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Crisis Communication Plans

What are examples of crisis communication?

Crisis communication examples can range from addressing a disgruntled employee complaint or corporate layoffs. The appropriate method of communication will depend on the situation at hand, the desired outcome, expectations for those involved as well as a host of other factors.  

Let’s examine that first factor. Before we think about how to communicate about a potential problem, we have to consider what that problem actually is. What constitutes a “crisis”?  In short, a crisis is a situation that has the potential to impact the reputation and/or operations of an organization. A crisis typically requires an immediate and coordinated response. 

Of course, since there are good and bad ways to handle a crisis, there are good and bad crisis communication examples out there. Oversharing, making unrealistic promises or pointing fingers are all examples of bad crisis communications. You can better avoid these mistakes by thinking through potential crises and having a crisis communication plan in place that you can rely on if needed.

What is the purpose of a crisis communication plan?

The purpose of a crisis communication plan is to have a guidebook to lead the team during crunch time. No matter the situation, your leadership team needs to know how to effectively navigate your organization’s communication efforts in a crisis. Enter the crisis communication plan. Studies prove that 95 percent of crises situations can be prevented or avoided, so the process of planning really makes a difference. The first step is to identify potential crisis scenarios

A crisis is a sudden and unexpected disruption that:

  • Interrupts normal operations

  • Requires an immediate, coordinated management response

  • Is likely to require decision-making actions at the highest level of the company

  • Involves notifications of agencies, neighborhoods or other outside parties

  • Has the potential to attract extensive news media and public attention to the company

Fundamental elements of a crisis communication plan include the key messages you want to share, identification of target audiences, as well as roles and responsibilities for communicating and managing a crisis. Although it isn’t possible to script all the messages and action plans before a crisis hits, by having the framework established, your team has a greater chance of navigating the situation more effectively. Your response time will be prompt because you’ve already laid the groundwork. The plan should identify everything from who speaks to the media; how you inform different audiences such as employees, the general public, members, etc., what is happening; and basic messages that are constant for your organization such as dedication to safety.  

So let’s get started on the process and talk about crisis communication strategies. What steps can you take to ensure a smooth communications process during a crisis? 

  1. Analyze: What has worked well thus far? What lessons learned can you identify that will help guide your efforts moving forward? Take some time to really look at what has and hasn’t worked.

  2. Plan: Instead of operating ad hoc, commit to actually creating a plan. Don’t confuse habit (or your recent pattern) with a true planning effort. Look closely at the team needed to help you move forward from a decision and communications standpoint, and take the time to identify consistent key messages. Assemble the team. Have a process for the review of information and how it is distributed.

  3. Channels: Consider your channels for distribution. While it is wise to stick with the communication mediums that are tried and true with your target audiences, such as an established and well-vetted email distribution list, does your reach need to expand? For example, if you are a building owner and traditionally communicate only with a few key tenant representatives, do you need to expand the next phase of communication to all in the building and not just assume the message is being distributed by others?

  4. Protocols: If you haven’t already established the process for communicating news and procedures for your organization, develop them now. After protocols are created, make sure all concerned know both the expectations and ramifications.

Some other best practices for crisis communications include: 

  • Identify your consistent spokesperson(s). Many have found it is helpful to have one person, such as the HR director, handle operational updates, while the president is the author of more of the compassionate, human element types of communication. In many cases, it does not make sense to have the highest ranking person in your organization always serve as the spokesperson as that does not allow for a higher-ranking person to step in if things continue to escalate. Keep in mind that the person(s) you select to serve as the spokesperson(s) should be trained in dealing with the media. 

  • Stay true to your core values, culture and brand. Stick to your key messages. Many organizations have even organized their communications under consistent headings or themes, which makes it easy for everyone to discern the information and helps reinforce the key messages.

  • Communicate early and often. Tell your audience when and how you will communicate, and then follow through. Don’t wait to respond until you have all the answers--acknowledge what you know as well as what you are working on. For example, you may opt for a daily update at a particular time of day. Transparency is key.

A statement posted on your website, an email to all employees, a social media post, a video message sent to the local news… there really is a time and place for everything when it comes to crisis communication. The abundance of options can be overwhelming, which is the last thing you want to deal with when you’re in the midst of a crisis. What’s the best crisis communication method? It depends. When deciding how to release a statement, here are some things to take into consideration: 

  • Audience: Who needs to be notified? A message to employees looks different than a message to customers. These groups will likely need different information and resources. 

  • Platform: Where does your audience get their information? If you intend to address customers, but see that your email newsletter has a low click rate, maybe your message is better said on your Facebook page which has a very active following. 

  • Timing: How urgent is the message? If applicable, does your audience need time to do what you’re asking them to do? The production of a message that needs to be put out quickly will look different than that of a non-urgent message. 

  • Length and complexity of what needs to be said: What is the situation at hand and, therefore, the message you need to communicate? Our general advice is to keep messaging simple so that it has the best chance to be understood. However, there are certainly cases where more detail is needed (instructions, policy changes, etc.) and a communication method such as a video or a letter may be more efficient than a short message. 

