The Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State University defines crisis communications in a very straightforward way.
“Crisis communications can be defined broadly as the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation.”
For communications professionals caught in a crisis, however, there is often nothing straightforward about it. And for those operating in a crisis without a fully formed, well-thought-out crisis communications plan, the results for the organizations they represent range from embarrassing to catastrophic.
So, if you are a communications professional and are currently without a crisis communications plan, the time to start crafting one is now. Not one day when your workload lightens, but as soon as you can. If you wait to feel the urgency because now it’s time to act, you’re way too late.
Crisis communications plans are, at their core, highly detailed road maps designed to take you from the beginning of the crisis to its conclusion. A well-written plan consists of five core components:
- A thorough accounting of the internal process for developing and approving messaging
- A compendium of core messages that can be used in any situation and modified to reflect the crisis at hand
- A rundown of each potential audience during a crisis and the preferred controlled media method to reach them
- Identification of the proper spokespeople for each possible audience
- Contingency planning—essentially creating potential Plan B’s and even C’s
In every crisis communications plan, the organization must outline measurable objectives in the development and distribution of timely, accurate, and relevant information to a variety of audiences. Organizations that have a fundraising component need to plan for the best way to contact donors, especially those who have an outsized impact on the organization’s success. In many cases, having the right person pick up the phone, answer an email, or respond to a post can save the day.
Contingency planning, the fifth component, is the hardest to develop. By their very nature, crises are unpredictable and having worked through a particular type of crisis may not prepare you for the next one. Contingency planning is best thought through in broad categories. For example:
- Natural disasters: How will you communicate without power, cell service, and the rest of modern infrastructure?
- Leadership involvement: If you’ve counted on the president to speak to a crisis, what do you do if (s)he is at the heart of the issue?
- Fluid situations: How will you respond if early information is proven incorrect?
In the end, if you are a communications professional, your organization is counting on you to help see it through a crisis. You must be clear-eyed in your assessments, in control of the process, and nimble and timely in all of your messaging. Development communicators should be particularly mindful of donors and monitor their reaction and respond as quickly as necessary.
Finally, communicators in the middle of a crisis must act with humility and be inexhaustible. All crises do eventually come to an end. A well-prepared communicator will be able to see the organization safely through to the other side.
At BWF, we have over 25 years of experience developing and implementing crisis communications plans. We’d welcome the opportunity to help you with yours. Contact Jay Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.