Any company, no matter how diligent, can find itself suddenly thrust into a crisis — a natural disaster, product safety issue, whistleblower claim, or other unforeseen emergency. When an incident occurs, especially one that disrupts operations or threatens the company’s reputation, stakeholders, be they customers, shareholders or partners, will want to immediately know what happened and how they’re affected. Mishandling the crisis can exacerbate the problem and shake public trust, causing long-lasting harm. And in the current era of instantaneous digital and social media communications, if you don’t communicate during an urgent situation, others may get there first and define it for you.
While your company will likely not be able to predict when a crisis will arise, you can prepare for the unexpected with a comprehensive crisis communications plan. Rather than scrambling to find key personnel and resources in the middle of a situation, plot your response when business is operating normally — including whom to contact, when to contact them, what information to share, and how to share it. Here are five steps to prepare your company to respond to a potential disaster scenario.
1. Identify your vulnerabilities and assign your team
First, think through potential crises to identify your company’s vulnerabilities. Consider possible situations that are unique to your industry and company, as well as those that could hit any business. To help identify possible scenarios, look at sector peers to see what types of problems they’ve encountered.
Then, assemble your team. Typically, the head of corporate communications or investor relations, either in-house or an outside consultant, spearheads crisis communications planning. You should also consider who belongs on your crisis communications team from other groups, including human resources, operations, medical and regulatory affairs and legal. Reflect on all aspects of the company and identify where a crisis could occur and the key personnel you would need to diffuse the situation. These people will be your subject matter experts should a crisis occur, and because they are aware of the risks in their functional areas, they can make substantial contributions to threat assessment and planning.
2. Develop communication protocols and select spokespeople
Once you identify the company’s vulnerabilities and assign crisis communications teams, decide who will serve as spokespeople for each type of crisis that could happen. This will involve selecting and training leaders who have high-level responsibility and who can credibly speak to the matter at hand.
Next, you’ll need to provide responses to several questions: What is the timing for calling together the crisis communications team? How will they be notified? What is your communications tree?
Your protocols should also include media policies that establish exactly who may and may not speak to reporters. Anyone in the company could receive an email or text from a journalist, so company policies need to clearly specify who may provide information and what exactly they may say.
3. Develop messaging in advance
While you may not be able to develop precise and comprehensive messaging for every potential scenario, you should prepare materials in advance that can be rapidly (but carefully) fleshed out, as needed. This includes drafting a general “holding statement” — then, if a crisis breaks, you can issue it immediately after tailoring it to the specific audience and scenario. Among your timing decisions, you’ll need to plan in advance when to start releasing information and how to coordinate that dissemination.
4. Identify your company’s stakeholders
You will need to know who to notify first, so they don’t learn about the crisis on social media or through news outlets. Stakeholders could include board members, regulatory officials, business partners, employees, patients, physicians, customers, investors, and the general public. Likewise, determine how they will be notified: Is email appropriate? A direct call? A statement on your website? A press release? All or some combination of the above?
5. Rehearse your plan
Just as schools and businesses run periodic fire drills, your company should rehearse its crisis communications plan. This is where some companies often fall short in crisis communications. Hold a practice scenario at least once a year; preferably twice. Training should start with your crisis communications team, and then cascade throughout the organization. Your company should share and review the plan throughout the business, including all locations.
Your crisis-planning document won’t be very helpful if it gets no further than employees’ computer screens. People need context for the crisis plan, which is where rehearsals come into play.
After each test run, the crisis communications team and management should analyze the plan’s strengths and weaknesses, and team members should meet quarterly to determine if it needs updating. For instance, a product’s transition from clinical trials to commercialization or the turnover or addition of new employees could require changes to the plan.