A crisis plan is like a fire extinguisher: it’s something you rarely think about until you need one. And, just like a fire extinguisher, if you have it on hand during an emergency, you’ll be glad you do!
A crisis plan sounds scary, but it can be as simple as a binder with a few pages of instructions, messaging and key contact info kept in a safe place. By preparing one for your business now, you’ll be able to execute smoothly and minimize losses for your company during an emergency.
It's Called an Emergency for a Reason
…it’s unexpected and there’s little, if any, time to plan for it.
When an emergency strikes, be it a natural disaster, an industrial accident, a round of layoffs or a scandal, time is of the essence. The swiftness with which you respond makes the difference between you controlling the message and the crisis controlling you.
In a time of crisis, the adrenaline will be pumping and emotions will be running high. It’s difficult to think clearly and consider all stakeholders during such a time. This is why you want to outline a crisis plan ahead of time, when you’re able to thoughtfully consider all angles and craft messaging that will cast your company in the best possible light.
Here are three key things to consider and incorporate into your own crisis plan.
Depending on the nature of the emergency, there will be diverse stakeholders to consider. Each is a different audience and you’ll need to respond accordingly, being careful to address the concerns and immediate needs of each group.
Here are a few of the most common stakeholder groups that may need to be addressed immediately following a crisis.
First and foremost, how will the crisis affect existing customers? Your customers will want to know how the situation affects their expected services and their wallets. Will their orders be filled as expected? Will service continue as normal? If not, what changes can they expect? Will refunds or reimbursements be issued?
Employees and their families
Employees should be informed about how the crisis affects their job and/or their co-workers. Should they report to work as usual? If not, when should they report back? Will they receive their paychecks as normal? Will any bereavement leave, counseling, severance pay, etc. be provided? Who can they contact with further questions?
Partners, contractors, suppliers
How will the situation affect your supply chain? Will deliveries or projects be interrupted or delayed? If so, when should they expect business to resume as usual?
If the crisis is big enough (God forbid), you can bet one of the first calls you’re going to receive will be from the press. Their main concerns will be to obtain the details of the situation, learn how it will impact the community, and uncover who’s responsible. “No comment” is not a strategy you want to go with here, because it means you’re taking no role in the message that’s being disseminated about your company.
Expect to be asked to provide the who, what, where, when and why of the incident, or explain why you’re not providing these things (for example, “we’ll report further details once all employees have been notified”). If the company is at fault for something, you should also expect to respond to questions about how the crisis was allowed to happen and what’s being done to prevent it from happening again.
Local leaders and elected officials
What impact, if any, does the crisis have on the local community? Does it affect the environment? The economy? Know your elected officials and how to get in touch with them.
Point People and Responsibilities
Next, identify which of your team members will be involved in distributing information and which of the above parties they’ll speak with. For example, you may assign your HR manager to communicate with employees, your VP to get in touch with suppliers, and handle all media inquiries yourself.
You’ll also want to set expectations with your team for crisis situations ahead of time. For example, in the unfortunate case a staff member passes away, no one should communicate with outside parties until next of kin has been notified, and so on.
Finally, the most important part of your crisis plan: the messaging.
Having worked in PR for several years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the dramatic difference between a company that has crisis messaging in place and one that does not.
The former is able to respond to a crisis quickly and assuredly, as messaging points have been crafted and approved ahead of time. The latter is a chaotic mess, with voicemails, texts and emails flying back and forth about who’s saying what.
Having your crisis messaging in place ahead of time saves a whole lot of stress during an already stressful time.
But how can I create a message for a crisis that hasn’t happened yet?
This is where you have to get in a bit of a doomsday mindset, if you will. As entrepreneurs, we tend to like to look on the bright side of things and plan for the best. When preparing your crisis plan, though, you have to prepare for the worst.
Come up with a shortlist of the top five crises your business is most likely to face. Then, create messaging for each of the stakeholder groups that apply to each scenario. Of course, there will be places where you’ll need to leave blanks that can be filled in with the specifics of a situation, but you’ll be able to outline your core messaging for each scenario.
Here’s an example crisis outline based on a fictional ecommerce business:
Crisis: Union strike
Stakeholder group: Customers
Point person: VP of Communications
Messaging: As our valued customer, your business is important to us. We consider it our duty to keep you informed about what’s going on with our business, and as such I wanted to reach out with an important piece of news that may affect delivery of your current order.
[Insert details about union strike here]
We’re working to ensure minimal impact on existing orders, but you may see a delay of [insert time frame here] on your delivery. No further action is required, however if you have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact [name & phone number of appropriate person for follow-up].
We thank you for your understanding and your continued business.
[Your name here]
Now, should the union ever strike, you’ve got your message for customers ready to go and one less headache to deal with during an already-chaotic situation.
By preparing your own crisis plan, you'll be ready to keep all parties informed and get your business back up and running with as little impact to profits as possible after an emergency.
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