Every business needs a crisis communication plan.
Whether you’re a startup or a large corporate, an effective crisis communication plan should always be at the heart of your wider public relations strategy.
Because in 2021 your reputation has never been more linked to your bottom line, to the success of your business.
A crisis communication plan will ensure you protect your reputation, and the trust people have in your business if disaster strikes.
As a crisis communications expert of more than 20 years, heading up the healthcare team at Arc Seven Communications, I’ve dealt with multiple serious crisis situations.
I know what works, and what doesn’t.
I can explain why your first instinct in a crisis might not necessarily be the right one.
And why a detailed crisis communication plan will help you navigate even the toughest of scenarios.
In this guide, I’ll give you the full overview of what you need to know to create your own crisis communication plan, crisis communication examples, and a 9-step crisis communication checklist you can use in your business right away.
Let’s get to it.
What is Crisis Communication?
All businesses rely on trust to function successfully.
But every business, if it’s around long enough, will face challenges, threats and even major disasters.
However, it’s rarely the crisis itself that destroys the reputation of a business – it’s the way that issue is handled.
There’s a very natural human tendency in a crisis to panic and want to hide, to protect oneself.
But when we react like this in business the results can be very damaging.
A crisis is one thing, the whiff of cover-up if you avoid scrutiny is quite another.
If something goes wrong in your business your customers and stakeholders want to hear MORE from you, not less.
When events take an unexpected turn, saying nothing will simply leave a communications vacuum into which people will pour their own facts and truths.
You will lose control of the story and it will then become exponentially more difficult to recover your reputation.
As the US Investor Warren Buffet says:
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
Don’t wait for a crisis
Waiting for disaster to strike is not the moment at which you should be asking yourself:
- What should we say?
- Who should say it?
- How often should we communicate?
- What channels should we use to communicate?
- Should we reply to all social media comments?
- How transparent should we be?
- What are the legal implications of apologising?
- Have we had media training?
- Who’s got the login details for Twitter?!
These are just a few of the questions you want to be reflecting on and answering when things are calm before any potential crisis hits.
By figuring this out, and documenting it in a detailed crisis communication strategy (as part of your wider PR plan), you will be ready for whatever comes, and miles ahead of your competition.
As an aside, something which I have noticed often down the years is that the businesses that prepare for the worst rarely have to deal with it.
Those that don’t prepare…well, you can imagine the rest.
Crisis Communication Examples
There are potentially an infinite number of crises that can affect a business, it really does depend on what you do, make or sell.
Here are a few examples of crises that would make the headlines:
- If you work in healthcare it could look like a patient dying unexpectedly
- A restaurant might have an outbreak of food poisoning
- A toy manufacturer could have a product which injuries a child
- A clothing manufacturer could be on the receiving end of a campaign which reveals their products are made with forced labour
- A large business could be in serious financial distress or accused of fraud
- Your CEO could be convicted of a crime
- The company could have polluted the local environment in some way
- Your tech platform could have been hacked and your customers’ data compromised or sold online
Sadly, the list is endless, but what unifies all of these scenarios is that each has the potential to seriously damage, if not finish, your business.
Particularly if the crisis is not handled appropriately from a communication standpoint.
Your stakeholders will forgive you a surprising amount – but they won’t tolerate deliberate deceit after the initial crisis.
So you need a plan…
Crisis Communication Channels
Your crisis communication plan needs to take into account how you will communicate across multiple channels.
Your plan needs to incorporate messaging and tactics for social media, mainstream media, face-to-face customer communication, internal communication, community communication and perhaps even investor communications.
We’ll examine the core principles of your overarching strategy in a moment, but while the tone and the contents of your message may vary depending on the channel you are using, there should be broad consistency regarding all communications in a crisis.
For instance, you don’t want to be apologising on Twitter, but then denying the core facts of the crisis to the mainstream press.
Don’t lie…or look like you’re lying
This type of contradiction is fuel for journalists and social media campaigners, mixed messages will only keep the crisis alive for longer.
Remember, the whole purpose of a crisis communications plan is to take the momentum out of the story so you can regain control.
