How To Plan Communications For Your Next Crisis

Jun 23, 2021

A recent cyberattack on a fuel pipeline has hospital and health system officials rethinking what they need to do better to protect their own networks from breaches and the huge consequences that can result.

For communications professionals at such institutions, rehearsing such crisis scenarios and what should follow can be the difference between saving a reputation or seeing it destroyed.

The ability to respond promptly to disasters or damaging reports can build confidence in constituents that the organization is on top of the crisis and is a leader in its sector.

One thing to consider is that crisis plans should make very clear who is responsible for what. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

Prepare in advance with inputs from the organization’s functional areas. The time to plan for a crisis is long before it hits. A well- thought-out crisis plan is designed to help an organization communicate internally and externally with clear, succinct, and timely direction.

The goal is to minimize confusion and maintain confidence amidst whatever crisis may occur. Opinions vary and emotions are strong when the stakes are high, the book Crucial Conversations tells us. The time for addressing conflicting perspectives is in the preparation phase of a crisis plan, not during the crisis itself.  While there will undoubtedly be differences of opinion in one’s approach depending on the circumstances, a detailed plan rehearsed with key players and influencers can minimize disruption when things get tense. Still, even if things get heated, the book’s authors tell us to leverage the power of dialogue with absolute candor and deep respect for others’ viewpoints to realize the desired goals.

Identify stakeholders. Designing an effective crisis management plan also requires an understanding of stakeholders and their roles. Stakeholders are all those who have an interest in the outcome. For a health system, the list is generally long and can include patients, governments, administrators, board members, and clinicians. Each might need slightly different things during a crisis, which is why each stakeholder should be considered a separate audience.

Identify a communications chain of command. Crisis plans should – in advance – identify all of those who will be involved with managing a crisis, what areas they are responsible for and who is ultimately responsible for making decisions. Then, all of those involved should receive the training they need to be effective in their roles. For example, specialists from all functional areas of the organization should be available to lend their expertise should the need arise, and executive spokespeople should receive media training.

Create real-world tools that can be modified later. One of the most valuable things to have in a crisis is a head start. Messaging, scripts, and spokespeople should be prepared in advance. The communications team or the company’s PR firm can later assist in adapting standard scripts to specific situations based on the event and fallout.

Ensure that crisis management messaging addresses various aspects of the crisis. When communicating bad news or another type of crisis, it is imperative that the organization’s spokespersons do the following:

Elaborate with the “what” – explain what happened with concise language, together with the organization’s position on the issue

Educate with the “how” – explain how audiences should respond to the situation and how the organization is responding

Engage with the “why” – explain the impact the situation has on operations so that impacts are not blown out of proportion

By giving thoughtful consideration to the development of a crisis management plan, organizations are more likely to be able to recover from bad news. In some cases, they might even exit the crisis with stronger brand relationships.

Philip Anast

Philip has been building, managing and executing PR programs for technology providers since 1995. Using the power of storytelling and influencer relations, he has launched new companies, brands and products, resulting in market penetration, market share growth and corporate acquisition for such clients as HP, Language Analysis Systems, Motorola and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Prior to joining Amendola Communications, Philip worked at Chicago-based PR firm Tech Image, serving in various roles over his 15-year tenure, including managing client programs, providing strategic counsel, pitching new business, growing client relationships, teaching best practices and managing finances. During that time, he served several clients targeting the healthcare/HIT sector, including NEC Display Solutions, IBS (now Iptor Supply Chain Systems) and Cleo. Philip also has worked in the technology practices of Hill and Knowlton and Porter Novelli. He began his PR career at U.S. Robotics and 3Com. Philip holds bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.