One of the unfortunate lessons our nation has learned with the advent of hurricanes, terrorist attacks and other disasters is the importance of being prepared for a crisis. While you can never fully prepare for a crisis, there is simply no excuse for any business – regardless of your size – not to assemble a crisis plan to help guide you through the worst case scenario. As the old adage says, “those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” A crisis plan will serve to guide your firm should the media call you and put you in a reactive position for a variety of scenarios, ranging from layoffs to a disgruntled employee or a controversial building project. With a review of the following, you can take the initial steps in assembling the necessary roadmap to effectively communicate in a crisis.

Assembling the Team
Begin the process of creating a crisis communication plan by collecting a cross-section of your organization, to include someone from accounting, human resources, marketing, facility management and more. You may even consider including your legal counsel either formally as a participant in your meetings or informally through a review meeting once your plan is assembled. Be sure everyone selected for the team recognizes the importance of this committee and its role in helping the organization survive a crisis – no matter how big or small. Obviously, it is crucial that all members be in a position to make decisions, represent their role/division, as well as be available. Don’t make the mistake of putting something on the committee simply because of their title or role in the organization. Even more important, this group should meet frequently so all members are familiar with the other members, their style and preferences should a crisis occur.

Identify the What If Scenarios
With the proper players assembled, your team should identify the possible “what if” scenarios you are likely to encounter. To get the conversation moving, discuss the potential activities that could result in sudden and unexpected disruptions to your business including scenarios that:
1) Interrupt normal operations
2) Require an immediate, coordinated management response
3) Are likely to require decision-making actions at the highest levels of the company
4) Involve notification of agencies, neighborhoods or other outside parties
5) Have the potential to attract extensive news media and public attention to the company, its products or operations.

Be sure to look outside your own internal organization with regards to the potential scenarios as a potential crisis could arrive from news relating to your customers, market, communities served, economy and more.

After brainstorming the potential scenarios, assemble action plans for the scenarios, to include a detailed list of who to call for what and when. Establish a chain of command, recognizing that it may make sense to alter the day-to-day hierarchy as successful execution of this plan requires different skills and objectives. This action plan should be reviewed periodically and updated, especially when your firm enters a new market, secures a high-profile project, or changes substantially in any fashion. In addition to requiring all members of the team to keep a copy of the most recent plan at their residence, be sure to keep copies of the plan in numerous other off-site locations in case of disaster at your corporate headquarters.

Who should talk to the media?
Contrary to popular belief, the highest ranking official at your company is not necessarily the best person to be your corporate spokesperson. Regardless of whether or not he or she is a polished speaker, the appropriate person should not be the highest employee in the organization since that leaves nobody to clean up any blunders or media mishaps. For example, if your president says something out of turn or disseminates the wrong information, there is nobody to retract or set the record straight. Obviously, there are several exceptions to this rule and it is often appropriate for a president to comment on, for example, an employee death due to a jobsite accident. However, such remarks should be confined to condolences to the family while the cause and explanation should be delivered from someone lower in the company in case controversy surrounding the comments arise. The ideal person should have a high enough title and position in the company to command the respect necessary to serve as a credible source; however, his/her role would allow them to say they don’t know the answer to something.

Media coaching and training for the spokesperson should be identified as a crucial element of your plan. A media coach will help your spokesperson learn what to say and not say, how to respond to questions, how to work with the media and more.

What are You Willing to Say?
By clearly identifying what you are willing to disseminate as a general policy, you will be able to respond to a crisis in a much more effective manner. As a general rule, privately-held companies should be willing and prepared to disclose anything publicly announced, information on products/services active in the marketplace, items of local interest, facts – such as corporate employee figure (in round numbers), as well as policies and practices that are well-established. However, a privately-held company should not be expected to answer questions regarding financial projections, operating results, market share, marketing strategy, products under development, legal matters and upcoming changes.  That does not, however, preclude the media from asking about these matters. Document the answers to standard corporate facts to ensure they are readily available.

Announcing the Plan
Once the plan is assembled, it is important to announce the chain of command and procedures internally. The best developed communications plans can fail if proper attention is not given to communicating with your people. Communication is key to diffusing the rumor mill or sabatoge through information leakage by an employee. It is important to saturate employees and other stakeholders with news and information. Be sure to be forthright and honest and help them understand what you know and don’t know. This overlooked step often results in the best plans getting thrown off-track simply because the receptionist mistakenly provided too much or wrong information to a reporter. As such, make sure your front-line employees are made aware of the policies and procedures, as well as appropriate contacts, regarding the media so they aren’t caught off-guard.

Putting the Plan to Good Use
Crisis communication is just one element of a public relations program. While crucial to surviving a crisis or challenge, the documented contact list, policies regarding data dissemination, as well as identification of key contacts and spokesperson(s) can also be used as a proactive tactic in sharing positive information about your firm. Avoid the trap of using your communications committee merely for reactive tactics by also seeking input on positive ways to communicate corporate information to the community and the industry. Ideas include highlighting community sponsorship and participation in charity events or other causes, new hires, corporate anniversaries and functions, speaking engagements, new technology and comments on trends. This effort also will serve to build a solid working team in proactive, not merely reactive, crisis scenarios.