Business Guide to Crisis Communication

Crisis communication is much more complex than many SMBs may realize. Effective communication should begin before the crisis and extend to long after the event is over. It also includes more than company leadership: You should be communicating appropriately with employees, business partners, consumers and even the general public.

Get some crisis communication tips and find out why this process is so important to businesses of all sizes below.

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What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication refers to the messaging—and all the tools and people needed to manage it—an organization engages in related to a crisis.

Any time your business, bottom-line or brand reputation is potentially endangered, it’s a crisis. Here are a few examples of situations that might require crisis communication processes:

  • A hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster
  • A pandemic
  • A cyberattack
  • A general hit to your brand reputation, including a potential scandal or a major social media marketing faux pas
  • An error or other issue that leads to a major product recall

What are the three stages of crisis?

Most crises involve three stages. Crisis communication is important in all of them. The stages include:

  1. Pre-crisis. If you’re not in stage 2 or 3, you’re in stage 1. Companies must always assume that a crisis is possible and plan for it ahead of time. That includes engaging in prevention measures to minimize risks and developing a business continuity plan to help ensure you can support business processes and customers as much as possible during a crisis and recover as quickly as possible after.
  2. Crisis response. This stage occurs when the crisis is upon the organization. Consider the example of a hurricane: Pre-crisis stages occur outside of hurricane season and during hurricane season when no threat is present. As soon as a hurricane is imminent for the organization’s location, the crisis response stage begins. It lasts until after the dangers of the hurricane—including residual effects from power outages, flood and downed trees—have passed. During this time, the organization must put its crisis plan into action.
  3. Post-crisis. After the crisis, the organization begins to return to normal processes. Teams might also consider what happened during the crisis and whether lessons can be learned to improve crisis plans and communication in the future.

Why is crisis communication important?

Crisis communication provides a number of important benefits to organizations during all stages. Here are some of the biggest benefits effective crisis communication can bring to a business.

  • Increased safety. Crisis communication helps everyone involved in and with your organization stay safer during a crisis. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic: Organizations that communicated well were better able to keep employees and customers safe by controlling traffic in common areas, supporting social distancing and ensuring everyone had the right PPE.
  • Protection for the brand. Honest, proactive communication helps protect your brand and drive consumer loyalty. For example, if an unfortunate situation has occurred and an executive in your business has been accused of a crime, your PR team might have two overall choices. They can get ahead of the story with good crisis communication or allow the media to develop the tone of the story on its own.
  • Reduction of panic and misinformation. Whatever the issue, communicating it early and appropriately to employees, business partners and consumers can help stave off panic and keep people from acting on misinformation. That helps maintain levels of productivity on your teams, reduce panic buying or selling and protect your relationships with vendors or consumers.
  • Provide a plan everyone can follow. Strong crisis communication involves directives for every employee within your organization. By working ahead of time to create a communication plan that connects every dot, you ensure each person knows what to do during a crisis.
  • Reduce recovery time. All of the above benefits help reduce your organization’s recovery time after a crisis, which helps keep crisis costs lower while getting back to normal revenues as soon as possible after an event.

Steps for developing a crisis communication plan

Organizations should avoid making up crisis responses—including communication—in the middle of the action.

You can’t stop and consider all the ramifications within a crisis. Creating the plan ahead of time lets you do the hard work and decision-making when you have time to research, consult and consider. Then, in the middle of the crisis, people don’t have to do any of that. They can simply act quickly by following the plan that’s already laid out.

Here are some crisis communication tips and steps for developing such a plan.

  1. Identify potential crises. Gather a group of subject-matter experts and leadership and identify the potential crises your business could face. Sort them into categories so you can create plans to address each type.
  2. Create disaster response plans. What does each part of your organization need to do in the event of one of these disasters? Your plan should include communication between people within the organization as well as communication to the public, customers and business partners.
  3. Identity crisis communication teams. Decide who will do the communicating during the crisis. Having one or a few people handle exterior communication is important in keeping messaging consistent and appropriate. Train other employees to direct media and other outside inquiries to those spokespeople.
  4. Choose spokespersons. You might have more than one spokesperson depending on your organization. For example, you might have someone to address technical aspects of the crisis while someone else addresses customer-service aspects—though these people should work together to ensure consistency.
  5. Create overall messaging. Develop messaging and messaging guidelines. It might help to write scripts for team members who handle customer or other calls. While you may create guidelines for spokespeople, they don’t necessarily need inflexible scripts like the ones CSRs might benefit from. Ensure you’re hiring experienced PR pros so they can handle themselves in the spotlight.
  6. Develop systems for crisis notification. Create processes and develop technical tools to ensure people are notified of a crisis and important crisis communication in real time or as soon as possible.
  7. Update plans periodically. Review your crisis response and communication plans once a year or so and update them appropriately. Your needs will change as your business evolves and grows.

How do you start a crisis communication team?

The process of crisis communication begins with creating a team of people responsible for planning and executing on this messaging. Once you understand what crises you might face and what actions the business may need to take to respond to them, you can begin creating a team.

Start by understanding the roles and responsibilities of the team so you can choose the right people. Consult with leadership, SMEs and PR professionals to understand who might need to be on the team. Then, invite them to a meeting to discuss the team and make plans for potential future crises. Even when a crisis isn’t looming, consider having quarterly or annual meetings so the team can touch base, new members can be brought up to speed and updates can be made to plans.

Who should be on a crisis communication team?

Who you need or might want on your crisis team depends on the type and size of your organization. Some common choices for crisis communication teams include:

  • A CEO, COO or other high-ranking executive with plenty of decision-making power
  • A director of PR and other relevant PR professionals
  • VPs, directors or other leadership from critical infrastructure departments such as tech, sales, customer service, HR and finance
  • Safety, security or compliance officers
  • SMEs to provide input about day-to-day processes or concerns relevant to planning
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