The Wisdom of Creating a Crisis Communications Plan

It was just another Tuesday morning as I settled in my office. I placed the Starbucks cup on the desk and lifted the phone to answer the day’s first call. On the other end was an Associated Press reporter who anxiously said, “According to our information, your company has an office in the North Tower. Can you tell me the status of your employees?”

Having yet to hear the heartbreaking news of that day, September 11, 2001, I was puzzled and told the reporter I’d call him back. I left the coffee on my desk, where it would remain untouched for the rest of the day, and joined a colleague in the next office who was watching the unfolding events on a portable TV.

I was Director of Communications at a data management software company in Rockville, Maryland. Our largest customer, located in New York City, required frequent on-site visits. So, the company leased a small office on the 79th floor of One World Trade Center, also known as the North Tower.

Heading our communications efforts involved both reaching out to, and receiving questions from the media, but I had never before faced a situation where employees’ lives were in question. With our New York staffs’ well-being unclear and no strategy on how to approach the media, my lifelong lesson in crisis communication began on that horrific day.

The work of a corporate communicator looked quite different in 2001 than it does today. News dissemination was still in the hands of established media companies that produced content on their own terms and timetables. With Facebook’s launch three years away and five years until the first Tweet, organizations could better control the discussion when challenged in the public media about virtually anything, from poor customer service to class action lawsuits.

Today, technology brings us news real-time. It also empowers anyone with a mobile device to create editorial content that can quickly put a company under a spotlight. Often, this content (whether true or not) is shared at lightning speed across social media platforms that are often sourced by long-established media organizations. So, unlike 17 years ago, having a crisis communications plan in hand before an event happens is vital to prevent irreparable damage to a company’s reputation and long-term financial health. A plan also acts as a support for company leadership to lean on while in the midst of a chaotic situation with many unknowns.

As part of its vision to be the partner and platform every enterprise in air travel counts on to succeed, ARC developed and continues to evolve its own detailed crisis communications plan. The plan is not only a blueprint for communicating with the media, but also our customers. If ARC’s business operations are interrupted for any reason, we know the people who depend on us for their business should be alerted first.

When building a crisis communication plan, basic questions are addressed to establish communication protocols that reduce stress so the company can determine an appropriate, but speedy, media outreach. Questions include:

  • Who speaks on behalf of the company?
  • Is the response formulated and approved by a cross-functional pre-set team or one person?
  • Are there prewritten news releases or messages that can be resourced and customized for different situations?

Responses to these and other questions help build a concrete communications infrastructure that supports the distribution of transparent, crisis-related information that fully answers: What happened? What is being done about it? And, what is being done to mitigate the same situation occurring again in the future?

Other aspects of a plan could include identifying specific situations that may pose a public relations challenge. This, of course, depends on the products or services your organization sells or provides. A food manufacturer with a tainted product in the market would require a different communications response than a retail company investigating a data theft. Additionally, the plan should include information about firms that provide the company’s legal, insurance, forensics and other related services that would come into play during a crisis.

Once completed, it’s good practice to keep your crisis communications plan flexible and updated. Changes in the industry, corporate strategy and relevant news events are all good reasons to review and make appropriate modifications. New executive-level members and/or others who are responsible for communications should be briefed on the plan in addition to tabletop exercises that address various emergency scenarios and strengthen confidence if a crisis occurs.

Finally, it’s also important to monitor the media outlets and journalists who currently, or may in the future, cover your organization—whether it’s a well-known website, influential blogger, global news organization or just a small-town paper. Knowing these outlets and journalists can give you a head start as to where and who you need to direct your efforts in the midst of a crisis. It’s also wise to build on-going personal relationships with specific journalists who cover your industry. The trust you build with them will go a long way to help your company receive accurate coverage and provide an open line of engagement during a difficult situation.

So, where to begin? First, there are plenty of resources on the internet including templates, best-practice papers, and even actual plans. If you have a marketing or corporate communications department, call on those resources to guide you through the process. If your organization is large or with potentially complex issues, consider help from a professional public relations firm. They will not only help you create a plan but can assist you in communicating with the media during an actual event.

Today, increased turbulent geopolitics, the spread of fabricated content online and the demand for corporate responses at lightning speed provide more than enough reasons for every organization to have its own crisis communications plan. I know I wish I had one to rely upon on that horrendous day in 2001. It would have been a critical resource as more media probed about our employees’ welfare. In the end, our World Trade Center office was destroyed but the company was spared the loss of human life. Most of our New York City employees were at our client’s site and one, stuck in rush hour traffic, never made it into Manhattan that day.