There are of course best practices when it comes to developing a crisis communications plan for your business. The old adage ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ still applies. Having an up to date crisis communications plan and not one that sits gathering dust in a drawer is imperative if you want to protect the reputation of your company.
I have handled numerous crises and worked with clients and in house teams to develop practical crisis communications plans they can all commit to. It has to be tailored to the work and make-up of the organisation rather than a one size fits all.
I also know what it’s like to be the Communications Manager who has to deal with a journalist seeking an urgent statement on an issue that has many complexities. You need to gather information quickly and calmly and respond with an accurate explanation and clarification. It can be a lonely place to be without the right systems, support and pre-planning.
In basic terms, there are 8 main elements to a crisis communications plan:
1. Build a crisis management team and agree the team leader.
2. Agree spokespeople and ensure they are appropriately media trained.
3. Identify and outline possible specific and common crisis scenarios.
4. Identify and compile a list of all stakeholders.
5. Establish and monitor alert systems (social media listening, media monitoring).
6. Q&A – anticipate stakeholder questions and draft responses.
7. Create a social media plan (stay true to your brand voice, admit mistakes).
8. Assess risk potential.
It’s not all about media! Some companies will work with a PR agency to develop a crisis communications strategy with a primary focus on media training for the CEO and Directors. This is an important element of any crisis planning exercise but it is by no means the only element. In fact, it will not be as effective if the team has neglected to put the same effort into ensuring internal communications structures are in place. It is only then that accurate information can be disseminated throughout the organisation and all employees are clear on who is responsible for what.
Food companies in particular must ensure they are fully prepared for a range of possible crisis scenarios that can significantly damage their reputation if not handled correctly. From food safety protocols to product recalls, getting access to all of the facts quickly and working together as a team will minimise the fallout allowing you to instigate regular, informed and transparent communications.
Like all crisis scenarios, training can only prepare you so much and when you are faced with a crisis, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. You are up against a ticking clock as media, board members and stakeholders demand answers. As social media is the main source of information for many people, it can be even more stressful as the crisis you are battling to contain can appear online within minutes, often with a myriad of inaccuracies which only adds to the panic and hysteria.
Our top tips in responding to a crisis are:
Remember to stay calm and be proactive not reactive.
Be quick but be factual.
Always identify your experts in every field as part of your planning and ensure they are media trained appropriately.
If you require crisis communications expertise, bring in an external consultant that you know can add value to the team. Ensure they are briefed fully and are aware of the issue at the earliest opportunity. This independent perspective and expertise will guide you through the situation and lighten the load.
Ensure internal communications systems as detailed in your plan are working effectively – share any updates to the crisis communications plan as it happens.
Learn from your experience, evaluate your performance post crisis and adapt the plan and your systems accordingly.
There is no escaping it, developing a crisis communications plan is vital particularly in this digital age. You will never be fully prepared for every eventuality but having the right plan in place will give you the guide you need to respond professionally and with your reputation intact.
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