Problems are inevitable in business, and, unfortunately, that includes really big problems.
No matter how robustly you’ve built your company, you simply cannot foresee every major challenge coming your way. We are all vulnerable to something happening unexpectedly.
When a crisis hits—whether it’s a major problem in your production line, a workplace accident, or a serious social media gaffe—your priority as a business owner is to do all you can to contain the damage and prevent the situation from degenerating into a bona fide dumpster fire.
Emergencies are chaotic by nature. Confusion spreads, wires get crossed, and people end up unsure about what to do or who should do it. This is why it’s so crucial to establish well-defined protocols in advance to guide your communications response to a crisis.
Enter: The crisis communication plan.
In this post, we’ll outline the essential components of a crisis communication plan and guide you through steps for building one yourself. We’ll also look at some examples of how other companies have reacted to crises (with varying levels of success!).
What we’ll cover
- What is a crisis communication plan and why do you need one?
- 5 essential elements of a crisis communication plan
- 7 tips for building a crisis communication plan
- 3 examples of companies that aced (and botched) their crisis communications
Let’s kick things off by looking at what a crisis communication plan is and why it’s a good idea to have one.
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The purpose of a crisis communication plan is to set the communications guidelines that your company will follow when it suddenly finds itself in the middle of a crisis.
These guidelines will define what actions should be taken when a crisis first hits, who will be responsible for those actions, and how information should be disseminated to customers, employees, investors, the general public, the media, and any other relevant stakeholders as events unfold.
When a crisis occurs, various people connected to your company will be thrown into a state of doubt and left wondering how it will impact their needs and interests. It’s your responsibility to ensure that they aren’t left in the dark any longer than is necessary. Following a predefined plan will make sure that your communications response to a crisis is swift, decisive, and accounts for all affected parties.
Failing to act promptly and keep your stakeholders informed can significantly exacerbate a crisis. Mismanagement increases the likelihood of lawsuits, job loss, profit loss, fractured employee morale, and can lead to a major loss of trust in your business.
But if your response to a crisis follows a coherent strategy—in which well-prepared spokespeople disseminate crucial information quickly and accurately to the appropriate audiences—you’ll have more than a fighting chance of preserving your company’s reputation.
Clearly, preparing for the worst with a crisis communication plan is all part of sensible business leadership. It’s like an insurance policy: hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but it’s good to know it’s there if something does go wrong.
So now let’s look at what components you should expect to find in any effective crisis communication plan.
Your crisis communication strategy should incorporate the following key elements:
1. A crisis communication team
A crisis plan should specify the people within your organization who’ll be charged with the responsibility of gathering information and orchestrating internal and external communications when things start to go south.
The crisis communications team should include your senior management team as well as any social media or web managers who can monitor external conversations to better gauge the mood among customers and other stakeholders. The better you understand how people are reacting to the crisis in real time, the more accurately you can prioritize your responses.
Everyone’s role within the team should be clearly defined. For example, it should be obvious who’s responsible for collecting insights, who’s responsible for internal communications, and who will act as spokespeople for your different audiences. This leads us to the next point…
2. Well-defined communication procedures
As well as giving you guidance on what to include in your messaging, your crisis communication plan should also determine how those messages will be disseminated.
First, you’ll need to define some internal communications procedures that allow your crisis management team to stay in contact and facilitate the distribution of updates and notifications to the rest of your employees.
The best way to achieve this is by using a versatile, cloud-based communications platform that lets your team stay in touch wherever they are, using whichever device they have at hand. RingCentral offers exactly this by integrating phone, video, and team messaging all into one easy-to-use app:
For example, in the RingCentral app, you can create a group messaging thread quickly that’s specifically for handling a communications crisis so that only the folks involved can see the latest and strategize together:
Besides having a way to communicate internally, your plan should also specify the channels you’ll use to notify external stakeholders and the outside world of any crisis developments. Social media is usually the channel that gives you the greatest reach, allowing you to broadcast updates to all your followers in an instant. You may also need to send out a crisis communication press release to establish an accurate source of information for the news media and any stakeholders you haven’t yet had time to contact directly.
Your communications strategy should also explain what to do when urgent problems arise outside of office hours. For example, you might create a cell phone number, email address, or WhatsApp group that is only to be used to contact the leadership team in an emergency.
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3. Contact list
Your crisis communication plan should include an up-to-date and readily accessible database of all your stakeholders’ contact details. When you’re facing a critical situation where every second counts, the last thing you need is to be scrambling around looking for phone numbers.
