By Michael Fox
According to a survey by PRNEWS and CS&A International, only 62 percent of companies have crisis communications plans in place and few consistently take the time to regularly practice crisis scenarios.
In an era when bad news can travel the globe in an instant, proactively developing a detailed crisis communications plan, assembling a crisis communications team, and practicing market or industry-specific crisis scenarios is critical to a company’s long-term success.
What follows are some basics to help you assemble a crisis communications team and begin developing that all-important crisis communications playbook.
Crisis Communications Director
The crisis communications director is typically the company’s senior marketing/communications executive and is familiar with all aspects of the company’s operations. This person assembles and leads the team, oversees the development (and execution) of a crisis response playbook and serves as the communications point guard if/when a crisis hits. Ideally, they will be familiar with the company’s voice and messaging and have the authority to quickly approve both internal/external communications.
The legal department—which understands and manages the many legal issues other departments overlook—will provide critical input on specific legal risks and ensure you remain in compliance with your contractual and regulatory requirements. During a crisis, legal should be the first to review all messaging before anything is released. In some instances, it may also bring in outside counsel with specialized expertise.
Your spokespeople play a crucial role in crisis communications. Since audiences place more trust in senior-level executives, the spokesperson you choose should be in a position of authority in your organization. In some matters, it may be a specialized spokesperson—a senior executive from a department or division with a stake in the incident. Avoid your company attorney as spokesperson (except perhaps in litigation situations) and don’t assume your CEO is the best solution, either. They should be reserved for situations that have escalated and are of significant concern.
Spokespeople may be called upon for on-camera interviews, as well as public and employee meetings, so it’s crucial to ensure they receive proper training before putting them in front of the cameras.
Media & Social Media Team
When a crisis occurs, the company’s media representatives are likely already part of the crisis communications director’s staff, tasked with handling a range of important functions, like developing news and website content and monitoring social media channels. As the crisis team’s marketing/PR representatives, these folks will wear several hats.
Almost half of Americans now obtain at least some of their news from social media channels. Your social media specialists — who may be the first in the company to hear about an industry-related crisis that affects your company — will obviously play a key role in crafting your reaction to it. They monitor audience/customer sentiment to understand how people are reacting, what they are saying, how they think the situation should be handled, and beyond. They are instrumental in creating strategies (often in conjunction with legal) for responding to negative social media posts before they go viral. Their insights can also help your spokespeople be better prepared for questions that are connected to a swell of public sentiment on social media.
HR & Internal Comms
Every crisis is an employee crisis. Regardless of whether the event directly impacts team members or not, the situation and your response to it are of critical importance to them, as each detail impacts how they view the company they work for. Whether it’s a Chief People Officer, head of HR, or internal communications specialists, you need people on the team whose full-time job is focused on your people.
Communicating with directly impacted external stakeholders is paramount, but someone also needs to determine how, where, and when to notify and update internal constituents. A crisis is an opportunity to show the outside world who you are and the values you stand by. As ambassadors for your brand, employees will be watching with equal interest and oftentimes can be allies in your response efforts.
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
An SME may not be a spokesperson or public-facing member of the team, but during a crisis, they’ll provide high-value expertise. If the crisis centers on a product safety issue, for example, a senior product manager may meet with marketing and PR to explain its cause, the degree of impact on customers and what steps are underway to resolve it. SMEs can also help your content supervisor ensure the issue is portrayed accurately before it’s released to the news media.
Even the best crisis communications team is likely to be ineffective without a plan and procedures in place as guidelines, especially in chaotic situations.
Who will handle requests from the news media? Will your executives be able to speak with the media and if so, will a lawyer and PR representative need to be present? Where do you want these interviews take place? Is there a news media “hotline” listing PR contacts on your website? Who will ensure the same consistent messaging is found on your social media channels? And have you identified backups should anyone be on vacation? In order for your crisis communications team to be effective, these are the type of questions that need to be addressed in your playbook.
Don’t be one of the 62 percent who have a crisis plan in place but rarely, if ever, put it to the test. Gather the team, choose a crisis that could conceivably occur, and put your team and playbook through a crisis simulation.
You can’t predict a crisis, but you can prepare for one. Once your crisis communications team is in place, you can develop a written plan that codifies operating procedures and defines key risks and vulnerabilities. You can then develop response scenarios for each one and test the plan to gauge its effectiveness. When everyone knows exactly how they fit into the crisis response plan, they will be able to work together more cohesively, ensuring a smooth and timely response.
Interested in learning more? Check out our Crisis Simulation Playbook.