Crisis Communications Plan: Do You Have One?

After Hurricane Katrina, a survey indicated that only 67 percent of communicators interviewed had a formal crisis communications plan. Of the organizations that had actually experienced a crisis, 42 percent said they still didn’t have a formal crisis communication plan, and 54 percent said they didn’t have a plan because they lacked the support of senior managers.

Do you have a plan? How will you communicate with your employees and customers if an emergency strikes?

Knowing how to define a crisis and then immediately trigger a reliable action plan is crucial these days. The health and safety of your audience depends on the speed and accuracy of your alert system. Communicators must be prepared to leverage the available technology to get the word out as fast as possible.

Planning the Plan
A crisis communications plan outlines what you need to communicate, how, when and to whom. It is usually a subset of an overall crisis plan that includes emergency operations procedures and business recovery tactics.

Developing your emergency strategies has to start at the top, with executive cooperation throughout the creation, testing and refining of your crisis plans. Without the support of every senior manager and department, even a beautifully crafted plan will be ineffective – and that can cost time, money and even lives.

Be sure that your plan is clear and easy to execute. Each member of your organization should be able to take action and fulfill the plan in an emergency without convoluted directions or burdensome hierarchies to slog through. Emotions often run high in these situations, so providing simple visual tools to guide users through the plan, such as checklists, can be extremely helpful.

Be Prepared
A series of scenarios should be explored and prepared for, with detailed instructions for each. Consider every possible emergency on an organizational, local, state, national and global level:

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

Each crisis has its own challenges. In some instances, you will need to prepare to execute your plan without the help of technology, or from an identified off-site crisis center. All scenarios should have contingencies built in for the failure or unavailability of any and/or all communication technologies, such as computer networks, phones and power.

Time is Essential
The speed with which you communicate during a crisis can save lives. Your plan should target four main audiences:
• On-site employees, customers and visitors
• Emergency workers, such as police, fire and EMS
• Families and community at large
• Press

People on the premises should be immediately informed of the emergency and told precisely what is expected of them. When creating and testing the plan, every available means of communication should be explored to find the most reliable and efficient delivery method. Starting with the most effective, each communication channel should be employed to ensure maximum coverage. Make sure email distribution lists and phone trees are regularly updated.

A complete list of emergency contacts should be included in the plan, and the plan should be readily available at all times to everyone in the organization. In addition to local fire, police and EMS services, don’t forget to include less common resources such as Hazmat, FBI, and IT recovery contacts.

Pre-written statements should be shaped so that only the bare minimum of factual details needs to be added to press releases. Emotions and time constraints dictate that communicators should not be hampered with cumbersome writing assignments during a crisis.

Be sure to include business recovery tactics in your plan. Getting your organization up and running as soon as possible after a crisis is critical, as is educating the community at large, such as remote employees, investors, and customers.

The first hour is critical. Protocols and timelines for communications to all groups should be established in advance. Be specific – instead of just listing the order of contact, set deadlines such as “Call emergency workers within 5 minutes.” and “Notify all on-site personnel within 8 minutes.”

Try your plans out BEFORE an emergency happens. Testing is essential to getting your plan right, so be sure to build in crisis drills during plan development and on a continuing basis to guarantee that everyone in your organization is prepared.

Technology Tools
During a crisis, 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.

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 is instantly recognizable to your audience. Email can be valuable in later communications with the community at large.

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 web pages on intranets, digital signage displays and some RSS-enabled mobile phones.

Desktop publishing – Instant Messaging (IM) to desktops is another fast way to communicate if your audience is computer-centric.

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 are 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 and across various channels.

Whatever communications technology you are using, be sure to develop some crisis cues, such as altered colors, symbols or text codes, so your audience will immediately recognize emergency communications.

In Conclusion
Events like Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech show the need for effective crisis plans. Most executives will agree that safety comes first – but you may have to work to convince upper management to commit the time and resources needed to develop and maintain a proven crisis plan. The best means of persuasion is to stress the impact of an emergency on the bottom line. The concept of lives being lost is so frightening and remote that people often can’t commit to the idea, but the financial consequences of a poorly handled emergency are fairly easy to demonstrate. It is better to be safe now than sorry later.

Every element of the plan should be pre-authorized by management. Executives and legal departments should sign off on the plan in advance so that there are no meetings or approval processes to slow execution. Remember – the worst time to try to make decisions is when emotions are running high or time is running out.

There is no time that can better demonstrate the power of effective communications than during a crisis. If you have laid the groundwork, developed and implemented a good, organized plan, and have drilled your staff and audience on using it effectively, you should have few troubles during an emergency. A well-crafted crisis plan can save lives, money and lessen the strain of an emergency on both your people and your organization.

>> Need more details on crisis planning and CAP alerts? Read our white paper here.

“Ready for Disaster?” by Robert Holland and Katrina Gill; CW Magazine; March–April 2006
“Crafting a Crisis Communication Plan” by Gerard Braud; CW Bulletin; July 2007