Life would be much easier if emergencies arrived with fair warning. There would be no need to prepare for them in advance.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. Crises come when they're least expected. And, if your organization waits until a crisis hits to start planning, you'll likely fail to avoid catastrophe. This is why crisis communication plans are a necessity for every company.
In this post, let's discuss what a crisis communication plan is and how you can create one for your crisis management team.
What Is a Crisis Communication Plan?
A crisis communication plan is a set of guidelines used to prepare a business for an emergency or unexpected event. These plans include steps to take when a crisis first emerges, how to communicate with the public, and how to prevent the issue from occurring again.
Crisis communication plans focus on the company's response and how it will communicate with its stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches employees, partners, customers, media, the general public, and any other valuable stakeholders. Most importantly, these plans guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message on all company platforms.
For some businesses, writing a crisis communication plan can be difficult, so let's follow the steps below to get started.
How to Write a Crisis Communication Plan
1. Identify the goal of the plan.
Before you begin, your team should determine what the objective of the plan is. It can be as simple as: "This plan creates a structure for communicating with internal and external stakeholders, in the event of a crisis that affects the reputation or normal business functions of the organization." This ensures every aspect of your plan aligns with this common goal.
2. Identify stakeholders.
When writing the plan, it's important to know who the plan is designed for. Outline a list of all stakeholders you'd want to keep informed about the crisis.
This list probably includes employees, customers and users, partners, investors, media outlets, the government, and the general public. The latter likely includes social media followers or people located nearby in the event of a location-based crisis. You should also add all necessary contact information for each of these groups in your plan.
3. Create a hierarchy for sharing information on the crisis.
The person or team that reports a crisis doesn't always handle crisis communications. So, a part of the plan should be dedicated to forming a hierarchy outlining how information should be shared within the company. That way, no matter who notices the crisis emerging, they'll know who to go to first.
This order depends on the structure of your team. The first step may be to notify the CEO or president of the organization, followed by the head of communications or public relations. The plan should also constitute what information should immediately be disclosed to these parties. This might include known details about the crisis, the source of the incident, and any existing backlash
4. Assign people to create fact sheets.
Your plan should detail which people on the team are in charge of creating fact sheets about the crisis. Fact sheets are lists of known facts pertaining to the crisis. They prevent rumors or misinterpretations from spreading to media outlets.
Additionally, you should set a deadline for when these fact sheets will be prepared. Depending on the crisis, you may need them within 24 hours, six hours, or even 30 minutes.
5. Identify and assess example crisis scenarios.
When a crisis does happen, you will likely feel overwhelmed. Your mind will race and you will feel pressured to respond to phone calls, social media mentions, and media inquiries.
This is why it's best to outline common scenarios in advance. Some types of crises that may affect your organization are natural disasters, disruptions in normal business functions, customer or employee injuries, and product tampering.
6. Identify and answer common questions.
During any crisis -- no matter how big or small -- people are going to ask questions. Whether they are customer advocates or reporters, the public will want to uncover the truth. After all, in most cases, companies are seen as guilty until proven innocent.
Crisis communication plans can help you identify and answer questions that you can expect to be asked during your crisis scenarios. For instance, if a natural disaster strikes your headquarters, some questions you may get asked are, "Was anyone injured in the incident?" and "How long will it take for the business to return to normal functionality?"
7. Identify potential risks.
No matter how well thought-out your crisis communication plan is, there are always going to be pros and cons. Naturally, you'll stick with the plan that maximizes benefits while minimizing costs. However, the costs are still important to consider.
Under each plan, you should list out the potential risks you'll face. That way, if the plan does backfire, you won't be caught off guard. You will have prepared yourself and aid out steps for recuperating from these additional losses.
8. Create guidelines specific to social media.
Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. To offer as much transparency as possible, teams should focus on preparing press materials and sharing information about the crisis. The more information you retain, the more the public will want to know what you're hiding.
Reactive communication is just as important. It's vital that team members are focused on social monitoring during a time of crisis. Any negative social media mentions should be dealt with immediately and with consistency. There should be sections of your plan dedicated solely to social media crisis management.
Now that you know how to craft your own crisis communication plan, check out the following examples to get some added inspiration for your writing process.
5 Crisis Communication Plan Examples
1. University Crisis Communication Plan
In a university crisis communication plan, it's essential to focus on crises that may affect normal school and administrative functions. For instance, my college, Emerson College, always emails students if a dangerous incident occurs on or near campus and gives us a list of tips to remain safe. Universities also plan for crises such as marches or protests, injuries or deaths of community members, and bad press relating to the school. Source: University of Washington
The University of Washington has an extensive crisis communication plan geared towards preserving the safety and security of community members. As a university, the main audiences for communication include students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, as well as visitors, temporary residents, the general public, and media.
2. Nonprofit Crisis Communication Plan
Nonprofits are founded on valuable missions and have important visions for improving some aspect of the world. However, nonprofits are just as likely -- if not more likely -- to get involved with crises. Since constituents donate money towards the cause, it's essential nonprofits always keep them in the loop about crises. After all, one bad crisis could result in the loss of many important donors.
Some examples of crises scenarios you would include in a nonprofit crisis communication plan are exploitation of funds, negative stories about company leaders, and improper allocation of funds or programs. By prepping for these situations, your nonprofit won't end up in a full-blown scandal, like the American Red Cross during its response to the Haiti earthquakes.
3. Hospital Crisis Communication Plan
Hospitals are just as susceptible to crises as any other kind of organization. After all, any organization that has human lives in its hands is bound to face backlash. It's important for hospitals to have plans in action, in case an unfortunate situation occurs.
Some crises scenarios to identify and assess in your hospital crisis communication plan are medical malpractice, natural disasters, and personnel scandals. Dealing with these crises immediately is especially crucial for an organization that deals with sick and injured patients. They and their loved ones want to know they can trust the hospital to be honest and safe.
4. School Crisis Communication Plan
Similar to universities, schools need to deal with crises efficiently, especially if they impact the normal class schedule. Since schools deal with children, it's especially crucial that parents and guardians are made aware of any situations that could affect the education, safety, or health of their kids. Source:Virginia Department of Education
The Virginia Department of Education has created a lengthy management plan including crisis communications. The plan highlights various crises that would require communication with parents -- such as a school bus accident -- and gives letter templates that can be quickly sent out.
5. Restaurant Crisis Communication Plan
Restaurants must follow strict FDA guidelines to serve food and drinks that are safe for guests. However, as clean as kitchens are kept and as closely as expiration dates are followed, mistakes can happen that cause illness or even death. Let's not forget the infamous outbreak of E. coli in Chipotle restaurants.
This is why a crisis communication plan is essential for restaurants. Some scenarios you'll want to include in these crisis plans are the spread of food-borne illness, unsanitary working conditions, and natural disasters affecting food supply.
The most important thing is to keep stakeholders informed when a crisis hits, so they know your organization prioritizes the safety of customers over saving face or maintaining profits.
Crisis Communication Plan Template
It can be difficult to get your own crisis communication plan started from scratch. So, use the following template to help you create an informative, organized, and effective strategy.