A crisis communication plan has three phases that consist of planning for, responding to, and assessing methods. It is a strategy for companies’ communications teams to respond to events that attract negative media attention. Media crises that may impact a company’s reputation and require an immediate response from communications teams can range from criticisms of a company’s products or services to executive scandals.

Why is a Crisis Communication Plan Important?

A crisis communication plan is important because it can enable the effective flow of information between a company and its stakeholders. It can also provide direction for the communications team in responding to negative media coverage. The communications department plays an integral role in managing a company’s image when a crisis has occurred and operating from a predetermined plan can improve your team’s response time.

Elements of a Crisis Communication Plan

Each phase has important steps when developing a plan that can promote trust between you and your stakeholders and reduce reputational damage to your company. It also makes it easier for the communications team to remedy any situation that may have a negative impact on the organization’s reputation or brand.

  1. Build your crisis communications team
  2. Develop scenario-specific strategies
  3. Develop and deliver your message
  4. Monitor the impact of your message
  5. Evaluate your methods
  6. Continue to monitor the industry 

Pre-Crisis: Planning Phase

The planning phase is an in-depth preparation to consider all the logistics involved in a communications crisis. If the foundation of your plan is not established, the repercussions could be significant. For example, without a plan in place, your communications team’s response could be delayed, thus there may be more negative press accumulating while the team formulates a plan of action. During this phase, building a crisis communications team and developing scenario-specific strategies are important parts to ensure your team is sufficiently prepared.

Build Your Crisis Communications Team

The team should have representatives from various departments across the company. By building a team with representatives from multiple departments – such as finance, sales, legal, and customer service – you can ensure that your plan will address every aspect of company operation that could be impacted. Though some departments may not be affected, their representatives can offer insight to help mitigate damage and develop a response that addresses the full spectrum of stakeholder needs.

When a team is built, a single member acts as the designated spokesperson responsible for disseminating the company’s key messages. The most effective spokesperson is often a high-ranking member of the department who demonstrates likeability and professionalism and is skilled at building trust. The spokesperson should be provided with relevant training during the planning phase to ensure they are prepared to act once a crisis occurs. 

Develop Scenario-Specific Strategies

Having multiple responses ready that are specific to a variety of scenarios is crucial during preparation. For instance, an executive scandal would likely require a different communications response from a product recall. 

In 2019, McDonald’s responded to the scandal implicating their former CEO, Steve Easterbrook, by severing ties with the executive and issuing public statements that condoned his behavior. However, this response does not apply to all communications crises as some will implicate the company rather than a single individual. For this reason, you will benefit from having alternative, scenario-specific strategies prepared. 

One of the most effective methods for developing situation-appropriate responses is to look to the experiences of your competitors. By actively researching and analyzing your competitors’ media coverage and response impact, companies can create data-driven response plans.

During the Crisis: Response Phase

It is not always possible to predict when a communications crisis will occur, but with proper planning your team is always ready to respond. Your team knows their roles and you have strategies for the most likely scenarios; Implementation is the most appropriate plan of action and designing a message to address the issue at hand. 

Develop and Deliver Your Message

Developing and disseminating an appropriate message helps responding in a timely manner. Your response should be one of the earliest messages out there, or else you risk losing control of the narrative. Get your team together, evaluate the facts that are available to you at the time, and decide how your company will respond. Deliver a single, unified message, as conflicting messages can lead to doubts about the credibility of your message and spokespeople. 

Once you have decided on your message, nominated a spokesperson, and issued a press release, begin reaching out to the authors and media outlets that have positively covered your company in the past. By utilizing media influencers, you can amplify your company’s message and reach a larger audience.

Monitor the Impact of Your Message

Monitoring the performance and impact on the crisis narrative of your message is key. Some metrics to consider measuring are:

  1. Key message penetration: track the volume of your company’s media coverage related to the situation to evaluate the impact of your messaging.
  2. Outlets: track to see if your message is being picked up by media outlets or journalists that are important to your brand
  3. Social media sharing: monitor how far both the initial crisis is being shared and how much your response is being seen.
  4. Sentiment: assess whether a spike in coverage is positive or negative to determine whether your message is changing minds.

Tracking all these together will give you a holistic view of how your message is performing, allowing you to assess and adjust accordingly.

After the Crisis: Assessment Phase

By evaluating and continuously monitoring your industry, you can better prepare for the future and improve your company response.

Evaluate Your Methods

Review your response and its impact. Identifying what worked as well as areas for improvement will pay dividends for the future. For example, Chipotle was the center of a major E. coli outbreak in 2015. They responded defensively, by outlining the company’s improvements to food safety protocol and explaining that the real number of E. coli cases was marginally lower than the number reported. However, this did not stop their reputation and stock price from falling significantly. 

Since their response was poorly received, they examined their internal process and adjusted their approach to a later crisis. In 2018, one Chipotle location was reported for selling contaminated food. This time, however, the company closed the offending location, extended a promotion to all other locations world-wide, and announced a number of new menu items. As a result, Chipotle’s stock prices rose, and the E. coli incident flew under the radar for many consumers.

Continue to Monitor the Industry

Continuing to track your industry and cultural changes over time can impact the effectiveness of your response. Crisis communication planning is a cycle, and should be routinely reassessed, evaluated, and modified according to the industry and social climate. 

Develop a Data-Driven Strategy

A crisis communication plan should be part of your wider communications strategy to safeguard your company’s reputation in the face of public relations crises. By monitoring industry trends, measuring your campaigns, and tracking competitors, you can develop a data-driven strategy that will prepare you for any communications crisis.

At PublicRelay, we use a combination of artificial intelligence and human analysis to draw actionable insights from your media coverage. Click here to elevate your media monitoring into media intelligence today!

The editorial team at PublicRelay contributed to writing this blog.

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