Crisis Communications Plan
When an emergency occurs, the need to communicate is immediate. If business operations are disrupted, customers will want to know how they will be impacted. Regulators may need to be notified and local government officials will want to know what is going on in their community. Employees and their families will be concerned and want information. Neighbors living near the facility may need information—especially if they are threatened by the incident. All of these “audiences” will want information before the business has a chance to begin communicating.
An important component of the preparedness program is the crisis communications plan. A business must be able to respond promptly, accurately and confidently during an emergency in the hours and days that follow. Many different audiences must be reached with information specific to their interests and needs. The image of the business can be positively or negatively impacted by public perceptions of the handling of the incident.
This step of Ready Business provides direction for developing a crisis communications plan. Understanding potential audiences is key, as each audience wants to know: “How does it affect me?” Guidance for scripting messages that are specific to the interests of the audience is another element of the plan. The Contact & Information Center tab explains how to use existing resources to gather and disseminate information during and following an incident.
Understanding the audiences that a business needs to reach during an emergency is one of the first steps in the development of a crisis communications plan. There are many potential audiences that will want information during and following an incident and each has its own needs for information. The challenge is to identify potential audiences, determine their need for information and then identify who within the business is best able to communicate with that audience.
The following is a list of potential audiences.
- Survivors impacted by the incident and their families
- Employees and their families
- News media
- Community—especially neighbors living near the facility
- Company management, directors and investors
- Government elected officials, regulators and other authorities
Contact information for each audience should be compiled and immediately accessible during an incident. Existing information such as customer, supplier and employee contact information may be exportable from existing databases. Include as much information for each contact as possible (e.g., organization name, contact name, business telephone number, cell number, fax number and email address). Lists should be updated regularly, secured to protect confidential information and available to authorized users at the emergency operations center or an alternate location for use by members of the crisis communications team. Electronic lists can also be hosted on a secure server for remote access with a web browser. Hard copies of lists should also be available at the alternate location.
Customers are the life of a business, so contact with customers is a top priority. Customers may become aware of a problem as soon as their phone calls are not answered or their electronic orders are not processed. The business continuity plan should include action to redirect incoming telephone calls to a second call center (if available) or to a voice message indicating that the business is experiencing a temporary problem. The business continuity plan should also include procedures to ensure that customers are properly informed about the status of orders in process at the time of the incident.
Customer service or sales staff normally assigned to work with customers should be assigned to communicate with customers if there is an incident. If there are a lot of customers, then the list should be prioritized to reach the most important customers first.
The crisis communication or business continuity plan should include documented procedures for notification of suppliers. The procedures should identify when and how they should be notified.
Protocols for when to notify management should be clearly understood and documented. Consider events that occur on a holiday weekend or in the middle of the night. It should be clear to staff what situations require immediate notification of management regardless of the time of day. Similar protocols and procedures should be established for notification of directors, investors and other important stakeholders. Management does not want to learn about a problem from the news media.
Government Officials & Regulators
Communications with government officials depends upon the nature and severity of the incident and regulatory requirements. Businesses that fail to notify a regulator within the prescribed time risk incurring a fine. OSHA regulations require notification to OSHA when there are three or more hospitalizations from an accident or if there is a fatality. Environmental regulations require notification if there is chemical spill or release that exceeds threshold quantities. Other regulators may need to be notified if there is an incident involving product tampering, contamination or quality. Notification requirements specified in regulations should be documented in the crisis communications plan.
A major incident in the community will capture the attention of elected officials. A senior manager should be assigned to communicate with elected officials and public safety officials.
Employees, Victims and Their Families
Human Resources (HR) is responsible for the day-to-day communications with employees regarding employment issues and benefits administration. HR management should assume a similar role on the crisis communications team. HR should coordinate communications with management, supervisors, employees and families. HR should also coordinate communications with those involved with the care of employees and the provision of benefits to employees and their families. Close coordination between management, company spokesperson, public agencies and HR is needed when managing the sensitive nature of communications related to an incident involving death or serious injury.
If there are hazards at a facility that could impact the surrounding community, then the community becomes an important audience. If so, community outreach should be part of the crisis communications plan. The plan should include coordination with public safety officials to develop protocols and procedures for advising the public of any hazards and the most appropriate protective action that should be taken if warned.
If the incident is serious, then the news media will be on scene or calling to obtain details. There may be numerous requests for information from local, regional or national media. The challenge of managing large numbers of requests for information, interviews and public statements can be overwhelming. Prioritization of requests for information and development of press releases and talking points can assist with the need to communicate quickly and effectively.
Develop a company policy that only authorized spokespersons are permitted to speak to the news media. Communicate the policy to all employees explaining that it is best to speak with one informed voice.
Determine in advance who will speak to the news media and prepare that spokesperson with talking points, so they can speak clearly and effectively in terms that can be easily understood.
During and following an incident, each audience will seek information that is specific to them. “How does the incident affect my order, job, safety, community…?” These questions need to be answered when communicating with each audience.