Having a clear view of your different channels will not only ensure you don’t exclude anyone in your response, but it will also ensure that you prioritise them in the right order.
For example, it’s a pretty bad look if your customers or employees are the last to find out about your response in a crisis.
But perhaps that journalist from the Daily Mail who is after an attention-grabbing headline can wait just a little longer.
Action Point: Draw up a list of all of your communications channels, from mainstream media (local and national) including journalists contact details, to the login details for all of your social media accounts.
Crisis Communication Team Structure
Next up you want to agree, who in your business, needs to be part of the crisis communication team, including who will act as the spokesperson.
A crisis, by its very nature, is something that is potentially very serious in terms of the impact on your business, so you want the key decision-makers to be on this team.
DON’T delegate this work to a junior press officer – no offence guys.
My recommendation is that the team consists of:
- Communications Director
- HR Director
- Legal advisor (if you have one)
- Operations Director
- Possibly IT Director
Crises, by their very nature, move exceedingly fast, so you want the people on this team who can make important decisions very quickly.
A collegiate approach is good, but too many voices can slow you down.
Also, the wrong voices, those who have little experience of crisis communication, can also be an issue.
It’s so important that you make the right decisions and sometimes overly cautious input can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Once you have agreed who will sit on your crisis team you need to ensure that ALL of them have had media training and that everyone is completely up to speed with the crisis communication plan.
That shouldn’t really be an issue as all of these people would have had a role in creating this document.
Create a decision tree for this group, which will cover the all-important first hour of a crisis.
That way you all have a clear understanding of what each person must do, and when, if the balloon goes up.
Action Point: Draw up the list of the people you want on your crisis communication team and create the decision tree
Your 9-Part Crisis Communication Plan
Okay, now we get to the real substance of your crisis communication plan.
Take each of these points in turn and think about how they apply in YOUR business.
Don’t skirt over this, take the time to get it right.
You’ll use many of these answers to complete your own crisis communication plan when you’ve read the lot.
1. Pre-crisis phase
This is when everything is sweetness and light in your business.
And THIS is the moment of maximum preparedness for a crisis response.
What does that look like?
Building a strong and lasting reputation with your customers, employees and stakeholders.
These are very much the people who you are going to rely on in a crisis to defend you and your account of events, so you need them to trust you NOW, not when the s*** hits the fan.
This may seem obvious, but be open and transparent in your day to day communications right now.
Use social media to show the positive impact your product or service has on your target audience.
Have an ongoing public relations campaign which ensures you are frequently mentioned in your target media.
Make journalists your allies
Contact and connect with the journalists that you want to feature your business.
When things go wrong you may very well be speaking with the same reporters and they’ll be much more willing to hear your side of the story if you have a good relationship with them.
Build a strong rapport with bloggers, podcasters and influencers that matter to you.
All of this work is not only key to your marketing communications success but it also the foundational work of your crisis communication plan.
These people will be your advocates when the critics come for you in a crisis.
Their endorsement and defence of your business can often be far more powerful, and believable, than any comment you may issue yourself.
Action Point: Draw up a media list of your target journalists and influencers
2. Media training
More often than not in a crisis you will not need/want to go on camera to give your side of the story, a written statement may be best.
However, you must always be ready – particularly if the crisis is extremely serious in nature.
Putting a human face to your response can help rebuild trust.
But you need to ensure that it is the right human.
They must have received media training within the last six months (check out our quick media training guide here).
In a crisis the journalist’s questions are likely to be pretty direct/aggressive so you must practice answering this style of interview.
If you’ve never undergone a media grilling before it can be a little daunting.
If you’re not prepared you could inadvertently say something which could worsen the situation, not improve it.
When you undertake your media training make sure your trainer makes it as realistic as possible. You don’t want them to be polite.
If you don’t practice for that boxing match, the first punch could put you on your back.
Action point: Get media training now!
3. Risk register
The guys at Project Manager have a great risk register template that you can download for free.
In this context the risk register is used so you can identify in advance those areas of the business that are most likely to cause issues from an operational or financial perspective.
