How Do You Prepare for Crisis Communications?

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Strategizing and preparing for crisis takes time. It’ll take a lot of your team’s time, more than one brainstorming session, with several hours of message-writing to follow.

That can be a painful proposition for many communications departments these days. It’s also the best reason to walk through these exercises now. When you see how long it takes to prep strategies and messaging, you’ll understand why you don’t want to be spending precious time not communicating in the midst of a crisis because you’re still formulating a response.

I discussed addressing crises that relate to your company’s core competency in my previous post. Now, let’s look more generally across your business.

Don’t panic when you see the long list that follows! You and your team will decide what’s relevant to your organization, which will help you cross off items that don’t need to be discussed (of course, you’ll want to add concerns specific to your industry or company).

Here are some crisis-generators, both internal and external. Which are relevant to your organization?

Corporate policy
Financial impropriety
Operations (including supply chain, vendor management)
Workplace safety
Employee relations (labor practices and contractor management, office/plant closures, layoffs)
Deliberate acts of omission (issues the company knew about in advance and didn’t resolve)
Product development
Community relations
Employee sabotage
Overt acts (protests, tampering or hacking, lawsuits)
Violent acts
Natural disasters
Crises experienced by competitors in the industry (or by suppliers) that may reflect on your company
Events near company locations that may disrupt business

Next Steps

The following exercises will define how you respond to many of the potential crises identified above.

Start by brainstorming troublesome situations that have the potential to become crises using the questionnaire below. A few words about leading a brainstorming session:

  • Establish an open-minded atmosphere for brainstorming where everyone is encouraged to contribute and no suggestion is insignificant or off-the-wall.
  • Encourage team members to think like a reporter, play devil’s advocate, explore worst-case scenarios.
  • Enable the team to speak candidly about the company in the spirit of protecting its reputation and best interests. This isn’t the time to look at the company through rose-colored glasses – reporters won’t. No one should feel like she or he might be considered disloyal or “negative about the company” for suggestions made during brainstorming. You need everyone’s best ideas to develop crisis communications, not thinking that skirts issues because of politeness.

Use or adapt the following questionnaire for your brainstorming session:

  • List any troublesome situations that your company has faced in the past (even if you didn’t receive publicity at the time).
  • Define current or future initiatives or changes that might generate negative discussion of your organization.
  • What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for others in your industry?
  • What other industries share similar issues with yours? What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for those industries?
  • What allegations (as opposed to actual events) could be made about your organization, senior leaders or business operations?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage the reputation your company has for its commitment to its values?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage your organization’s reputation in the communities where you do business?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would turn suppliers and vendors against your company?
  • What keeps you up at night? What’s your worst-case scenario?

Now:

  • Make a list of business unit leaders and/or managers.
  • Assign team members to schedule interviews with business unit leaders/managers to discuss their areas of expertise and any potential issues that they’d like to have addressed by the crisis communications plan. Walk them through the questionnaire where it’s relevant and if it’s helpful.
  • Find out from business unit leaders/managers how the company will respond to a crisis in their area, how the chain of command works during a crisis, and what is and is not proprietary information.

Adding the expertise of business leaders can be essential in generating buy-in for the overall crisis communications plan. As part of this work, you’ll want to send out an email to business leaders prior to the scheduling of interviews to set the context for crisis planning and its value to the company, and to introduce the team member who will be contacting the business leader for an interview.