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What every business needs – A crisis communications plan

There’s no shortage of chatter regarding the coronavirus, so I’ve decided to take a different tone with this blog. Before I do that, I want to throw out one last reminder about the resources we have available for small to medium-sized businesses that are transitioning to a virtual work environment as a result of the current circumstances. You can check them out here.

Back to this week’s blog, ‘What every business needs – A crisis communications plan’. Let’s start off by defining what this is. A crisis communications plan is a set of defined guidelines and communications activities that will be used proactively to address unplanned events or circumstances that can negatively impact your business. These can be anything from a sexual harassment lawsuit, weather-related incidents, fires, data breach or fraud.

In today’s world, it’s not acceptable to remain quiet or avoid addressing crises when they occur. In fact, doing so can have irreparable damages to your business and reputation. Many state that your business reputation is the single most important aspect of your business. Why? Having a strong reputation not only attracts talent, but it also helps to facilitate growth as it is an indicator of trust from your customers and partners. On the flip side, having a negative reputation can directly impact your bottom line. A great example of this the Sultan of Brunei, who owns many luxury hotels around the world including the Beverly Hills Hotel. News of his decision to introduce Islamic, or Shariah laws, in his country resulted in several celebrities like Elton John and Ellen De Generes boycotting his hotels which cost him millions of dollars.

There’s also Lululemon Athletica, whose founder Chip Wilson said in a Bloomberg TV interview that the problems reported from customers regarding their sheer and transparent yoga pants were simply because ‘"Quite frankly, some women's bodies just actually don't work for it," he said. "It's really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there." Their stock immediately dropped 44%, he withdrew from the daily management of the company and became a non-executive chairman. Shortly thereafter he resigned and sold half his stakes to a private equity firm.

Most recently there’s the story of the demise of WeWork. I won’t bore you with the details, but I do invite you to read my blog about it here.

Needless to say, a businesses’ reputation is incredibly important making it crucial for you to do what you can to protect it. Whether your business is big or small, the development of a comprehensive crisis communications plan can be the difference between survival and failure.

Here’s what you need to know to get started. 1. Create a business continuity team that will have representation from areas including human resources, operations and communications.

Having a diverse team of individuals working together with specialties in areas like human resources, operations and communications helps to ensure that every part of the business is covered. Collectively this group can develop a plan of activities that are aligned across all areas of the business. During a crisis, it’s important that everyone is aware of what the other groups are planning, that all activities are aligned and that the plan is also taking into consideration the impacts it may have on another part of the business.

2. Collate a list of anticipated crises that can impact your business.

This is activity will vary from business to business depending on the types of services and products you provide. Before joining Harbinger, I worked at an insurance company where some of the crisis anticipated were weather-related, fraud, data leaks, and reputational issues like sexual harassment.

For consulting firms like ours, some crises that come to mind would be data leaks, a personnel issue where an employee may be involved with something unethical within their personal or work life, or if an associated client or vendor is experiencing a crisis themselves.

3. Develop holding statements and key messages.

Once you have collected and agreed to the most likely crises, the communications team or communications representative will then be responsible for developing holding statements and key messages. A holding statement is the first message or announcement that is shared following the incident. It simply states the facts and lets people know that the situation is being monitored and that more details will follow. Please note that the holding statement should be released ideally within 15 minutes of the incident.

The key messages are the main points that you want your audiences to know. There will be overarching key messages, as well as, targeted key messages for specific audiences like shareholders, employees, vendors and the public.

Once the holding messages and key messages have been developed, they should be reviewed and approved by the business continuity team, legal and some members of the executive team.

4. Select and media train your spokespeople.

Your spokesperson or spokespeople will vary depending on the situation, and for the most part, should be a member of the executive or senior leadership team. The public and employees will be looking for them to make the statements and lead the crisis. In some circumstances, the spokesperson will be your most senior communications team member.

An ideal spokesperson will elude confidence, show empathy, have strong body language and be personable. They will leverage the key messages but should also be able to relay them in their own words.

Finally, all spokespeople should be media trained. This is typically done by a public relations or communications firm. During the media training, the individuals will be completing a scenario where they will have to address questions. The media trainers will evaluate their responses including body language and will let you know whether they recommend using them as a spokesperson or not.

5. Ensure you are covering all your bases and leveraging all communications channels including social media.

As soon as a crisis hits, people will go searching for information and it’s important that the information they find is from a credible source – you.

At one of my crisis communications training sessions, we completed a scenario where an airplane caught on fire on the tarmac. As you can expect, people within the airport started to post images and commentary on the incident on various social media channels like Twitter. One of these individuals was someone who worked at Google but was not on the plane. This individual shared a tweet that stated it appeared everyone was fine. This was not the case but spread like wildfire because there were no spokespeople available for journalists to contact and no holding statements were released in a timely manner. They naturally shared his updates because he came from a well-known brand. This is not what you want.

To avoid this, get your holding statement out as soon as possible on all of your communications channels such as your website, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and call centre voicemails. Another thing to consider is to update your branding on your channels to let them know you are in crisis mode. Some companies update their logos or change the backgrounds and banners.

6. Agree to a decision-making process.

In a crisis situation, things escalate quickly. This is why it’s helpful to have a clear decision-making process. Decide who will make the final call, who will be the back-up if the primary decision-maker is not available, and clearly define what the process required for decisions is in your plan.

7. Complete annual reviews of your crisis communications plan to ensure it remains relevant and covers all the bases.

Things change and businesses need to adapt to these changes making it important to keep your plan up-to-date. Some of the things that you should keep in mind are updating contact lists, your list of potential crises and holding messages.

8. Reporting and analytics.

Data is gold. Keep track of all activities taking place during your crisis if you can. Were there communications channels that worked better than others? How did the public react to your spokesperson? How much media coverage was received during the crisis? Were there any trends or themes found in the stories reported or the comments received on your social media channels?

All of these insights will help you to understand what’s working, and areas of opportunity for the next iteration of your crisis communications plan. Also, don’t forget to share these insights with the business continuity and executive team.

9. Post crises activities including risk assessments and updates to business processes.

Once the crisis is done, there are a number of follow-up activities that need to take place including a risk assessment and updates to business processes. While the crisis communications plan does not include completing a risk assessment or determining what the updates to businesses are, it will include communications activities on how the outputs or changes will be shared with employees and other stakeholders.

10. Debrief.

You should follow the same processes as other projects, including holding a lesson’s learned session. Getting everyone involved in a room together to discuss what communications activities should stop, start and continue will be invaluable and helps to better prepare for future crises that may occur.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider when developing a crisis communications plan. Creating a comprehensive plan takes a lot of time and effort and should not be rushed! This is an important tool to have in the back pocket for all businesses as there are many things that are out of our control. You can never predict when a crisis will occur.

I hope that you have found this information useful, and invite you to download our communications plan template here. This template is primarily used for projects, however, it can easily be adapted for a crisis communications plan.

I would also recommend checking out these credible resources and articles for more information on crisis communications management:

- International Association of Business Communicators: ‘When a crisis strikes: How to develop a crisis communications plan’

And if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at



Siri Maldonado

Director Marketing & Communications




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