Thursday, September 6, 2018 started like any other day. It was day three of INBOUND, HubSpot's co-founders Brian and Dharmesh rocked their keynotes, and we announced some super exciting product updates the evening before.
Like any good PR person, I kicked off my morning with a quick read through my inbox. One message from a reporter immediately caught my eye:
Cue rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms. I immediately shot off Slack messages to our marketing and INBOUND leadership to get the scoop, bracing myself for a day of long meetings and tough conversations.
Through fast-flying emails and messages, I learned that an internal issue had caused some Marketing Hub enterprise customers to lose features, which in turn caused their websites to fail.
Complicating matters, we had just unveiled our Customer Code, a manifesto that outlines how we believe companies should treat their customers.
Two of the tenets felt especially prescient as I scrambled to get out the door that morning:
For most communications professionals, this situation is a nightmare.
You're forced to think about so many different factors — who is our spokesperson? How are we communicating with affected customers? Do we need to have a media statement ready? Should we put out a press release? Which internal teams need to be looped into the conversation? How do we minimize the impact this incident has on our customers?
Thankfully, HubSpot has a robust crisis communications plan in place to help us respond to incidents like these, so we were able to quickly mobilize our response team to start drafting and releasing our communications. Had we not had that plan in place, this story probably would have turned out differently.
Before I dive into the specifics of putting a crisis communications plan in place, I want to level set on what exactly crisis communication entails.
Crisis communication addresses issues that could impact the reputation of your brand such as product outages, litigation, HR complaints, or issues with your executive team. Crisis communication plans protect the reputation of an organization during various crisis situations.
You may have heard "incident response" used before in times of crisis — however, crisis communication and incident are different entities.
Crisis Communication vs. Incident Response
If your company has a physical office, it's likely that your security team already has an incident response plan in place. Incident response plans are tactical and deal with day-to-day issues that could arise at the office, such as problems with the building or an incident that impacts the physical safety of employees.
Incident response plans are often internal-facing and don't provide any necessary steps for communicating externally other than looping in the PR team if a situation has the potential to go public.
Both crisis communication and incident response plans serve a unique need and are incredibly important for making sure your company is prepared if and when an issue does arise.
In this blog post, however, we'll be focusing on strategies and best practices that are useful for developing a crisis communications plan.
Crisis Communications Strategies
You know your company needs to prepare for crisis situations, but what exactly does that entail? What are the steps you should take before, during, and after an incident to make sure your company is equipped with what it needs to deal with those situations?
Strategies to Use Before a Crisis
You know that old adage, "failing to plan is planning to fail?" I'm pretty sure that was written with crisis communications in mind. The only way to make sure you're fully prepared to deal with crisis situations is to spend the time before an issue arises to put a plan in place. A good crisis communications plan should.
1. Outline the core response team.
This group is your first line of defense in crisis situations. At the very least, it should include someone from your PR team and a legal representative. It's helpful to create an email alias with that group so you can contact everyone at once.
Make sure to designate someone in this group as the directly responsible individual (DRI), as well as an alternate in the event that that person is unable to help. That person will be responsible for evaluating incidents, convening the response team, and looping in other teams as needed.
2. Identify the executive response team.
Once the core response team has evaluated an incident and determined its severity, it's important that they know who on the leadership team should be alerted to the situation.
The core group should stay the same from incident to incident, but you should also be prepared to bring in other executives as needed (for example, if it's a customer-facing issue, make sure your head of customer support is looped in early).
3. Determine your workflow.
Outline the specifics of how the team will mobilize during an incident. How will you communicate? How will people in the response teams be notified? How often will you report publicly? Where will you post those communications?
Make sure you consider multiple different scenarios when putting that workflow in place. It's also helpful to list out all of the constituents that might be impacted, such as customers, employees, partners, or investors.
You should also record the different channels you would use to reach these audiences – think in-product notifications, emails, social media posts, or a press release. This work can feel tedious, but it's incredibly important to have this done well in advance so that you're not scrambling to compile it later.
Every company is different, so the additional elements of your plans might differ slightly, but these core factors are essential to any effective plan. By outlining these ahead of time, you can be sure you'll be prepared when a situation actually arises.
Strategies to Use During a Crisis
Once a situation escalates into a crisis, things start moving pretty fast. It's incredibly easy to get caught up in the moment — emotions will be running high as everyone mobilizes to try to solve the problem.
Remind yourself that you've done the hard work ahead of time to get your crisis plan in place, so you should have everything you need to get through the incident. Keeping a steady head is essential in making clear decisions and moving quickly.
Outside of making sure you're sticking to the plan, there are two key things to keep in mind when you're knee-deep in a crisis:
1. Communicate early and often.
Put yourself in the shoes of your customers or employees. How frustrating is it when you have to wait for answers or information?
Make sure you're communicating updates as quickly as possible. For product incidents, that means getting a status page up ASAP with information about the situation. Just knowing that someone is on it is often enough to assuage some anxiety during a crisis.
Also, commit to how often you'll report updates, such as every hour or by the end of the day. Making that commitment will keep things moving on your end and should also provide some comfort for the folks waiting for your response.
