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Your Crisis Communication Plan: 5 Steps to Prep Now

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When is the best time to prepare for crisis communications? According to the head of Marketing & Communications at EMC Insurance Companies Lisa Hamilton, the best time was months—or even years ago. The second best time: today.

Not the definitive answer you were hoping for, but Linda says some companies implementing a program have great success, while others fall flat. Let’s explore what a stretching program can do and why it may (or may not) work for your employees.

That's because when a crisis occurs, be it a fire or flood, a defective product you've manufactured or bad press about your CEO, you don't want to be caught without a plan.

A crisis is not the time for stammering and stumbling over words or figuring out what to do. You need a plan ready to implement—one that addresses the concerns of all your stakeholders (your employees, your customers, your communities) and the media.

How to Prepare for a Crisis

But how can you figure out detailed responses for any possible future event that might occur? “You can't,” Lisa says. Instead, what you need is “a general philosophy and a framework for handling crisis situations, and that is something you can put in place.”

Her steps in the framework development process include:

1. Gather your team and prep members for their roles

Your first step is to designate a crisis coordinator to get others involved as needed. This may be a professional in your communications department or someone from management. For each crisis, the coordinator will use your framework to pull in a small team of experts to provide the most rapid response. “While you'll train all potential team members in advance, not everyone will be called in for every crisis. You’ll determine, event by event, who needs to be in the room as part of the discussion,” Lisa says. For example, if it's a manufacturing plant problem, your plant manager or facilities manager (or both) should be in the loop. On the other hand, if it's a serious employee issue, human resources and your legal team are key personnel to managing the response. You'll also need to select a spokesperson for media and other communications. Your framework ensures that team members know their roles in advance, such as when they'll be called in, what their role is in the process, and who they report findings to (generally the coordinator and management).

2. Determine who your audience is

This may depend on the crisis, but often the media is first in line asking for a statement or interview. However, don't forget about other key stakeholders, including customers, vendors and your employees. “You owe your employees as much information ASAP,” Lisa says. “Employees are valuable spokespersons for your company, and others outside the company will hear details from them. If they are passing along misinformation from the rumor mill, your company may suffer irreparable damage. And of course, your customers and suppliers will be anxious about what is occurring and the impact on their lives and businesses, too.” Have a plan put together on how you'll communicate with each stakeholder group and how quickly each of these audiences must be notified.

3. Know how to reach key personnel 24/7

Think what might happen if your office is inaccessible due to a fire or flood. This has happened to EMC office buildings several times, Lisa says. In 1993, floods shut down access, electricity and water service to the building and in 2014, a fire in an adjacent building significantly damaged an EMC high-rise building. But EMC was prepared with a plan. For a crisis coordinator and other key personnel, storing information in the cloud is essential, but so is having old-fashioned hard-copy lists. “A tip I received from a long-term employee is to always have a printed copy of critical information with you, in the trunk of your car or some other safe location (not your office). You'll be able to access employees' home and cell phone numbers and email addresses immediately,” Lisa says. Another tip is to include on the list contact information for media sources you may want to call on immediately for help disseminating information.

4. Work quickly

After the coordinator is notified of the crisis, others will be pulled in right away to begin working on a response. You may have only minutes or hours to respond to the first call for details. You'll need to determine the main talking points, which can be updated as more information becomes available. “Don't feel you must have an answer to every question the media asks,” Lisa says, “it's OK to respond with phrases such as 'I don't know,' or 'We'll look in to that and get back to you ASAP,' or even 'No comment' if that is the most appropriate answer.” Your plan may include news releases, a press conference, employee meetings, sending notices to vendors and customers, notifying your other offices and updating your company's social media accounts. Again, these details should be in your plan as options, then determined by your team as the crisis unfolds. Having stock responses in your framework for some potential crises offers a starting point for quickly adding specific details.

5. Monitor results and stay on top of the news

A crisis can affect your company reputation, and for that reason, you must monitor news, especially social media. “Social media spreads news rapidly. That means you need to begin monitoring it immediately and respond just as quickly,” Lisa says, and she shares this tip: Set up a Google alert using key words about your company and the incident, so you are notified of event references quickly. Keep a close eye on your Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts to see what employees, customers and community members are sharing. You may want to hire a monitoring company if don't have the time to monitor internally. If you notice that negative posts and complaints are showing up, take the conversation off-line. Lisa suggests following up by thanking people for contacting your company and providing them with contact information for an employee who can help them. The team member's task will be to follow up quickly to resolve the issue.

One final step. Be sure to review your plan at least once a year to make sure it is still accurate and up to date.

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