The more information you can compile for each contact, the better. For each contact, you should at minimum have their name, their organization’s name, their cell number, their business number, and their email address.
As well as compiling the contact details of your employees, customers, and suppliers, your list should also include details for local government offices, health departments, emergency service departments, regulators, and any other organizations that you may need to contact depending on the nature of the crisis.
All contact lists should be securely stored to protect confidential information.
4. Messaging for different audiences
A crisis communication plan should provide guidance on how to communicate key messages to different audiences in the event of an incident. This guidance should help you quickly grasp the key information needs of your various audiences and can even include pre-scripted messages that can be adapted for a real-life crisis situation.
In general, your messaging should provide an overview of what’s happened, a provisional timetable for next steps, and an apology and/or expression of compassion to any victims.
Additional details will vary depending on the audience your speaking to:
Your customers could learn about an ongoing crisis in your organization in any number of ways. For example, they might notice that their orders aren’t being processed or that they can’t reach anyone on your team, or they might see some breaking news about the crisis on social media. Ideally, they will hear from you first.
In any case, once they realize that something’s wrong, your customers will need information about the status of their orders, whether they’ll get a refund if the order is canceled, how long they can expect to wait for more information, and so on.
Since your employees will often be the ones closest to an unfolding crisis, it’s crucial to quickly communicate key messages to prevent confusion, panic, and rumors.
The messages you communicate to your workforce should aim to quell their fears and doubts all the while remaining honest and transparent. Depending on the situation, your employees may well worry about their coworkers’ safety as well as their own and may wonder whether their livelihoods are at risk. Tell them all you can, and assure them they’ll be given more information as soon as it becomes available.
Any messaging to employees should also remind them not to disclose any unauthorized information to people outside the organization.
Any disruption to your business operations will have knock-on effects both upstream and downstream of the supply chain.
Your suppliers will want to know how the crisis will impact your ability to honor your active contracts with them. The sooner you can explain the situation to your suppliers, the better your chances are of protecting your relationships with them.
Some crises will have an impact on the wider community. This is especially true of industrial mishaps that might expose the public to hazards.
In these circumstances, you’ll need to engage in some community outreach and work with public safety departments to warn the public and inform them of what they should do to remain safe.
5. Designated spokespeople
Your designated spokespeople will be exclusively authorized to make statements about the ongoing crisis to internal or external audiences. Everyone else in your organization should direct any inquiries to these official representatives. This will ensure that misinformation and conflicting reports are kept to a minimum.
Your spokespeople should be well-prepared to handle the demands of their respective assignments. For example, while a CEO may generally be best-placed to handle a live TV interview, it might make more sense to assign such duties to a CTO if the crisis has been caused by a technical failure.
Now that we’ve covered the bare essentials of a crisis communication plan, let’s turn to look at how you can start to flesh one out yourself.
1. Define your objective
The first step in developing your plan is to define its core objective. This will ensure that everyone responsible for designing and implementing the plan will be working with the same goal in mind.
Your objective could simply be: “This plan aims to define responsibilities and procedures for communicating with internal and external stakeholders in the event of major, unforeseen business disruptions or threats to the company’s reputation.”
You should also make it a goal to keep your plan as simple as possible so that it’s easily understood by all involved. A complicated plan will be harder to implement, creating additional headaches in an already-fraught situation.
2. Create a dedicated group chat for crisis management
Once you’ve developed a crisis communications plan, it’s a good idea to store a copy of it in a group chat made up of members from your crisis response team.
This way, if and when a crisis does hit, your response team will have instant access to the communications plan, as well as any related discussions and records of how previous crises were handled. What’s more, the group chat can also double up as a ready-made forum where they can coordinate their response to the new crisis.
RingCentral’s team messaging platform lets you create group-based discussion threads that can be accessed on any device, and that allows users to immediately share messages, files, and documents with one another. You can also prioritize your crisis communication team’s tasks using the built-in task manager. This lets you create and assign tasks to people, set deadlines, and even color-code important ones!
3. Define your escalation procedures
In many cases, the people who make up your crisis communication team won’t be the people who spot the initial signs of an emerging crisis. Often, it will be a lower-level employee, a customer service agent, or a field worker who raises the alarm when they notice something worrying.
It’s important, therefore, to have a system in place that lets any one of your employees report an urgent problem and for that information to quickly find its way to the company’s senior decision-makers. The specifics of this system will depend on how your team is structured, but, once again, having a flexible communication platform will ensure that all relevant facts and details can be instantly relayed to those responsible for crisis management.
