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Sep 1, 2016

The first hours and days of a crisis situation are the most critical. High pressure environments and atypical events often breed additional chaos and public relations nightmares that can rapidly tarnish a company’s sterling reputation. Whether you're company has a few domestic locations or an extensive international network of offices and facilities, designing a comprehensive Crisis Management Program (CMP) with a means for effective communication is essential to the continued success of your company.

From the minute an incident occurs, a company’s response can be publicly scrutinized and analyzed by the masses. The modern pathways of communication are so quick, companies must have effective crisis management and communication plans. Any response plan should be tested for effectiveness in the pre-crisis planning phase, not on the verge of, during, or in the aftermath of a disaster. Through pre-crisis planning, a communication plan can be fully integrated into the overall crisis management plan and be available at the onset of an incident.

Crisis Communication Planning

Communication pre-crisis planning should include, but is not limited to, the following:

1. Notification methods: The standard "phone tree" has evolved to include a variety of dynamic communication formats. Do not assume that internal and external responders, stakeholders, and those impacts by the crisis scenario identify with current company communication policies, formats, or context of emergencies communications. Pre-planning efforts should include establishing and exercising coordinated notification processes, formats, and various content.

Most professionals have several phone numbers, multiple email addresses, and can receive SMS (text) messages and digital images. As a result, a clear crisis communication notification methodology must be established.

The primary notification of a crisis situation should be made by telephone or radio to ensure leadership has received the critical information to begin response procedures. All known information regarding the scenario should be provided, including but not limited to:

  1. Type of event (technology, fire, explosion, etc.)
  2. Immediate impact
  3. Location of incident
  4. Any casualties or injured parties

In an effort to minimize the communication gap between a company and the general public, companies should establish social media notifications as part of their crisis communication planning. According to a Pew Research Center October 2015 publication entitled “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015”, nearly 65% of American adults utilized at least one social media platform in 2015 compared to only 7% in 2005. As mobile technology is adopted by a greater percentage of society, those statistics should continue to grow.

Utilizing social media as a tool for Corporate Crisis Communications has numerous benefits including, but not limited to:

  • Opens up a dialogue to reduce miscommunication and rumors
  • Informs public of potential threats, impacts, and applicable countermeasures
  • Communicates mobilization of internal coordinating teams, staff, and/or volunteers
  • Improves externally communications with agencies and people affected by the crisis
  • Provides real-time updates and allows company personnel to have a first-person awareness of a situation
  • Active communication demonstrates that the company values emergency preparedness and response and its implications to the community
  • Eliminates an information bottleneck

2. Contact Verifications: Primary and secondary contact information should be verified for personnel, responsible agencies, and contracted responders. Verification should be conducted on a periodic basis in order to maintain accurate and applicable information. Communication equipment, such as hand held radios and satellite phones, should be verified as functional and tested periodically to ensure they are available when necessary.

One of the greatest challenges in preparedness and response planning is the continual effort to maintain up-to-date contact database. Dedicated man-hours or an automated cycle of contact verification should be in place as part of the maintenance phase of pre-crisis planning. A contact verification tool that integrates with a web-based, database driven response plan can save timely maintenance efforts and can eliminate a potential lapse in emergency management. Without valid phone numbers, even a call out system is voided if the contact’s information is inaccurate. Every effort should be made to regularly confirm contact information with partnering entities that are involved in a response.

3. Strategic Considerations: While the specific circumstances will define an effective crisis management strategy, basic communications processes typically remain consistent. Establishing a systematic framework with checklists and response criteria can guide crisis manager through the communications decision-making process to allow for an effective response.

If the crisis warrants, the pre-identified crisis management team would be responsible for developing media strategy, public statements, and key messaging, as well as identifying and briefing one or more spokespersons to deliver the pre-approved messages to media outlets. A specific individual or individuals should be assigned to media/public relations to ensure messaging consistency and information availability.

Emergencies and crisis scenarios do occur and companies must respond swiftly and effectively. There can be a multitude of communication and response details, variables, and eventualities that must be taken into consideration and planned for. Yet, timely responses and proactive communication in the early stages of a crisis can dramatically reduce the negative implications of an emergency scenario.