4 Key Elements of a Crisis Communications Plan
Floods, forest fires, tornadoes, snowstorms, and windstorms are just some of the natural disasters that make the news every day. Thanks to climate change, communities are seeing more severe weather events than ever before. This is why it’s essential that every organization has a crisis communications plan.
Lately I’ve been doing a number of workshops helping organizations understand the importance of crisis communications. A key piece of responding to an emergency is your crisis communications plan.
So what is a crisis communications plan and why is it important? This is different from your emergency plan, which likely outlines emergency response procedures. A crisis communications is all about HOW you are going to communicate to your stakeholders (ex. staff, customers, public) in an emergency.
While a crisis communications plan can be as big or small as you need it, these are the 4 key pieces it needs to contain:
1. Media Relations Plan
This plan outlines your media relations policies and procedures (which should be consistent with how you communicate in a non-emergency). For example, are staff authorized to speak to the media on their own (hopefully not) or are media calls to be forwarded to the communications manager, plant manager, CEO or CAO (which is ideal)?
Make it clear who your primary spokesperson is as well as secondary. For local governments, you would likely have two spokespeople – one elected official and one staff member. For other organizations, it would be a senior staff member who has media training.
Include contact information for your local and regional media (making sure it’s current) as well as other media relevant to your organization.
I also recommend including media interview tips in this section, to remind your spokespeople of how to get their message across.
2. Pre-Approved Messaging
This is essential!!! Working on your top three most likely emergencies, write speaking notes, facts sheets, press releases and key messages.
For example, I live in an area where forest fires are a real threat. I would expect our local government and fire departments to have pre-written and approved messaging on shelter-in-place, evacuation orders, air quality warnings and any other information that is regularly communicated during a forest fire.
The joy of pre-approved messaging is it allows staff to have content they can use quickly without going through the sometimes lengthy approval process. This should also contain some public education messaging to fill airtime while you’re busy figuring out the emergency.
3. Roles and Responsibilities
We often assume people are clear on the role they are assigned. But here’s the thing. In an emergency you may need to rely on people from outside of your organization to pitch in and help.
I’m a big fan of bullet points or checklists. Basically you are creating a to-do list for the various communications functions. In small emergencies, one person may wear multiple hats. However, in large emergencies you may have more than one person in each role.
- Public information officer – managing the overall communications
- Media monitor – monitoring traditional and social media
- Website and social media editor – posting information to your sites
- Copywriter – writing press releases, speaking notes and other relevant communications materials
- Liaison – talking to media, elected officials, key stakeholders and relaying needs or concerns to the public information officer
4. Contact Information
This is about knowing who to call when an emergency hits. Who are the staff members that will be part of your communications team? What outside resources do you need to call? Consultants? Stakeholders?
You likely know how to reach them on a Monday morning, but what about after hours emergencies? Do you know if they have their work cell phone tied to their hip or do they still have a home phone? Do they know what their role is in an emergency?
I advise going beyond a list of names, phone numbers and emails. Take the time to go for coffee with the key people on this list. Talk to them about your crisis communications plan, your top three risks and the role they play (even if it’s just an FYI).
I have found the relationships I’ve developed prior to an emergency have been key in how I’ve responded during the emergency.
Once you’ve written your crisis communications plan, don’t put it in a binder to collect dust. Rather, this needs to be a living document. Ideally you are pulling it off the shelf, reviewing it and practicing it once or twice a year.
And when you’ve had an emergency, in your debrief go back to your crisis communications plan. What worked? What didn’t? What needs to be revised?
If you’re new to crisis communications or would like to learn more, check out my crisis communications training video and step by step guide. These were created based on my 15+ years of working in crisis communications, responding to plane crashes, industrial fires, evacuations and more.
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