4. Develop holding statements and resources for crisis updates
Once your crisis communications team has been alerted to an emerging crisis and has processed the initial facts of the situation, they will need to prepare official statements and determine when, and to whom, those statements will be released.
During the earliest stages of a crisis, before all the facts have been determined, it’s a good idea to release a holding statement to show your stakeholders that you have registered the situation and are actively working towards a solution. This statement should also provide contact information and let people know where to look for new updates. You can speed up this process by drafting holding statements in advance.
As for providing official updates about the unfolding crisis, it’s worth creating resources like fact sheets and FAQs for you to post on your website and social media channels. Your crisis communication plan should state who will be responsible for creating and uploading these resources.
5. Offer media training to your spokespeople
Many crises will automatically attract the attention of news media, with reporters pushing for live or recorded interviews with one of your company’s spokespeople.
While it’s essential to prepare these spokespeople with fact-based talking points, it’s equally crucial to ensure that they’ve received adequate training to handle the demands of being in the media spotlight. Ongoing media training will teach your spokespeople how to speak clearly and present themselves to the audience in the best light possible.
6. Define your activation criteria
It’s important for your plan to define the circumstances under which it should be used as well as who has the authority to activate it. You don’t want to go to the expense of implementing a plan unless it’s truly necessary.
Even though it’s impossible to specify in advance all the situations that would constitute a crisis, you can rely on some instructive examples to guide you. Examples of crises include natural disasters, customer or employee injuries, workplace violence, fraud, product tampering, equipment recalls, data breaches, and so on.
Any incident that poses a significant threat to your normal business functions or reputation may be considered a crisis.
7. Be proactive about preventing crises
Prevention is better than cure, which is why it’s a good idea for your company to make a habit of detecting and correcting small problems before they snowball into something much less manageable.
One way to do this is to make a virtue of following best practices—ways of doing things effectively and safely that have stood the test of time. Another is to invest in technological safeguards, such as advanced security software, that mitigate the risk of human error or foul play.
Another way to detect smoldering problems before they grow into something dangerous is to actively seek feedback from your customers and monitor what people are saying about your brand on social media and review websites. If you take valid criticisms seriously and improve your customer experience accordingly, you’ll have an easier time maintaining a positive public perception.
Now that we’ve taken an in-depth tour of what it takes to build an effective crisis communication plan, let’s take a quick look at some examples of crisis communications from real-life companies:
1. JC Penney
In 2013, a Reddit user drew an alarming comparison between a kettle featured on a JC Penney advertising billboard and the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler:
News of this uncanny resemblance quickly spread and was picked up by some major news outlets like the Telegraph and the Guardian.
Faced with countless tweets poking fun at the retailer, JC Penny responded with a series of disarming replies including “If we had designed the teapot to look like something, we would have gone with a bunny tea kettle 🙂“.
In the end, the brand’s readiness to quickly admit to the unintended blunder prevented the incident from becoming a PR disaster.
Back in 2003, worms were found inside Cadbury chocolate bars in India.
Cadbury was initially slow to respond to the crisis, having first denied any possibility of contamination occurring during the manufacturing of their chocolate. But once the company’s share value plummeted from 73% to 69.4% within a few months, Cadbury withdrew all advertising and instead mounted an aggressive PR campaign to educate the media about improvements in their production lines, as well as designing new packaging for their products.
Within eight weeks of the packaging redesign, consumer confidence in the brand was largely restored, with sales climbing back up to pre-crisis levels.
3. Papa John’s
Papa John’s founder and chairman John Schnatter resigned in 2018 following his use of a racial slur on a conference call.
In response to this difficult PR problem, Papa John’s released an ill-received apology video on social media. For many users, the video was simply insufficient, while others noted that the video didn’t actually contain a straightforward apology. Had the brand opted for a clear and unequivocal mea culpa, the resulting reputational damage may well have been averted:
Ready to build your crisis communication plan?
Having a crisis communication plan is essential for building a company that can successfully weather an unpredictable storm. Failure to prepare a communications plan for when bad things happen can lead to chaos, confusion, and, at worst, complete reputational ruin.
But creating an effective crisis communication plan is no mean feat. You’ll need to think carefully about who should be responsible for coordinating your response to a crisis and what procedures should be followed.
Use the guidelines covered in this post as inspiration to help craft your own crisis communication strategy.
Originally published Nov 30, 2020, updated Jul 20, 2021