Here are a few crisis communication plan examples from AOE clients. We go into more depth in our blog "Crisis Communication Examples". 

An on-the-job injury
Tragically, an accident at a job site became fatal for an employee. There was an immediate need for communication to various groups associated with the organization, and that communication needed to be compassionate, yet clear. AOE was able to help the organization formulate varying statements for their different audiences based on what they needed to know. Additionally, we helped them update their safety regulation language to the appropriate channels so that employees were aware of the new precautions. 

Averting a crisis
Our client knew they would need help convincing a reluctant audience that a proposed construction project was the right move for the city. We partnered with them to create a strategy to communicate with the public, focusing on community engagement and transparency from the beginning. 

Employee misconduct online
When our client noticed recurring issues with what their employees were posting on social media while off-the-clock, we worked with them to establish new guidelines and social media policies, and distribute the communication to their employees. 

Harassment allegations
Safety and respect are priorities at AOE, and we are proud to say that our clients are on the same page. We partnered with an association to develop language for additions to their Code of Conduct, addressing their company’s sexual harassment policy to include updates specifically describing expectations around special events like conferences. Improved language tailored to the association’s concerns showed their dedication to the seriousness of the issue. 

What should
be included in
a crisis communication plan?

By now, you’ve likely figured out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to a great crisis communication plan. However, we have nailed down five elements that we think all crisis communication plans should include: transparency, clear and concise language, core values, people and channels. 

Your crisis communication plan checklist:

  • Transparency: Be honest, even if you don’t have all the answers. Being honest doesn’t necessarily mean immediately sharing every piece of information with everyone - you should speak with intention. 

  • Clear and concise language: No speculation, stick to facts. What are the key messages you want to get across? What does your audience need to know? What questions are you getting from them or what questions do you anticipate? Use those questions to guide your plan. Keep your organization’s “voice” top-of-mind as well—do you normally release communication in a conversational, casual tone or do you use more academic language? Do you use bullet points or infographics? Who is the “face” of your company—who should the message come from, who has released your communications in the past? (This could be a different person for internal vs. external communications) Thinking about these elements will make your crisis communication plan more consistent with what your audience has come to expect when it comes to communication from your organization. 

  • Core values: Most organizations have a mission statement and/or a list of core values that defines who they are and drives what they do … and your crisis communication plan should be no different. Utilize those core values or mission statements to guide how you lay out your communications during a crisis to ensure you’re covering all aspects consistently.

  • People: A crisis communication plan should keep people as its top priority. This of course means keeping safety at the forefront of your plan, but also consider how you will take care of your people (be it your employees, customers or another group that is involved) in terms of mental health, financial or other resources, and be sure to detail that in your communication. Even unaffected groups will want to know how you are caring for those involved. 

  • Channels: Consider how you will announce a message across various channels. An internal email will likely contain different details than a message on your website, as your employees are on a different need-to-know basis than your customers. Social media sites have their own specifications that you’ll need to keep in mind, such as Instagram requiring a photo along with a post and X/Twitter having a character limit.  

How do you write a crisis communication plan?

With the help of a team working towards a common goal, you can write a successful crisis communication plan. There’s no time like the present to build (or fine-tune) your plan. Completing the following crisis communication steps will help ensure you are ready for any crisis. They include:

Assemble a team now
Don’t wait for a crisis to occur. Remember the purpose of a crisis communication plan is to plan ahead. Create a crisis response team with representation from leadership, HR, communications, IT and potentially impacted departments or channels—and assign a role to each team member. Identify subject matter experts, dependent on the crisis scenario, to be spokespersons—and get them media trained.

Cover all bases
Consider all potential crisis scenarios, their potential impact (i.e., local, regional or national,), who should be notified, etc. Make decisions now regarding elements such as: Who is the best person to review things? Who will communicate with which audiences? If one person is unavailable, who will take the role?

Create basic building blocks now to work efficiently later 
Create template fact sheets, establish key messages, think of common Q&As and create communications for internal and external audiences (including media) that can be quickly modified for any crisis. Building around your key messages will allow you to respond quickly in a time of crisis. Keeping your plan and your communication simple will optimize understanding and success.

Lean into your brand (and branding) when designing your plan
If you’re unsure where to start, look to your company’s mission statement or core values. Let those guide your plan. As an example, an AOE client designed all of their communication under four different umbrellas: Health of Employees, Health of the Industry, Health of the Company and Health of our Supply Chain. When dealing with a specific crisis, they can address each of those areas and not only cover all of the bases that their audience is used to seeing from them but, in the eyes of their audience, they are being consistent and reliable with the information they provide. 

Get everyone involved and in-the-know on the plan. Conduct mock crisis exercises with your team, ideally at least twice a year.

Is your workplace prepared for a crisis?

AOE has deep expertise in developing crisis plans and will work with you to help build the optimal communications for your employees, clients, customers and other interested parties—no matter what the crisis. For more information, reach out to us today and be sure to visit AOE’s Crisis Communications Microsite.

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