“My company has a business continuity plan. Why do I need a crisis communication plan, too?”
Business continuity and crisis management are increasingly on the minds of organizational leaders worldwide. As well they should be. Many senior leaders with a business continuity plan in place believe they are well prepared for a crisis. And some are.
More often, however, we have found that organizations are not as prepared as they think they are. While a business continuity plan is indeed critical to the operation of any organization, absent a crisis communication plan, business continuity plans do nothing to protect brand and reputation in the event of a crisis. “Goodwill” is a line item on many company P&Ls these days, and one poorly managed issue can wipe out that value faster than lightening. Poor crisis communication (or none at all) can exacerbate losses to sales, profitability, stock price, market share, earnings, and more. The very future of the company may be at stake.
At ICM, we advocate for three crisis plans: 1) the operational crisis plan, which covers the actions needed to mitigate the crisis and keep the organization functioning during that time, 2) the business continuity and recovery plan, which covers the actions needed to get the organization back to normal following a crisis; and finally, 3) the crisis communication plan.
The crisis communication plan is the keystone that makes the other two plans work effectively. It is important not only to do the right thing in a crisis; it is critical to effectively communicate to all stakeholders what’s being done and why. That’s where the crisis communication plan enters the picture. The communication plan covers the strategies, processes, tactics and tools needed to protect the corporate brand, its reputation and financial health.
Ideally, the crisis communication plan and the other two plans all share this important feature: each includes specifics for responding to the most common kinds of crises, rather than just a generic approach. We conduct a vulnerability study to better understand the kinds of crisis risks that are most probable for the organization. From there, we develop specific response strategies and tactics for the most probable situations.
Importantly, the most common kinds of crises are not the sudden ones that tend to gather the most headlines, like natural disasters. Rather, they are more often the smoldering issues that if left unchecked, will probably grow into a full blown crisis. We typically recommend developing specifics to prepare for events like these:
- Data breach
- Death or incapacitation of a senior executive
- Defects and recalls
- Environmental crisis or natural disaster
- Executive dismissals
- Government investigation or other litigation
- Illegal or unethical action, white collar crime
- Labor disruption
- Smoldering issue or anticipated crisis
- Whistle blowers
- Worksite injury or fatality
- Workplace violence
At your next management meeting, ask some of the following questions to determine how well prepared you are to communicate in a crisis:
- How long would it take to reach the entire management team on a Saturday afternoon if a crisis erupted? Do we have an emergency response plan? Has it ever been tested or updated?
- What internal problems or vulnerabilities do we have that could hurt the business if they went “public”? Do we have a plan to deal with these kinds of issues?
- Who will speak for the company in a crisis? Are they trained to handle the media? How good would they be in handling tough questions from reporters?
- Are we prepared if a crisis explodes on social media?
- Do we know how to contact all of our key stakeholders quickly?
- How much information would we share if we had a crisis? Who decides?
- What can we learn from how competitors have handled past crises?
Knowing the answers to these questions may be the difference between weathering a crisis, and succumbing to it.
Deborah Hileman, SCMP is President and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a consulting firm specializing in crisis management and communications planning, training and consulting services. Founded in 1990, ICM clients include public and private companies, non-profit organizations, education and religious institutions, government agencies and other organizations in North America and across the globe.
A certified strategic communication management professional (SCMP), business leader, coach and consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in public and private companies and non-profit organizations, her most significant areas of expertise include strategic communications planning and crisis management, media relations, change management, employee engagement and training. She has taught hundreds of professionals to develop effective crisis strategy and messaging and to handle difficult media interviews with confidence and skill.
Known as a voice of calm amid chaos and crisis, Ms. Hileman has earned a reputation as a trusted communication strategist and advisor to board members and C-suite executives, operations leaders and other organizational stakeholders. She has developed and implemented successful communication strategies for numerous business issues, including natural disasters, labor strikes, workplace violence, wrongful death, food safety concerns, harassment and abuse investigations, social media attacks and cybercrime, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, closures and layoffs, controversial development plans, criminal prosecutions and federal civil investigations, employee malfeasance and investor litigation, among others.
A regular writer and blogger on business communication topics, she is the author of “Attorneys as Allies: Balancing Stakeholder Needs with Legal Concerns During a Crisis”, published in the Writer’s Guidebook, Vol.2, PR News Press; “Building a Crisis Early Warning System by Empowering Employees to Speak Up”, published in The Book of Employee Communications Strategies & Tactics, vol. 5, PR News Press, and “In a Snap: 15 Tips for Faster, More Effective Employee Communications in a Crisis”, published in The Book of Crisis Management Strategies and Tactics, Vol. 8, PR News Press. Contact Deb at [email protected].