HOW TO BUILD A COMMUNICATIONS PLAN
Crises come in many forms and – as we all too starkly realise now – with little warning, but with very dramatic impacts. And when a crisis hits, it’s easy for any business and/or individuals to feel overwhelmed and act on emotion as opposed to logic, missing the need for a realistic consideration of the climate and circumstances they are facing.
Hopeful optimism just won’t cut it.
So, if you want your business to flourish after a crisis – scarily, even survive during a crisis – then it is fundamentally important that you plan for such situations; even if this is a retrospective plan.
Central to this – in an inextricably connected world – is a clear communication strategy; it is vital that business leaders manage and avoid the potential for short or long-term damage to their business and its reputation. In fact, there are opportunities to build your reputation – and to make the point, just look at a great story about how “Brewdog” have moved from brewing beer to making hand sanitiser to support the crisis – and I think they will reap the rewards when this is over.
This document, therefore, provides a simple and hopefully clear overview of what Crisis Communications is, along with a few steps on how to build a plan. It has been built on my own experiences with clients, employers, and industry sources over a number of years and I have used the outline myself – successfully – on several occasions.
I am providing it free of charge so I want to stress that you should feel free to use it, so I have written it to be very practical and useful and I hope it is helpful for you.
But…it is also (almost certainly) apparent just scanning my suggestions that when you are in crisis there is a lot of “stuff’ to be done in quick time – a surge of activity if you like. It’s also usually the case that because you are in crisis it’s not easy to free up the time of staff to do the work even though you realise it makes sense to do so. They are trying to solve the crisis!
So…if you or your business do need support with this, then please do not hesitate to contact Kristina on firstname.lastname@example.org.
OVERVIEW- crisis communication strategy and messaging
One of the basic components – and a first step – to successful crisis management is timely, consistent, and effective communications with your key stakeholders. So, a key goal should be to define and crystallise a simple crisis communications strategy – a plan. And to support that plan by drafting your communications messages/ lines. Ideally, you should have them ready and pre-approved by all the right members of your team, so they are set to go. But this isn’t always possible – and the crisis may be unprecedented.
Furthermore, if you are in reactive mode it can feel that there isn’t really time for this, but approvals and deadlines are important and can be factored even into the reactive strategy with sensible use of the right media/platform
The list of approved communications should include:
- Crisis communication strategy (e.g.: proactive vs. reactive, means of communication)
- Talking points / message points
- Holding statements / First response statements
- Official (written) communications to each stakeholder group
- Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
BIG POINT TO NOTE: The most effective crises communication should lead with authenticity and communicate with transparency and confidence/assurance.
In order to produce the above, I would recommend following 3 simple steps:
- Firstly, identify who are your key stakeholders;
- Secondly, identify your Communication Channels;
- Thirdly, draft and approve the Communication Strategy and Messaging…
… the three steps in a bit more detail.
THE DETAIL – 3 STEPS TO BUILD A CRISIS COMMUNICATION STRATEGY
Step 1: Identify your stakeholders
The first step is to ask yourself and your team the following question:
…Who, in a crisis, do you need to communicate with in order to minimise the negative reputational impact on your organisation…?
The odds are, you already know who your stakeholders are – and some organisations do this a lot as part of their business and there are plenty of stakeholder mapping templates online.
But, if you’re like many organisations I know and have worked with, you probably don’t have a complete and tiered list of each of your stakeholder groups, with contact information and ‘relationship owners’ within the organisation. So, thinking this through, doing a bit of team ‘mind mapping’ on a whiteboard/flip chart (because you are in crisis) and producing this stakeholder list an important first step. To get the ball rolling, here are a few examples of who your list might include:
- Board members?
- Customers / clients?
- Employees (crucial also to remember different groups have
- different needs)?
- Government organisations – local and central government?
- Any regulatory bodies/agencies?
- Partner organisations?
- Subsidiary brands?
- The media – all of it?
- The general public?
- Trustees – for a charity?
Once you have your groups listed out, you’ll want to identify an owner within your organisation, responsible for managing of each of these relationships (for example, your investor relations department owns the relationships with investors, the HR team owns the relationships with employees and possibly vendors, such as recruiters). You get the idea.
When these owners are identified, you can ask them to create a tiered contact list of people and entities within their particular stakeholder groups – and you should also task them with keeping the lists current and up to date throughout the crisis as the situation unfolds. And, finally, you should compile and retain a ‘master stakeholder contact list’ in a ‘safe place’.
TIP: Creating a secure and dedicated crisis preparedness system – a dedicated “drive” and possibly a “command centre” with relevant, resilient technology will turn out to be one of the most useful tools in your crisis preparedness toolbox.
Step 2: Identify your communications channels
Once you know who you need to communicate with in the event of a crisis, your next step is to figure out how to communicate with them efficiently and effectively, which requires you to create some approved talking points and key – simple – messages.
