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 is a necessity for every company.
In this post, let's discuss what crisis communication is and how you can create a plan to protect your organization in any scenario.
What Is Crisis Communication?
Crisis communication refers to the dissemination of information by an organization to address a crisis that impacts customers and/or the organization's reputation.
The idea is that reputation happens whether you manage it or not, so a company should have some input about the narrative. Not only that, but customer satisfaction increases with transparency and when expectations are set and managed.
While crisis communication can be fairly reactive in nature, it helps to have a crisis communication plan in place to make the process easier on your team members.
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 a crisis with its stakeholders. These steps ensure information reaches employees, partners, customers, media, the general public, and any other valuable stakeholders.
Most importantly, a crisis communication plan helps guarantee a quick release of information, as well as a consistent message on all company platforms during a time of crisis. That message depends largely on what the crisis involves and how all parties are affected by it.
Now, you might be wondering, "What constitutes a crisis?" Let's dive into some examples below.
Crisis Scenario Examples
Any number of scenarios could manifest as a business crisis that warrants communication from your organization. Some of the most common types of crises include:
- Financial - Financial loss such as announcing a bankruptcy or store closures.
- Personnel - Changes to staff that may affect operations or reputation such as employee furloughs or layoffs.
- Organizational - An apology for misconduct or wrongdoing as a result of organizational practices.
- Technological - Technological failure that results in outages causing reduced functionality or functionality loss.
- Natural - Natural crisis that necessitates an announcement or change of procedure. For example, defining safety precautions in the midst of a health crisis.
In addition, anything else you can think of that could stall or halt business continuity is a good example of a crisis that warrants communication with customers and/or the public.
While your communication plan will differ depending on the crisis you're dealing with, below are some common strategies that businesses use to deliver an effective response.
Featured Resource: Crisis Communication Plan Template
Use HubSpot's Crisis Communication Plan Template to build out your company's own plan. Included are charts, sections, and prompts to help you document your company's strategy when a crisis hits.
Crisis Communication Strategies
1. Spokesperson Response
When your company makes a mistake, the best thing you can do is to apologize and be human. The most effective way to do that is to assign a spokesperson to speak on your brand's behalf. After all, it's a lot easier to relate to one person than a group of lawyers.
This person could be your CEO, a company executive, or someone you feel is best suited to represent your company. It's important to choose a good communicator as their actions will influence how your key stakeholders will react to the situation. If they can make your company look human and your mistakes appear manageable, that will play a major role in maintaining stakeholder support.
2. Proactive Damage Control
No matter if things are going well now, you should always prepare for a crisis to occur. Don't worry, this doesn't make you a pessimist. Instead, it makes you proactive.
Proactive damage control is what you do to reduce or prevent the effects of a crisis before it occurs. For example, adding security software that records and backs up company data will help you avoid a malware crisis. Additionally, you can train your employees to watch out for suspicious or harmful emails that might reach their inboxes.
At HubSpot, our security team sends out routine training videos to educate employees about different security protocols. The videos are short and the multiple-choice quizzes are so light-hearted that they act as additional learning tools in case you didn't pay close attention to the video. This makes the training easily consumed, and, more importantly, successful in teaching employees how to protect company data.
3. Case Escalation
Sometimes crises can be resolved on the individual level before they reach a viral tipping point. For these cases, it helps to create an escalation system within your customer service team that can diffuse the issue before it gets out of hand.
At HubSpot, we have specialists who work on complex or time-sensitive cases. When customers have needs that require additional attention, our experts intervene to assist. This helps the service rep manage a tricky situation and ensures a more delightful experience for our customers.
4. Social Media Response
Social media is a wonderful marketing tool that allows companies to reach audiences across the globe. But, this reach works both ways, as customers can share stories, post pictures, and upload videos for the world to see. One viral video painting your company in the wrong light can lead to millions of people developing a negative perception of your brand.
Crises are battled both in-person and online. So, your company needs a social media plan that can manage the digital buzz around your business. This may include assigning more reps to monitor your social channels or updating followers with new information. But, regardless of how you use it, social media can't be ignored when your company is working through a crisis.
