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Creating An Effective Crisis Communications Plan

What to do to ensure your spokesperson will be effective during a crisis 

Disasters happen. How quickly and appropriately those in authority respond to those disasters can make the difference between a frightening but manageable situation, versus a full-out catastrophe on many levels, like Katrina. A key element of a winning response is effectively communicating with the public through the media.

The speed and precision you exhibit when communicating with your public correlates directly with how bad the crisis will be – when you have a solid plan in place you can move faster to calm fears, negate rumors, and build trust with your audience.  By placing your clients' needs first in dealing with a crisis you are more likely to survive a crisis situation.  This article will help you achieve these results by guiding you through the process of creating an effective crisis communications plan.

Plan and Prepare TODAY

Before a disaster occurs, your priority and top-level goal is to prevent or minimize a crisis situation before it escalates. Many companies and government organizations are reviewing their crisis communications plans and putting Public Information Centers (PICs) in place. These companies and organizations understand preparedness is vital to successful crisis communications and have gone through the necessary procedures to be ready when disaster strikes.

There are key steps to preventing or minimizing a crisis. To begin, prepare a plan that dictates the roles of the leaders on the crisis communications team.  This plan designates the makeup of the confidential working group that will deal with the crisis, and defines the logistics of immediately assembling this group to assess the situation should a crisis occur.  Once the leaders are in place, determine key facts surrounding the disaster; including: What is at stake? Who is the audience? What are your immediate and longer-term communications needs?  What needs are exclusive to this type of disaster?  Understanding the scope of the situation allows both primary and secondary prevention to be considered.  Primary prevention averts incidents from occurring, while secondary prevention thwarts an incident from escalating by swiftly addressing issues made public.

An effective crisis communications plan will provide the processes to help you anticipate challenges, recognize your vulnerabilities, and evaluate and assess potentially damaging scenarios. It provides the tools to thoughtfully define the parameters of a crisis - what's the worst news that could come out of a possible disaster - and the best way to prevent and/or manage such a scenario.

Key Steps for Success

1. Identify a crisis team/Re-evaluate existing crisis team’s roles.

2. Review the roles of each member of your staff and determine, by their current roles, who should serve on the crisis communications team.

3. Analyze your vulnerabilities.

4. Conduct an intense strategy session with the appointed crisis communications team. In this session, the leadership will survey and discuss the organization’s public relations and media structure, identify strengths and weakness of the structure and the organization’s overall crisis communications requirements.

5. Evaluate your existing procedures.

6. Evaluate your written crisis communications plan and update it based on the information collected from the strategy session.

7. Identify the new procedures you need.

8. Brainstorm, be creative, and think in terms of what tools help deliver an important message quickly and directly to the different types of audiences you serve.  Also keep in mind what tools will be most effective given a variety of disaster situations.

9. Designate a spokesperson.

This is an important step for any crisis communication team, but especially for those dealing with disaster.  During a time of disaster, your public will look to your spokesperson for answers and or comfort.  When choosing a spokesperson, understand he or she need not only be media savvy, but trustworthy and authoritative as well. The public takes solace in knowing your spokesperson has a high level of involvement in the situation and is not just passing along whatever information he or she is being given.  Keeping this in mind, the team should designate one key spokesperson and two alternates.  These 3 spokespeople need intensive media training on a fairly regular basis to ensure their skills are sharp. We recommend media training every 6 months.

Draft a comprehensive crisis communications plan

This is the most crucial step for any organization, and especially relevant to those facing disaster. In the event of a disaster, your spokespeople will instantly become targeted for information.  This plan provides the framework, so that everyone is on board with what must be done immediately to move forward. From this broad plan, a crisis-specific plan can be created swiftly and with confidence, so that the PIC can swing into action promptly to minimize damage and reassure the public, while also protecting sensitive sources. The comprehensive crisis communications plan will include guidelines such as:

·    Define the problem

·    Create key messages

·    Propose a response to resolve the situation or allay audience fears

·    Vet the message (get approval)

·    Brief  the crisis communications team

·    Brief and prep spokespeople on key messages, expected problem areas, challenges of situation

·    Implement proactive outreach

·    Prepare reactive response

As part of the PIC's responsibilities, procedures should be defined regarding processes to investigate the disaster and gather necessary details and information; how the PIC will work with other agencies and organizations that might be involved; and how media requests will be handled. It is always important to be responsive to media requests; during a crisis, this responsiveness becomes even more crucial - we recommend that all media contacts are responded to within a maximum window of two hours, to demonstrate that the PIC is responsive, to calm panic, and to ensure a receptive audience.

Create and draft crisis communications marketing tools plan

This section of the plan details a range of marketing tools that might be implemented in a crisis, complete with rationale regarding when a specific tool is most valuable, and information on implementation. The marketing tools could include, but are not limited to the following:

·         Setting up hotlines

·         Creating a Q&A document

·         Public Service Announcements (PSA)

·         Advertisements - radio, TV, print

·         Media tours/press conferences

·         Town meetings

·         Other community outreach

·         Flyers, posters

Media training

Media training for the key spokespeople is a vital element of an effective crisis communications effort. Media training every six months will ensure the spokespeople keep their skills sharp and keep the messaging fresh.

Simulate/test crisis communications plan

Once an effective crisis communications plan is in place, it is wise to test the broad aspects of the plan, at least once a year.

Conclusion

As disasters unfortunately seem to be a more common occurrence, our skills for dealing with them must be honed.  An effective crisis communications plan provides your professionals with the blueprint to navigate rough waters effectively, to minimize panic, reassure your audiences, and protect sensitive sources. A delicate balancing act - but one Public Affairs and Public Relations Professionals must engage in more and more frequently. Planning and preparedness help make dealing with a disaster –  a lot less disastrous.

2013. Advice Unlimited LLC.

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