But when you think about it these are precisely the sort of issues that could cause you a problem from a reputational perspective too.
Types of issues you might want to consider for your own risk register include:
- Times of the year when you may be inspected by regulators
- Any online campaigners or critics who are against your business
- Financial pressures, such as risk of redundancies
- What would happen if your product failed
- Impact of severe weather on your business
- Risks of a customer being hurt by your product or service
- Impact of a pandemic (who had that on their register before 2020?!)
These risks will be very specific to your business, but a good tip here is to plan for the worst, no matter how unlikely you think it may be.
Once you know what risks you could possibly face as a business you can then move on to the next stage of your crisis communication plan.
Action Point: Complete Your Risk Register
4. Get the message right
Agreeing your key message, and sticking to it, is critical in any crisis response.
To do this you need to agree these messages in advance.
These messages will, of course, need to be tailored to the specific situation when the crisis hits, but there are some overarching messages that you can have in place.
Again, these are not business-specific, but some example messages could be:
We would sincerely like to apologise that our customers have been impacted by the failure of our service. That was never our intention and we are working tirelessly to put this right.
The safety and wellbeing of our customers is our highest priority and we have now launched an immediate investigation to discover what went wrong.
As a family business we are committed to our local community and we will strive to put this right.
Our business is built on a culture of openness and transparency and we will continue to update you in the coming days as we work to overcome this problem.
On this occasion we failed to meet our own high standards but we are committed to improving and we will learn from this.
We can confirm that we are cooperating with the police to help them in their investigation and as such we are unable to make any further comment at this time.
These types of message, or a variation on this theme, should always be at the heart of your crisis communication response.
Action point: Start to consider what key message YOU would use in a crisis situation
5. Empathy is everything in a crisis response
This is absolutely critical when it comes to responding in a crisis situation.
Whether you’re dealing with journalists, influencers, customers or employees you must take a humble tone in a crisis.
Even if behind the scenes your business is not really a fault, you want to demonstrate to your most important stakeholders that you care and that you are listening.
Do not stonewall, do not dismiss criticism and do not attack your critics (apart from in exceptional circumstances).
An empathetic and humbled tone will buy you space to respond to the actual crisis which your business faces.
Don’t start a war on two fronts by attacking your accusers.
See the messages above for what empathy can look like.
Your messages must not be tone-deaf to the seriousness of the situation. If this crisis is a big deal for your customers it MUST be a big deal for you too.
6. Accuracy in crisis communication
This is another must-have, and for two key reasons.
If something goes wrong in your business you very quickly need to conduct a rapid assessment of the situation to get an overview of the key facts.
What happened when and who knew what is a good start.
No one will expect you to know everything – how could they – but you must have a grasp on the basics of the crisis.
This is where your crisis communication team comes in.
They all need to be fully briefed on the most up to date information regarding the issue at hand.
Having a good grasp of the main facts will ensure that whatever public statements you issue cannot be contradicted at a later date.
Secondly, if there is a subsequent legal investigation into this crisis then you do not want any conflict between your communications and crucial evidence.
Action point: Use a crisis communications reporting form to record a timeline of a crisis
7. Transparency as a tool of crisis communication
If your business is affected by some kind of crisis then it’s trust that you’re trying to salvage.
The more open and transparent you can be in your response then the more likely you are to minimise the damage.
Of course, there is always a tension between the need to be transparent and the requirement to protect the privacy of certain individuals.
And in the case of some businesses, particularly healthcare, this can be a tricky balance to strike.
In addition, if your crisis is the subject of a live police investigation then you are very much restricted in terms of what you can say publicly.
Judging how transparent, or not, you can be is often a legal question – to a degree – that’s why I recommend having a legal expert on your core crisis communication team.
Outside of these restrictions you really must try to be as open and transparent as possible in your crisis communications.
Well, think of any situation in life.
The more open people are with you the more likely you are to trust them.
Exactly the same psychology applies to your business.
Action point: If you don’t have an in-house lawyer source a legal expert you could call in a crisis
8. Speed in crisis communication
The speed of your response – in the digital world – is critical.