After identifying the audiences and the spokesperson assigned to communicate with each audience, the next step is to script messages. Writing messages during an incident can be challenging due to the pressure caused by “too much to do” and “too little time.” Therefore, it is best to script message templates in advance if possible.
Pre-scripted messages should be prepared using information developed during the risk assessment. The risk assessment process should identify scenarios that would require communications with stakeholders. There may be many different scenarios but the need for communications will relate more to the impacts or potential impacts of an incident:
- accidents that injure employees or others
- property damage to company facilities
- liability associated injury to or damage sustained by others
- production or service interruptions
- chemical spills or releases with potential off-site consequences, including environmental
- product quality issues
Messages should be scripted to address the specific needs of each audience, which may include:
Customer - “When will I receive my order?” “What will you give me to compensate for the delay?”
Employee - “When should I report to work?” “Will I have a job?” “Will I get paid during the shutdown or can I collect unemployment?” “What happened to my co-worker?” “What are you going to do to address my safety?” “Is it safe to go back to work?”
Government Regulator - “When did it happen?” “What happened (details about the incident)?” “What are the impacts (injuries, deaths, environmental contamination, safety of consumers, etc.)?”
Elected Official - “What is the impact on the community (hazards and economy)?” “How many employees will be affected?” “When will you be back up and running?”
Suppliers - “When should we resume deliveries and where should we ship to?”
Management - “What happened?” “When did it happen?” “Was anyone injured?” “How bad is the property damage?” “How long do you think production will be down?”
Neighbors in the Community - “How can I be sure it’s safe to go outside?” “What are you going to do to prevent this from happening again?” “How do I get paid for the loss I incurred?”
News Media - “What happened?” “Who was injured?” “What is the estimated loss?” “What caused the incident?” “What are you going to do to prevent it from happening again?” “Who is responsible?”
Messages can be pre-scripted as templates with blanks to be filled in when needed. Pre-scripted messages can be developed, approved by the management team and stored on a remotely accessible server for quick editing and release when needed.
Another important element of the crisis communications plan is the need to coordinate the release of information. When there is an emergency or a major impact on the business, there may be limited information about the incident or its potential impacts. The “story” may change many times as new information becomes available.
One of the aims of the crisis communication plan is to ensure consistency of message. If you tell one audience one story and another audience a different story, it will raise questions of competency and credibility. Protocols need to be established to ensure that the core of each message is consistent while addressing the specific questions from each audience.
Another important goal of the crisis communications plan is to move from reacting to the incident, to managing a strategy, to overcome the incident. Management needs to develop the strategy and the crisis communications team needs to implement that strategy by allaying the concerns of each audience and positioning the organization to emerge from the incident with its reputation intact.
Contact & Information Centers
Communications before, during and following an emergency is bi-directional. Stakeholders or audiences will ask questions and request information. The business will answer questions and provide information. This flow of information should be managed through a communications hub.
Contact and Information Centers form the “hub” of the crisis communications plan. The centers receive requests for information from each audience and disseminate information to each audience. Employees from multiple departments may be assigned to communicate with a specific audience.
The “contact center” fields inquiries from customers, suppliers, the news media and others. The contact center should be properly equipped and staffed by personnel to answer requests for information. The staff working within the contact center should be provided with scripts and a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) document to answer questions consistently and accurately.
The “information center” consists of existing staff and technologies (e.g., website, call center, bulletin boards, etc.) that field requests for information from customers, employees and others during normal business hours. The information center and its technologies can be used to push information out to audiences and post information for online reading.
The crisis communications team, consisting of members of the management team, should operate in an office environment to support the contact and information centers. The offices may be clustered near the emergency operations center or at an alternate site if the primary site cannot be occupied. The goal of the crisis communications team is to gather information about the incident. This should include monitoring the types of questions posed to call center operators or staff in the office; emails received by customer service; social media chatter or stories broadcast by the news media. Using this input, the crisis communications team can inform management about the issues that are being raised by stakeholders. In turn, management should provide input into the messages generated by the crisis communications team. The team can then create appropriate messages and disseminate information approved for release.
Resources for Crisis Communications
Resources should be available within the primary business site and provisions should be made to set up similar capabilities within an alternate site in case the primary site cannot be occupied.
- Telephones with dedicated or addressable lines for incoming calls and separate lines for outgoing calls
- Access to any electronic notification system used to inform employees
- Electronic mail (with access to “info@” inbox and ability to send messages)
- Fax machine (one for receiving and one for sending)
- Webmaster access to company website to post updates
- Access to social media accounts
- Access to local area network, secure remote server, message template library and printers
- Hard copies of emergency response, business continuity and crisis communications plan
- Site and building diagrams, information related to business processes and loss prevention programs (e.g., safety and health, property loss prevention, physical and information/cyber security, fleet safety, environmental management and product quality)
- Forms for documenting events as they unfold
- Message boards (flipcharts, white boards, etc.)
- Pens, pencils, paper, clipboards and other stationery supplies