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Published April 8th 2020

Crisis Communication: Preparation and Response Guide

When crisis strikes, do you have a communications plan in place? For a surprising number of companies, the answer is no. Here’s how to prepare and respond to a brand crisis.

Did you know that 45% of companies don’t have a high-stakes crisis communications plan in place?

When your team is performing well and the organization is looking healthy, it can be tempting to think: “It won’t happen to us!”

Investing time into making a plan for worst-case scenarios can feel pessimistic. But trust us, having a foundation in place will save you time, money, and lots of grief.

Part 1: Preparation

Be proactive, not reactive – it’s business 101. This advice rings especially true for crisis planning. The steps below are what you do when you have time to prepare.

1. Anticipate the risks

When you know what you’re up against, you can create appropriate defense strategies. Sit down with key members of each team and brainstorm potential worst case scenarios. List them out and talk through what could be done to avoid these outcomes.

You might be surprised by how many problems can be avoided by simply changing your processes. For the unavoidable situations, this planning session will ensure you’re aware of the potential risks and prepared to handle them.

2. Establish an alerts and notifications system

We can’t predict the future but we can be vigilant about the present. Knowing what is being said about your brand online is a big part of staying on top of potential crises.

Alerts and notifications can be easily set up in Consumer Research. Signals will monitor changes in your data and warn you as soon as trends emerge so you can act swiftly.

When you set up Alerts around select keywords you are adding on an extra layer of crisis protection. You know that when mention volumes peak or some other custom setup is acting strange, you’ll be alerted in real time.

Case study: A store fire
Co-op is one of the UK’s largest food retailers.
When a fire broke out at a Co-op store in Wales, the team was alerted at 2:15pm local time, immediately after this tweet was sent.
“@dailypostwales just seen that the @coopukfood in Pensarn, Abergele is on fire.” — @alanjones2004
This enabled the Co-op Digital Engagement team to act quickly, and they were able to get the situation under control within an hour.

3. Create an emergency communications team

You need to appoint a small team of senior team members to take charge on crisis communications. Make sure to pick a representative sample of each department in your company. This group will be responsible for making key decisions during times of crisis and will be in charge of regularly meeting to review and update the comms plan.

4. Develop holding statements

A key responsibility for your emergency communications team will be creating holding statements. You can’t predict exactly what crisis will arise but you can develop communications to be used for a wide variety of scenarios. Having these prepared statements on hand will allow you to respond to your audience faster when a problem does arise.

5. Review regularly

This process is not a set-it-and-forget-it solution. Crisis or no crisis, these steps need to be reviewed regularly and updated accordingly. Your approach to crisis communication will naturally evolve as your business does.

Part 2: Immediate action

A crisis has hit. Your mentions are blowing up. Your sales people are getting concerned calls from clients. Something needs to be done.

As a member of the comms team, you’re front and center.

Take a breath. Now, think. What steps do you have in place for moments like this?

1. Assess the crisis situation

You need to be quick to respond to a crisis. However, you can’t react too quickly.

You need to wait until you (and your team) have all of the relevant information at hand.

Start by calling your crisis team together. Give them a debrief of what you know and then discuss what response would be most appropriate.

Before you release external communications of any kind, make sure to align the entire organization with the right information. Leverage a marketing reporting and command center for these instances. They allow you to both receive external feedback in real time and to share crucial comms across your organization immediately, ensuring you will be the single source of truth for your team.

Side Bar: When you’ve already conducted the steps in part one, you can move fairly quickly. When you haven’t, you have to go through each of those steps before making a move. Preparation saves a whole lot of critical time.

2. Identify key messages

If you have your holding statements prepped, it’s time to take them out and decide what key messages need to be added in or taken out.

Your emergency communications team already knows what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. So what should those stakeholders know about this crisis? And what does your audience need?

Keep it simple – have no more than three main messages and communicate them clearly.

3. Communicate early and often (in your brand voice)

You have the information you need, you know your key messages. Now it’s time to start talking. We’ve all experienced the frustration of an app crashing or a company going silent amidst a scandal. Sometimes, just knowing someone is doing something is enough to quiet fears (as long as that action sounds sensible and proportionate to the seriousness of the problem).

Start the conversation by introducing the problem, the current status, and the proposed solution. It can be useful to commit to regular updates – this sets deadlines for your team and provides comfort for your audience.

Remember to always gut-check your communications against your company voice. Just because a crisis is at hand doesn’t mean you have to sanitize the personality of your brand. Keep the information at the front but don’t turn into someone you’re not.

4. Analyze and review response

Once the dust settles, take the time to really analyze and review your team’s crisis response. What obstacles popped up that you hadn’t planned for? What would you do differently? What went well? This is an opportunity to hone your plan for the next issue that arises.

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