But note that I have listed this several points after ‘accuracy’ in terms of what you must get right.
There’s no point being the first to tweet or to know how to write a press release in world record time, if what you’re saying isn’t accurate.
You could end up doing way more harm than good.
If inaccurate information finds its way online, issued by your business, it can be very hard to set the record straight.
So, get your facts right first in a crisis and then…
Be very fast.
Social media has made crisis communication a real-time endeavour.
Gone are the days of issuing a press statement and then sitting back to see how the media covers your story.
Your reputation is being discussed and criticised minute by minute during a crisis and you need to be leading that conversation.
I’m not saying you need to respond to every tweet, that could be impossible, but monitor the conversation and note the main themes that are emerging.
Agree your position to them and respond accordingly.
If your business has multiple social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – then ensure your crisis communication statements are mirrored on each of these platforms.
Then monitor the conversation
Remember that journalists will be following these social media platforms too, and looking for your disgruntled customers, ones that they can quote or interview about your crisis.
You need to ensure that you get to them first with your version of events.
During the height of a major crisis media monitoring and managing social media can be a 24/7 task but it’s worth your effort to get this right.
Social media fuels mainstream media and vice versa in a crisis.
Make sure you’re on top of both by taking the right decisions at speed.
Action Point: Make sure you have the correct contact details (email and phone) for all of the most important journalists for your business
Action Point: Ensure you have admin access to all your social media channels
9. Recovery phase in crisis communication
Most crises, at least those that hit the mainstream media, will stay in the headlines for two, perhaps three days – unless they’re Enron-sized.
But that doesn’t mean you should stop communicating after day three.
Once you’re through those first few adrenaline-fuelled days there can be a temptation to think ‘thank golly that’s over, let’s just get back to normal now’.
But that is a mistake.
You now need to enter the recovery phase of your crisis communication plan.
Just because the mainstream media has got bored, and their news vans have driven off, doesn’t mean there’s not more work to do.
Now your attention should really shift from the immediate media relations crisis to rebuilding your reputation in the eyes of your customers, employees, investors, suppliers and even your local community.
These are the people who really matter the most to your business, and decide whether or not it will survive.
The impact of a high volume of negative media coverage will not only have rocked these people it will also have left a trail of destruction to your online profile.
Now when people google “Al’s Great Tech Business” they are greeted with a page of negative news stories.
And, the bad news is that these stories will be there for a while putting the skids on your reputation (thanks Google!)
It’s time to listen
This is not the time to panic, but to start listening to your most important stakeholders.
Spend the next few weeks speaking to these groups to find out what their views are on the crisis and how you handled it, then start to tell the story of your recovery.
Contact those very same journalists, bloggers and influencers who may have well criticised you and explain to them what you learnt from the crisis and how you fixed the problem.
Invite them to your business to see for themselves what has changed.
Every crisis contains an opportunity
Let the story of the recovery be your new story and gradually, over time your reputation both online and offline will recover.
Don’t expect miracles, this will take time, but things will improve if you stick at it – and it can actually be the source of some positive free PR.
Head in the sand is no strategy for recovery from a crisis – you must engage.
Which brings your crisis communication plan full circle, back to the pre-crisis stage.
This is why I always encourage clients to develop good relationships before there is ever any hint of a crisis.
Because if a crisis does hit these very same people will be crucial to your business’ recovery.
Action point: how would you go about listening to your critics? Are you willing to listen?
Now It’s Time to Create Your Crisis Communication Plan
As you can see there’s a lot to think about when creating a crisis communication plan.
My advice, bookmark this page and keep coming back to it as you develop your strategy.
Once you have your plan in place you can relax and get on with what you do best – running your business!
Try and revisit the plan at least once a quarter so you know that all the details are up to date and that all the right people have access to it.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to put your crisis communication plan into action – but now you’re ready should that day ever come.
And if you’re ready to take your PR work to the next level grab our PR Starter Kit.
Our must-have kit has every template, script, strategy and guide you’ll ever need to do PR – all in one place.