5. Customer Feedback Collection and Analysis
Sometimes you may have a crisis occurring, but it isn't on the front page of the news or going viral on social media. Instead, it's silently affecting your customers and causing churn, but you're unaware of it because you're not gathering enough feedback from your customers.
Gathering feedback is an excellent way to prevent a crisis. That's because it provides insight into how customers are feeling about your business. This allows you to spot major roadblocks before they escalate into a crisis. And, it gives customers an opportunity to share negative criticism that you can use to improve other customers' experiences.
When faced with an unhappy or escalated customer, our success team recognizes this as a chance to collect customer feedback. They begin interactions by asking customers to review their experience and discuss any elements that were unsatisfactory. This helps our team create actionable steps that they can use to align themselves with the customer's needs.
Rachel Grewe, a HubSpot Customer Success rep, explains this strategy in the quote below.
"I open with asking for the opportunity to hear their feedback on their experience, then I make sure to close with actionable next steps for myself and the customer. An escalated customer isn’t always a sign of failure but an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our customer’s success." - Rachel Grewe, HubSpot Customer Success
For some businesses, writing a crisis communication plan can be difficult, so let's follow the steps below to get started.
Crisis Communication and Management Kit
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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 whom 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.
6 Crisis Communication Plan Examples
1. University Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
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 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. Fatal Accident Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Spokesperson Response
Southwest has consistently been one of the safest airlines in the world. However, that doesn't mean the company doesn't experience accidents.
On Flight 1380, an engine malfunction resulted in the death of a passenger and was recorded as the company's first in-flight fatality. The company's CEO, Gary Kelly, immediately responded to the situation by offering a sincere, heartfelt apology to the victim's family. He then pulled all advertising from their social media channels and made personal phone calls to passengers offering support and counseling resources.
While it's hard to consider grim crises like these, they do occur and impact businesses. Even though Southwest had never encountered an accident like this before, the CEO was prepared for this situation and demonstrated genuine remorse both through his words and his company's actions.
3. Unexpected Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Spokesperson
If you're familiar with Tide Pods, then you might remember that trend when people were eating them -- yes, eating. As you could imagine, participants of this fad got sick from consuming laundry detergent and Tide had to release a campaign warning customers not to consume its product. Safe to say, the company's marketing team definitely didn't expect this issue to come across their desks.
Nevertheless, the team got to work and came up with an ingenious response to the crisis. They paired up with former NFL player, Rob Gronkowski, to release a PSA to its customers. You can check out one of these videos below.
This example proves it's hard to “expect the unexpected,” but when the unexpected does occur, your team needs to act swiftly to resolve the issue.
4. School Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
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
Crisis Communication Strategy: Social Media Response
In 2018, restaurant chain, KFC, got into an awkward situation when it ran out of a chicken to serve its customers. Having built its brand on its 11-spice fried chicken recipe, this was a crisis that the company probably didn't plan for.
But, KFC's marketing team quickly got to work and was able to put a positive spin on the situation. They released videos and tweets like the one below that light-heartedly apologized for the shortage and showed off the brand's humility.
This is why a crisis communication plan is essential for restaurants. Some scenarios you'll want to plan for are the spread of food-borne illness, unsanitary working conditions, and, of course, delivery issues affecting food supply.
6. False Accusation Crisis Communication Plan
Crisis Communication Strategy: Proactive Damage Control
Some crises occur when customers tamper with products and try to create media attention or drum up a lawsuit. This was a major problem in the early 1990s when Pepsi cans were being tampered within stores. Customers in over 20 states reported that they found sharp objects in their cans when drinking Pepsi.
While the public's initial reaction was negative, the company stuck to its communication plan and assured customers that the canning process was tamper-proof. Marketers released videos of the canning process and invited reporters to tour their facilities. Once the FDA cleared Pepsi and surveillance videos were catching people putting objects in cans, the media and general public agreed the crisis was a hoax.
You can review the full story in the video below.
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.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published May 13, 2021 4:00:00 PM, updated August 25 2021