Social media vs. more traditional means of communicating
These days, people tend to default to social media when it comes to crisis communications – to an extent, rightfully so, and social media is a pivotal crisis management, communication channel. However, just “sharing” to social media isn’t enough; it needs to be understood as a means to communicate with key stakeholders, especially the media, the public, customers and possibly even clients directly. But social media – as important as it is – is only part of the answer. Your organisation has some key stakeholders who you want to be sure to reach, and you want to be sure get your message; so, you must communicate with these stakeholders directly. These are the people and entities that matter most to your business.
Of course, there are organisations that, due to regulation/ compliance reasons, cannot use social media – even in crisis. Although this presents more of a challenge in their preparedness and crisis communication, it is no reason to avoid being on a front foot. It really means that those organisations must have a spokesperson – an authoritative ‘talking head’ – to deal with the external facing world (answering media inquiries and ensuring the organisation’s efforts are being reported to the media). In the background, though, the crisis team needs to be working through the tiered, stakeholder list and actively calling and emailing the people and entities that matter most to their business. I should add that this applies to organisations that use social media as well.
The goal here is to use your approved talking points/ messages and to communicate and connect with stakeholders in a way that ‘feels’ personal, human and authentic – and makes stakeholders feel valued and important.
One of the lessons learned already from the Covid- 19 crisis communications is how important it has been for the government’s scientists to communicate to the public in a human way.
So, to recap…social media is a strong crisis communications tool when:
- You need to reach a large group of people together;
- You want to position your organisation as the narrator of the crisis;
- You have key stakeholders who actively engage with your organisation on dedicated social media platforms.
But other forms of technology provide key communication tools and shouldn’t be forgotten as they provide us with unparalleled opportunities for reaching stakeholders directly – through the phone in their pocket – and when communication matters most.
Having extolled the virtues of social media and other technology, it’s also important to remember the more traditional ways of communicating and the powerful impact (not to mention sometimes the need to address legal obligations) they can have, by calling or directly emailing your key stakeholders. Ultimately, the goal of crisis communication is to minimise the reputational impact the crisis threatens to have on your brand and to continue to build and strengthen the trust your stakeholders have in your organisation.
How to identify the proper communications channels
In order to identify the appropriate crisis communications channels for each of your stakeholders, sit down with leaders and heads of each department or business units to answer the following questions:
- Which of your stakeholders (usually tier 1) do you need to communicate with directly?
- What is the best way to communicate with them directly (e.g. phone, email, etc.)?
- Do you have legal obligations to notify any stakeholders in a particular way – and, if so, in what types of crisis scenarios? For example, do you have certain stakeholders that require you to provide them with written notice in a certain type of crisis scenario? Is that written notice to be provided via certified letter or does email suffice? You may want to task legal teams with revising your agreements, contracts and side letters to find out which scenarios may require specific notification?
- Which channels do you engage your stakeholders on regularly (e.g.: Twitter, Facebook or internal website, etc.)?
- What apps, platforms and technology do your stakeholders use in their daily lives that may present a unique means of communicating with them directly?
Once you have the answers to these questions, include them within your crisis preparedness program.
Step 3: Draft and have your crisis communications approved
Having identified the means of communicating with your key stakeholders, your next step in crisis preparedness is to approve the communications messages. These need drafting with the business’s goals in mind – thinking about both the present and the future – and so it is not as easy to do as might first appear. Moreover, it does need thought from the top team because these are the people thinking about the future. But, having drafted the core
messages, you also need to ensure legality and compliance so the relevant people need to approve the messages, and you will need to edit them again … but, because you are in crisis, you do not really have the luxury of this time. So, depending on your organisation’s crisis preparedness, there are a couple different ways you can approach this task.
Option 1: Draft and pre-approve your crisis communications at-length
If your crisis preparedness thinking is exemplary and includes developing in-depth crisis management playbooks for several of your highest risk crisis scenarios, then you will have had the opportunity to think through and draft your stakeholder-specific crisis communications at-length. So, in this case, you can include the holding statements, talking points and official notices to each of your stakeholder groups and have them pre-approved by the appropriate people.
Option 2: Draft your communications in the form of bulleted options (when needing to act fast)
A bulleted list of approved, crisis communications is a simple way to communicate with your stakeholder groups when in reactive phase. This may sound simple but, in my experience, its simplicity is its virtue and regularly keeping stakeholders informed in a simplified but factual manner works best.
An example of a bulleted communication plan may look something like this:
- On [date] CompanyX suffered a data breach of [system / data breached]
- Upon learning of the breach, we immediately [shut down the system / notified the correct authorities / notified the individuals impacted]
- What we know at this time is [high-level details]
- We are currently [working on restoring our systems / working with the authorities]
- CompanyX takes data security extremely seriously and we are doing everything in our power to eradicate the threat and keep our [enter stakeholders] information safe and secure.
- We will provide another update when more information becomes available.
As I indicated, this is intended to be a simple and practical “how to” deal with crisis communications and a few tips and pointers to channel your efforts productively as opposed to firefighting. It’s not rocket science …but it does need thinking about and planning to do it well; and the impact of doing it badly cannot be underestimated. I hope you have found it useful.
If you have further questions, or wish to connect with Kristina, you can reach her on email@example.com.