2. Stick to your company voice.
You should always be gut-checking your communications against your company voice. This should align with how you typically communicate with customers or employees. People don't want to hear a canned, robotic statement about how you "apologize for any impact this might have had" or how "the team is working diligently to solve the problem."
Remember that you're just a person, communicating with other people – what would you want to hear? We talk about this in our Customer Code. Often the best course of action is to own your screw-ups, and just say sorry.
On the tactical side, there are a couple of steps you can take to make the process run more smoothly. Make sure you have a conference room designated as a "war room" that you can claim during a crisis. That room should at least be equipped with a conference line, if not video option as well. It's much easier to connect and make decisions when you can see the people you're speaking to.
It's also helpful to schedule regular check-ins to make sure things are on track. During the INBOUND outage, we tried to connect in-person or via video at least every couple of hours to share updates on the situation, assign tasks, and determine appropriate next steps.
We also opened a Slack channel that included everyone who was working to resolve the issue. Having that continuous communication was essential in being able to respond quickly and effectively.
Strategies to Use After a Crisis
Now the incident has wrapped up — your communications have gone live, the chatter on Twitter is slowing down, and you haven't gotten any new requests from the media. You may think your work is done, but what you do after a crisis can be just as important as what you do before and during.
1. Evaluate performance.
Walking through the halls of HubSpot, you'll hear the phrase "feedback is the breakfast of champions" thrown around quite a bit.
This applies to crisis communications as well. After a crisis situation wraps, it's important to do a postmortem to evaluate how the team performed and determine whether there are any improvements you can make to the process.
I recommend circulating a survey with everyone involved in the crisis, as well as holding a meeting to review the feedback and talk through relevant next steps. Some topics you can discuss include:
What worked well, and what didn't
Points of confusion in the process
Suggestions for future process changes
This should be baked into your plan as a key part of every crisis situation.
Crisis Communication Best Practices
Now that you're ready to create your own crisis communications plan, here are a couple of best practices you should keep in mind as you're creating that document and socializing it within your company.
1. Set up a status page for product-related incidents.
Your status page should be easy to update on the backend, and easy for your customers to find when they're looking for updates. If your company has a Twitter account for support, consider including the URL in the bio. Customers will often go to social first when looking for quick updates on a situation.
2. Make team expectations clear.
Yes, having a plan in place is a great first step, but you also need to make sure everyone included in that plan knows what's expected of them.
The main teams to consider are marketing, customer service and support, social media, and PR. Make sure you have clear communication channels set up to keep all of those groups in sync. At HubSpot, we like to use Slack to share quick one-off updates and email to send more formal end-of-day or midday updates.
3. Create a reporting culture.
It's important to communicate to the company that employees should be reporting possible crises to the core response team. That will be the best way to ensure that you're learning about incidents before they escalate.
This is critical when you're in the beginning stages of putting a crisis communications plan in place – you'll want people to report anything and everything to get a handle on the types of incidents that are common at your company.
4. Update your plan consistently.
In addition to working postmortems into your process, you should also assign a DRI and set a schedule for updating the contact information in the plan. Once a quarter should be sufficient.
5. Consider experts' advice.
Even a seasoned communications team can benefit from professional advice. Consider bringing in experts in crisis communication, public relations, media, security, legal, and other areas to help put together your crisis communication plan.
Above all else, remember to breathe — crisis situations can be intense, but with some thoughtful planning, you will be better prepared to deal with those incidents.
Crisis Communication Firms
If your business needs some additional help with managing a crisis, you can also hire a crisis communication firm. These organizations will help you devise a plan of action and assist you in executing each play in your crisis communication playbook.
Since crises can strike at any moment, it's wise to keep a firm in mind in case you need to suddenly reach out for help. Below are a few of the top crisis communication firms to choose from in the United States.
1. Pinkston Group
Location: Alexandria, Virginia
The Pinkston Group is a public relations firm that specializes in media strategies. It offers broadcast and digital services that can help your business share its message to your customers.
The Pinkston Group can create media placements, speaking engagements, op-ed drafting and other pieces of content that will ensure your company is able to tell your side of the story to the media.
Location: Chicago, IL
SHERMAN is a PR company that focuses on capturing the voice of your customers. It conducts customer interviews and uses those responses to develop a communication plan that focuses on your customers' best interests.
Once the plan is in place, SHERMAN will help you broadcast your content through the most effective mediums like social media, web copy, video, and email.
3. Trizcom PR
Location: Dallas, TX
Trizcom PR is one of the largest PR firms in Texas. It offers content marketing, social media, and digital strategy options that can help your business produce effective content during a time of crisis.
Additionally, Trizcom PR also offers search engine optimization (SEO) services that can improve where and how your content is displayed on search engines.
Location: Boston, MA
BIGfish is a Massachusetts-based public relations company that offers a range of different communication services. Its team helps you not only create a response to your crisis but also ensures it gets the coverage and attention you need to completely resolve the situation.
Bigfish also offers media training services that teach employees at your company how to effectively engage with the media. This way your employees will be able to work with the media to improve your brand's image rather than allowing the press to control the story.
Crisis Communication Press Release Example
If you're still having trouble perfecting your crisis communication response, then it may be helpful to look at an example press release.