Crisis Communications Plans Built to Fail: 3 Warning Signs and How to Avoid Them

By Gerard Braud

Would you be disappointed to learn your crisis communications plan is built to fail?

Here are three questions to ask to find out if you are destined for trouble when a crisis comes calling — or if you will manage your crisis like an expert.

Warning Sign #1

What is the system within your company by which people report a crisis? Most organizations have:

1) No requirements among employees to report a problem or potential problem.

2) No single phone number to call to report a crisis.

3) No clear definition of what a crisis is.

A reportable crisis should be defined as any event that can negatively impact the revenue and reputation of your company. This can range from a sudden crisis like a fire or explosion, to smoldering issues such as sexual harassment or executive misbehavior. It needs to also include all of the things in between that can trigger a crisis, such as dangerous working conditions or problems that are swept under the rug. Don’t fight over the semantics of whether it should be called a crisis, an event or an incident. Categorize it all as either an actual crisis in the making or a potential crisis.

As a rule, you should welcome the possibility of over-reporting rather than under-reporting. Every employee should be encouraged to speak up and bring issues to the attention of their immediate supervisor. Each supervisor should be encouraged to report up the chain of command. Even better yet, there should be a hotline number that any employee should be able to call to report an actual crisis or a potential crisis. Furthermore, regular employee meetings should be held in which supervisors ask employees questions and create opportunities for them to freely speak up about potential crises.

Often, there is a weak link in the chain of command. Employees fear reprisals for speaking up, rather than anticipating praise for being a team player. You don’t want that culture in your workplace.

Warning Sign #2

Spontaneity and winging it are of little use when a crisis or potential crisis is unfolding. You must know what to ask and with whom the information must be shared. Once you have established a reporting system, such as a hotline, you need to consider what happens when the hotline is called.

1) What questions need to be asked of the caller?

2) What information should the caller be prepared to share?

A flaw in most companies is that neither the caller nor the person receiving the call has a script to follow that outlines what information needs to be gathered and shared.

The solution to this problem is in good crisis communication planning on a clear sunny day. Either one good communication strategist, or a team of people, should discuss what they would want to know in a crisis, then write out the questions that need to be asked by the hotline operator.

The system becomes stronger when the questions are placed with strategic individuals throughout the company. They should be trained to recognize that when a crisis or potential crisis is unfolding, they should be prepared to ask these critical questions and pass that information on to the hotline operator.

In places where a 24-hour operator is not a viable option, consider making a single cell phone the hotline phone. Each week a specific manager can be designated as the crisis manager. They must carry the phone with them 24/7. Their job is to answer the hotline anytime it rings, then begin to gather information that can be shared with other managers, so the crisis can be dealt with.

Warning Sign #3

Most organizations fail to have a well thought out Crisis Management Team. Many have no established team. Hence, their response to a crisis is usually ad-hoc and prone to fail because mistakes are made in the heat of the moment.

Once you have gathered the initial information, you must clearly establish to whom does it go and what actions should they take?

All companies should have three types of plans for a crisis, which would include the plan we are talking about here, which is a Crisis Communication Plan. There must also be an Emergency Response or Incident Command Plan, as well as a Business Continuity Plan. Few companies have all three. Many companies have none.

The leader of each of these teams should be members of the Crisis Management Team, along with the CEO. You should consider limiting your core Crisis Management Team to only four to five leaders. This is your inner circle. Each of them should have other internal managers and experts who can be called upon as needed.

The Crisis Management Team is the group that should receive the information gathered when the hotline number is called. Each should then dispatch their legions of designees to respond to the events.

In our case, the leader of the Crisis Communications Team needs to start communicating facts to internal and external audiences as quickly as possible, using the most reliable tools. These tools should include:

  • Holding a fast, initial news briefing with any media who may be on site.
  • Posting the information to your secure website.
  • Simultaneously emailing information to the media and employees with text and a link to your website.
  • Using email to reach key stakeholders, such as customers.
  • Using YouTube as a location to host a short video statement for the world to see.
  • Using Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to your statements on your website and on YouTube

Your ability to use all of these communications channels or only a few of these channels depends heavily upon whether your company has one PR professional or a team of them. When you are short handed, use the channels in the order that they are outlined above.

The difference between crisis communication success and crisis communications failure lies in planning. It is called a crisis communications plan for a reason. Don’t wing it. Take time now, on a clear sunny day, to determine if you are destined for failure from the start because you are missing the most critical steps from the onset of every crisis.