoint a team member to take responsibility for communicating with each group. Don’t forget that the local community where the company is located is an important stakeholder.
  • Don’t ever lie. Be open with all stakeholders. If a mistake is made or a comment is made that shouldn’t have been, admit the error.
  • Keep employees informed. Their well-being depends on the company’s well-being, and it’s important to have a company representative let them know what’s going on. They shouldn’t be dependent on what they read in the media to find out what’s happening.
  • When your company is dealing with the media in a crisis, don’t favor one reporter over another in providing information.
  • Find a good book about crisis communications (there are many) and provide it to all of the crisis team members to read so they have a better understanding of crisis communication principles before a crisis occurs.

Compliments of Bridge Global Strategies LLC a member of the EACCNY