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Why You Need a Crisis Communications Plan (Before a Crisis Hits)

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We’ve all seen how a PR crisis plays out. Whether it was CEO of Papa John’s use of racial slurs, or model Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi campaign gone wrong, America has had a front row seat to some of the biggest public relations blunders in history, resulting in many of us asking, “How could these companies let that happen?”

I recently attended PR Newswire’s Virtual Crisis Communications Conference where marketing and public relations teams from some of the biggest brands, including Southwest Airlines, Weight Watchers, Chipotle and Capital One, joined together to talk about the impact a PR crisis can have on your company, and most importantly, why it’s critical to have a plan in place before a crisis strikes. Their biggest piece of advice? Plan ahead.

What is a Crisis Communications Plan?

Think about when you first learned how to drive a car. You were told to always keep your eyes on the road and to look to your rearview and sideview mirrors for support, but that you must always account for the places you can’t see: your blind spots.

Crisis communications plans are just that, recognizing you have blind spots and using them to plan for the unpredictable. While you may be wondering how to plan for something that hasn’t happened yet, I assure you it can be done (and without the need for psychic powers).

Components of a Crisis Communications Plan

Behind every good crisis communications plan is a crisis playbook, which is made up of these five elements:

  • Phone tree: This is a list of all the team members involved in the PR department and their contact information. Included is also protocol for when to contact these team members (see chain of command below) and through which method – does this situation warrant an immediate phone call, a text or an email?
  • Chain of command: Your chain of command is the hierarchy of people in the marketing and public relations departments who need to be notified and if/when it should be continued up the ladder. For example, your C-suite only needs to be notified of a crisis when it hits a certain severity level; they wouldn’t need to be immediately briefed on something of lower priority like a negative social media comment.
  • Messaging templates: These are the drafted and pre-approved messaging statements you will dispel in the event of a crisis. The templates include fill-in-the-blanks for the specifics of the situation so you can quickly finalize the documents and send them through the appropriate channels, whether it be internally or to the media.
  • Practice sessions: This is underlined because it is by far the most important aspect of a crisis communications plan. To be successful at implementing a crisis strategy, your team needs to practice potential scenarios and go through the motions of each step of the plan to see where any weaknesses or potential cracks appear (alerting the appropriate parties, media training with the approved statements, etc.). Practice makes perfect when it comes to executing a crisis strategy.
  • Assessment and adjustments: Finally, after the practice and execution comes assessment. You need to evaluate with your team what worked and what didn’t work in your plan. For what didn’t work, come up with a pivoted strategy on how to make it better. It’s important to note that this step should also be done after a real-life crisis scenario.

“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” Payal Patel, Communications Director at Chicago’s popular tourist destination, Navy Pier, ended her presentation at the PR Newswire conference with this quote. If there is one more piece of advice I can leave you with, it’s this: While crisis communications may sound intimidating, look at it as a way to strengthen your company’s brand and improve its systems, both on an internal and public level. It’s a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and when done successfully, it can change the trajectory of your company for the better.

Your Team Needs a Crisis Communications Plan – Where Should You Begin?

Now more than ever, brand reputation can make or break a company. If your company does not have a strong crisis communications plan in place and would like to create a playbook of its own, we’re here to help.

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