Christina Stephens knows crisis communication: Her background includes time at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the Department of Health and Hospitals. She’s managed communications during hurricanes, an oil spill and a brain-eating amoeba scare.
She’s now senior public relations manager at Covalent Logic, and she says every company should have a crisis communication plan in place. “If your crisis communications plan isn’t written down, then you don’t really have one,” she says. Here’s what it needs to to contain.
Understanding of Stakeholders
Start by outlining your internal and external stakeholder groups, she says. What issues interest them? What channels are best for sharing information with them quickly? As part of this step, identify media spokespeople within the organization and provide them with media training.
You know what your own worst-case scenarios are, so outline “predictable” crises for your business and write mini plans for them, she says. Having sample messages to draw from can be useful. “At the state agency level during a disaster, we reused a lot of messaging from previous years or disasters, adding in updated information about evacuation routes or other incident-specific things.”
A 360-Degree Perspective
Get voices from outside the PR and marketing team to add their perspective on any crisis plan. They may be able to chime in on communications issues or any company or legal directives that would affect how you communicate during a crisis, she says. Consider bringing in a third party to help facilitate these conversations or organize your planning.
Make sure everyone on your team knows what their role is during a disaster. “When I’d see a hurricane coming when I worked for the state, I would let everyone I would be working with know that something could be coming and they should be monitoring their phones and email after hours in case we needed them,” she says. “Don’t assume people know what is expected. Tell them what they need to do.”
A Sense of Urgency
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make in a crisis is that they wait too long to begin communicating about a problem, which means they are constantly playing catch up, she says. “You cannot just hope and wish a problem away. You have to be ready to jump on a crisis as soon as you see it coming – not after it has already hit.”
A Sense of Authenticity
Don’t try to sugarcoat a crisis — it comes across as insincere. “Every statement or message you issue doesn’t have to show the silver lining of what is happening,” she says. “It’s disingenuous and fake, and the public can see through this. In the long run, I think people appreciate you being authentic and straightforward.”
Keep notes throughout your crises and refer to them the next time things turn bad. Christina also recommends holding “after action” reviews after incidents. “We learned a lot from each other about how to improve our response the next time,” she says.