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April 2, 2024

Plan & Prevail: A Crisis Communications Checklist

written by

Julie Ardito

VP of Public Relations

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” - Henry Kissinger

While Mr. Kissinger’s quote is tongue-and-cheek, the truth is, crises don’t care about how busy you are, if you’re on vacation or if it’s a holiday. As the saying goes, “It’s not if, but when” your company or organization will face a crisis. How you prepare and respond to the crisis can build your brand reputation—or break it.

With an increase in misinformation and “fake news” being dished out on social media platforms and through bad actors using artificial intelligence (AI) to create content to spread disinformation, a crisis can pop up at any time. It is up to companies (and particularly the leadership team within them) to be prepared to vigorously own and defend their story and protect their reputation—now more than ever.

Yet, a 2023 study from Capterra’s Crisis Communication Survey showed that only 49% of U.S. companies surveyed have a formal crisis communications plan, 28% have an informal crisis communications plan, and nearly 23% have none. When you are without a plan and need to respond quickly to a crisis, that can have devastating impacts to your business. Less isn’t more. Your brand and the trust of your stakeholders depends on it.

Ask yourself: Is your company ready when a crisis hits?

Our agency works with a range of clients to help them prepare for moments such as this. And now, we’ve created a 6-step Crisis Communications Checklist to ensure you’re ready to weather the storm when it hits:

Step 1: Think about what keeps you up at night

Before you can prepare for a crisis, you need to first know your potential for crises—whether sudden or smoldering. What can happen that would impact your business, its reputation, or the trust that you have with your employees, customers and other stakeholders?

A crisis can be unplanned, such as a cyberattack, manufacturing recall, a fire at a physical location, disruption of your operation, loss of lives, or a national trend within your industry that can have implications to your company locally. Other crises can also be anticipated, including layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, poor financial performance or leadership changes. Identify those crises’ most likely to happen.

The key takeaway: Know your pain points and prepare for them.

Step 2. Prepare and partner early

Just as athletes train year-round for their season or competition, teams that respond and recover most successfully from a crisis are those that prepare before they’re in it. Assemble your crisis team in advance, so you’re not scrambling to decide who you need at the table. Companies of all sizes should consider having a representative from key departments, and community and industry partners to aid in the response and outreach. Consider folks from the following departments as part of your crisis team and scale to your needs:

  • Business leadership
  • Human resources
  • Legal counsel
  • Government affairs
  • Investor relations
  • Compliance
  • Security
  • Facilities
  • IT
  • Marketing (including web/digital)
  • Social media
  • Public/media relations

If your organization serves critical community populations, bring in first-responder agencies and partners to mobilize a response and for increased outreach.

Part of your early preparation is also maintaining relationships with the media. The more responsive you are to the media on an ongoing basis, the more receptive they will be to reporting your communications during a crisis. Their job is to cover a news story. If you treat the media as a critical partner in helping you get your message out, they will be more of an asset than a pain in your ass.

The key takeaway: Navigating a crisis takes a team.

Step 3. Develop a plan and work the plan

Having a crisis communications plan in place will help reduce some of the stress in a taxing situation. Keep your plan practical, functional and actionable. If it’s too long, no one will read it.

Identify your internal stakeholders (e.g. employees, board members, etc.) and external stakeholders (e.g. customers, investors, media, etc.) and prioritize a sequence of communication to ensure all are informed in a consistent, timely fashion.

Include mock scenarios for those crises most likely to happen (remember the ones that keep you up at night?), draft messaging and the steps your crisis team will take to respond to each. Assign roles and responsibilities for team members. Identify your communications channels and have a point of contact for employees, media, social media and other digital platforms.

The key takeaway: A crisis communications plan will help centralize your company’s response and keep you focused to facilitate effective communication throughout the crisis.

Step 4. Your message matters

It’s often been said that “you can’t control what happens, but you can control how you respond.” Establish your credibility and trust by providing information to your stakeholders as soon as possible during a crisis. If you don’t address the situation first, someone else will. You may not have all the information you need, but responding within the first hour with what you know and what you are doing to address it with compassion can set the tone for how your company successfully navigates a crisis.

Having messages pre-scripted as part of your plan that you can customize will help expedite your response. These are “starter” scripts only; you will want to revise them to be authentic and address the specific crisis. Avoid speculation and be transparent—a crisis is not the time to go radio silence. Updating often during these types of situations  keeps people informed and eases concerns.

The key takeaway: Your company or organization has a responsibility to lead through a crisis, and it will build trust with your stakeholders by doing it well.

Step 5. Prep your people

Spend time before you’re in a crisis to conduct media training and communicate your company response. More often than not, your spokesperson will be called on frequently throughout the crisis to respond to media inquiries, and it’s important they feel confident, comfortable and capable.

The key takeaway: Speaking “off the record” isn’t an option.

Step 6. Reflect on lessons learned

Rahm Emanual, the current United States Ambassador to Japan, famously said, You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Just as pre-crisis planning and execution during a crisis is essential, conducting a post-crisis analysis is equally important. It’s your opportunity to assess how you weathered the storm and make adjustments for the future.

Regroup with your team while it’s still fresh, solicit feedback from your trusted partners, and review what worked/what didn’t. How was your message carried across your communications channels throughout the crisis? What areas can you improve? What lessons were learned? Take that data and update your crisis communications plan for next time.

The key takeaway: The lessons learned this time will be tools you can use when the next crisis comes around.

In short, to prepare is to prevail

The best approach to a crisis is doing good business. Take the time to create this checklist with your team and start the conversation now. Having a crisis communications plan in place before you’re in one is an investment that will help your company or organization prevail with your reputation intact.

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