7 Steps to Crisis Communications Planning

In a crisis, reaching your employees and customers is key. The safety of your audience depends on how quickly and precisely you respond. Communicators must be prepared to use technology for swift communication.

Planning the Plan

In a crisis, how, when and who you communicate with is crucial. Your emergency management plan is key to your strategy, alongside emergency operations and business recovery tactics.

Executive support is vital for effective strategies. Without it, even the best plan can fail – costing time, money and lives. Make sure your plan is clear and easy to follow so everyone in your organization can act quickly in an emergency without confusion or red tape. Use simple visual aids like checklists to guide users through high-stress situations effectively.

Be Prepared

Explore and prepare for a variety of scenarios with detailed instructions for each. Get ready to tackle any situation head-on. Consider every possible emergency on an organizational, local, state, national and global level:

  • Fire
  • Severe weather
  • Health crisis
  • Power outage
  • Onsite violence
  • Terrorist alert
  • Biological event/toxic spill
  • Evacuation
  • Computer virus
  • Physical plant issue
  • National or international breaking news

Each crisis brings its own set of obstacles. Be prepared to execute your plan without depending on technology or a specific off-site location. Anticipate communication breakdowns by having backup plans for all tech, such as networks, phones and power supplies.

Time is Essential

The speed with which you communicate during a crisis can save lives. Your plan should target four main audiences:

  1. On-site employees, customers and visitors
  2. Emergency workers, such as police, fire and EMS
  3. Families and community at large
  4. Press

When an emergency strikes, inform everyone on site immediately and clearly outline their roles. Utilize all communication methods to ensure efficient delivery. Keep contact lists updated and include all necessary resources in the plan. Pre-write statements for quick press releases. Include business recovery tactics and establish communication protocols with set deadlines.

Test your plan regularly to guarantee readiness for any crisis that may arise. Your preparedness is crucial for the safety and well-being of those involved.

Here are 7 Steps to Get You Started:

Step 1 – Start at the top
Ensure your plan is approved by both management and legal ahead of time to avoid any delays when it counts. Additionally, push for crisis training to be incorporated into orientations, budgets, and allocate time for testing and drills.

Step 2 – Keep it simple
Ensure your plan is crystal clear and easily actionable. Keep the process streamlined, ensuring everyone knows their role and the authority chain, which should be kept short. In times of crisis, emotions are heightened, so providing tools like checklists can greatly assist in navigating through challenges.

Step 3 – Roleplay and test
Regularly engage in roleplay scenarios for all possible emergencies to ensure everyone remains alert and prepared. Test the entire system, not just parts of it, as even unsuccessful tests are valuable for identifying and fixing weak spots in your emergency alert process.

Step 4 – Be fast but smart
Effective communication during a crisis can mean the difference between life and death. Providing accurate information swiftly is vital, as misinformation can exacerbate the situation. Establishing protocols and timelines beforehand is key to ensuring a rapid and effective response when every second counts. Be specific – instead of just listing the order of events that need to happen, set specific goals like “Call emergency workers within two minutes.”

Step 5 – Cover all bases
Prioritize the people on site. Consider all possible locations during a crisis and outline your communication strategy. Ensure all contact lists and resources are readily available within your plan. Include updates for families in your plan as well. Remember to also prepare press releases and statements ahead of time for the community and media, only adding specific details when necessary.

Step 6 – Consider communication methods
In an emergency, multiple alert methods like sirens, alarms, digital signs, websites and SMS text messaging can overwhelm and delay response. Conduct drills to determine the most effective channels for each situation and never depend on just one method to communicate with people.

You can get the word out much faster with communications technologies than without them. Yet, technology should not be your only tool during an emergency:

  • Personal contact – Though it may be unrealistic to rely on mass personal notification in an emergency, often this is the first means of communication, as well as the last resort. Individuals should be trained in how to notify people near them of a crisis. Emergency training courses can help prepare individuals for leadership under extreme circumstances.
  • Phone – Having an up-to-date phone list is essential and you should use mobile phone numbers whenever possible. Although telephoning is not very effective for contacting large groups, it is essential to interface with emergency services.
  • Desktop publishing – Instant Messaging (IM) to desktops is another fast way to communicate if your audience is computer-centric, or if a crisis affects off-site workers.
  • Digital signage – Large screen displays are becoming more common in all types of organizations. One of their main advantages is their high visibility when placed in public areas. Whatever software you’re using to drive your digital signage should have the ability to interrupt its service with crisis announcements. Visix digital signage software provides an alert mode that overrides scheduled messages to broadcast your emergency communications immediately across various channels.
  • Text messaging (SMS) – If your on-site audience carries mobile phones, text messaging is a very effective way to communicate in a crisis. Distribution lists are already established through prior subscription, and your communications are delivered to the person wherever they are. Never rely on one technology, though; as some people may not have SMS service, their phones may be off, or the cellular network may be down or overloaded.
  • RSS publishing – RSS publishing is similar to text messaging in that it can simultaneously reach out to various endpoints that have been previously established. Smartphones and tablets can receive RSS messages. RSS feeds can also feed webpages on intranets, digital signage displays and some RSS-enabled apps.
  • Email – Email is not a timely way to communicate during a crisis because it relies on audience members accessing the information versus delivering it to them where they are. If you use email, be sure to have an established emergency email tag in the subject line so it’s instantly recognizable. Email can be very valuable in later communications with the community at large.
  • Social media – Controlling the flow of information is crucial before, during and after an emergency. Monitoring social media threads ensures accurate data and prevents confusion. Clearly define roles and tasks to avoid chaos. Simplify social media processes during a crisis – there’s no time for complexity or bureaucracy.

Your staff needs to be well-practiced using each medium you plan to use to communicate.

  • Plan for every conceivable situation
  • Keep your plan simple for fast execution
  • Define alert triggers
  • Write alert posts in advance
  • Slave posts from one source to another for faster distribution
  • Get legal and management approval
  • Assign timelines and personnel (with a backup for each member of your team)
  • Run drills to iron out the bugs

No matter the technology, create distinct crisis signals like color changes, icons or symbols for quick emergency recognition. Plan for network or power failures with backup strategies. Utilize word-of-mouth to inform and mobilize people effectively. Ensure your staff is properly trained.

Step 7 – Think about the future
Make sure to incorporate recovery strategies into your plan. It’s vital to quickly restore operations after an emergency and keep the community informed. Demonstrating progress towards normalcy is key in reassuring people and rebuilding their trust.

Executives must prioritize safety, but persuading upper management to invest in a robust crisis plan can be tough. Highlight the financial impact of emergencies to sway decision makers. It’s easier to demonstrate the costs of mishandling a crisis than to envision lives lost. Ensure all aspects of the plan are approved upfront by executives and legal teams to prevent delays during execution. Decisions made under pressure or high emotions are risky, so effective communication is vital during crises. A well-prepared and rehearsed crisis plan can save lives and money, and alleviate stress on your team and organization.

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