Crisis Communications: 10 Steps for Building an Effective Plan



Posted: In: Blogs PR Education

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Social media has fundamentally changed how people communicate in times of crisis. Just this month, victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma used social media to communicate with first responders, know where gas was available and follow emergency updates. This month, the Wall Street Journal outlined dozens of ways social sites and apps are being utilized during a crisis.

For brands, however, this rapid-response, multi-channel crisis storm can produce scary challenges: a situation that once took weeks to unfold can now grow into a crisis in a matter of hours. Getting approved responses and researching a situation takes time and can often be delivered too late. However, with careful planning and structure, you can put together an effective crisis communications plan that allows you to move quickly and avoid key pitfalls.

Here are 10 steps for building an effective crisis communications plan:
  1. Watch & Listen to Trends. It is vitally important to have media and social monitoring tools in place with regularly alerting so that you know immediately when news hits and a crisis starts to bubble to the surface. In addition to monitoring, however, new technologies now allow us to aggregate content and identify trends – without reading every article and tweet. Think of your monitoring and measurement tools as your early warning system that will activate your crisis communications strategy.
  2. Identify Who is Responsible for Listening and When. Are you covered on weekends and off hours? Notifications from monitoring and measurement tools can help you with 24/7 coverage. Establish an Escalation Protocol. Once a PR manager or social media manager identifies a potential crisis, it is important to know the next steps to take. Map out what is and isn’t a crisis, who needs to be alerted and who should respond.
  3. Acknowledge the Situation. It is tempting to ‘go dark’ while you investigate a crisis, however, those who are listening are checking your site and looking for your response. It is important to acknowledge the situation and say “We are aware…” even if you don’t have an official response to the situation. Promise that a response is coming.
  4. If Necessary, Apologize. This is the scary one. Apologizing in a time of crisis can lead to legal concerns. If you are nervous about whether you can actually apologize, at least say “I’m sorry for the emotion.” Check out how Boingo CEO Dave Hagan quickly addressed an email campaign error on the Boingo blog with an apology, diffusing the situation before it became a crisis.
  5. Create a Hub. Whether it’s your blog, your LinkedIn page, a landing page on your website or a pre-prepared dark site, consumers are looking to you to be the source of truth. Have a hub that you can point people to during a crisis where they can find your official responses and information. If you don’t have a hub of truth, consumers will turn to other sources (which may be inaccurate) for information.
  6. If Consumers are Angry, Create a Place to Vent. Whether it’s on one of your social handles, on your landing site or on your blog, providing a place to vent can control the situation and allow you to have a voice in responding. During the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State issued an apology on their Facebook page and provided a place for people to share their thoughts, giving Penn State the opportunity to respond:
  7. Take Your Third Reply Offline. When responding in times of crisis, conversations can continue as you respond to articles and social posts, and people begin responding. To avoid the crisis escalating, it is important to take the conversation offline after two responses. Know how you will take conversations offline – Will you reach out via email or phone? Who will respond?
  8. Empower Your Employees and Advocates. Whether you like it or not, in times of crisis, people will reach out to your employees, influencers, and advocates. Arm them with information and let them know when to escalate to others. Dell has trained over 10,000 employees on social media through their Technology Solutions Training Portal. Preparing your employees ahead of time can help you share information and avoid rogue responses during a crisis.
  9. Track Results and Establish Takeaways. Using your media monitoring and analysis tools, track metrics in real-time and report on progress. After a crisis has passed, ask yourself, how did we do? What can be done differently in the future?
  10. Iterate and Adjust. Rarely does an organization handle every aspect of a crisis perfectly. After a crisis and once you have established takeaways, adjust your protocols and measurements for the future.

A crisis can be one of the most difficult situations in a communications professional’s career. Crisis preparedness and internal education can aid you before a crisis hits, and having the right monitoring and measurement tools in place for your crisis communications plan can provide you the insights you need throughout an incident.