Because “Stuff” Happens: How to Write and Activate Your Crisis Communications Plan

If there’s anything 2020 taught us, it was the importance of being prepared for when things change on a dime. 

The year was full of crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice demonstrations to the most contentious election in recent history. The hits, as they say, just kept coming. And as we entered 2021, the world watched another crisis unfold in front of its eyes – an unprecedented insurrection at the United States Capitol.

Businesses with crisis communications plans were able to reference them and adapt, as necessary. Organizations without them were left scrambling and trying to figure out what to do before the next crisis hits.

You may be thinking only large corporations need crisis communications plans. While it’s imperative these sizable enterprises have a plan in place, businesses of every size are vulnerable. We saw how the pandemic impacted every type of business in 2020 – in some way – regardless of industry or the number of people they employ. 

If your business doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, it’s time to get one and pronto. While 2020 is behind us now, we will feel the ripple effects in business for years to come. 

What defines a crisis?

There are different types of crises. Some stem from natural disasters, like hurricanes and wildfires. Others are more reputational: for example, when there is a product recall or violence in the workplace.

Regardless of the type of crisis, it’s how you respond that’s key to upholding your company’s reputation.

One could say the COVID-19 pandemic began as a natural disaster – an uncontrolled disease that quickly spread across the world. As events unfolded, however, COVID-19 also became a reputational one in light of how businesses responded or, in some cases, didn’t.

Image courtesy of

So, what exactly is a crisis communications plan?

A crisis communications plan is not a document you create, stick in a binder, and allow to collect dust. It provides a roadmap, a checklist, and overall guidance on navigating a crisis when one comes your way. If there’s one thing 2020 taught us, it’s not a matter of IF. It’s a matter of WHEN.  

What do you include in a crisis communications plan?

Possible Scenarios

When you sit down to write a communications plan, be prepared to spend several weeks on it. It’s not something you can pound out in a day.

Schedule time to collect different information from sources within your organization to make sure your crisis communications plan is complete.  Spend some time with executives and other key personnel across the organization to determine where your organization is vulnerable, and brainstorm possible scenarios and responses for each one.

Purpose, Policies, and Procedures

First, you need a summary detailing when you should activate a crisis plan and who’s responsible for doing so. Brief your key leaders and staff so they understand when a crisis plan will go into motion. Outline which tools to use when communicating with your internal and external audiences. With this in mind, remember that the most critical audience in a crisis is your internal one – your team. 

Companies are often so concerned with outward appearances that they forget to pay attention to their most vital stakeholders – their people. You don’t want your employees learning about a crisis happening in their workplace on the evening news or via social media.

As you inform your internal team about a crisis, remind them about your news media and social media policies. Have a refresher on who will field inquiries from the press. The same applies to social media.

Your Crisis Communications Team

You need to identify a core set of individuals responsible for carrying out the various facets of the communications plan.

Unless you’re a small entity, this core group should be limited to only a few people. Too many people on a crisis communications team can lead to confusion and not everyone, as they say, “singing from the same song sheet.”

There are several roles on a crisis communications team, including:

  • Spokesperson – someone who is readily available and can confidently handle the news media. Someone who is polished and comes across as trustworthy and sincere. 
  • Writer – someone who can quickly and accurately craft key messages, press releases, FAQs, and other communications.
  • Media relations liaison – someone who can disseminate updates to the media and manage all calls, interview requests, and statements.
  • Employee relations liaison – someone who can distribute information to employees effectively and answer questions.
  • Social media coordinator – someone responsible for monitoring social media and providing regular updates on your social media channels as well as responding to comments and reviews.

It’s essential to identify backups for each of these roles, especially since sometimes crises can span a lengthy timeframe. You want to have individuals who can step in and take over to give your primary team a break.

Key Messages

A critical component of your crisis communications plan is what you want your audiences to know about how you’re responding to the crisis. Your key messages will help you create statements and put talking points together quickly.

If you’re responding to a situation where people have been injured or worse, your first key message needs to express compassion and empathy for those individuals. From there, you can dive into the specifics of how your organization is responding and a timetable for the next steps.

Contact Lists

Suppose you’re in the middle of a crisis. You don’t want to be (and shouldn’t be) scrambling for phone numbers and email addresses for key media contacts, government officials, emergency partners such as the Red Cross, local police and fire departments, and anyone else you may need to communicate with during a crisis.

Have all of this ready to go ahead of time and include it as part of your overall plan.        

Resources and References 

Your communications plan should include any guidelines or policies you may need to reference during a crisis situation.

In many crises, you may not have the luxury of being in your home or office, which is why you and the others on your team should have this list of documents at the ready:

  • News media policy
  • Press release template
  • Statement template
  • Any internal or external checklists
  • Contact lists or call trees
  • Fact sheets and background information about your organization
  • Logo graphic files
  • Social media policy and log-in credentials


What should you have in your crisis communications toolbox?

Image courtesy of Burst.Shopify  


Your company’s website is probably one of the best tools you have in a crisis. Make sure it’s updated regularly with information and point to it as a resource on social media and other digital communications. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses across the world wasted no time updating their websites and including information on what steps and guidelines they had in place for their stakeholders.


An Intranet is an invaluable resource to communicate to employees, especially during a wide-spread crisis like the pandemic. Providing regular updates on what’s happening and its impact on your team will help infuse and garner trust.

Social Media

You need to regularly communicate on your social media channels how your organization is responding to the crisis at hand. Be thoughtful and transparent about what you’re sharing and when.

News Releases and Statements

News releases and statements as tools to communicate with the media will never go out of style. Both documents need to be short, sweet, and to the point, offering key and digestible pieces of information for media to absorb, sometimes on the fly.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Developing a list of anticipated questions and answers for your stakeholders will help save you time. You should update your FAQs often, especially in situations that endure for long periods and change frequently.

Fact Sheets

A fact sheet is usually a one-page document that provides quick facts for your audiences. It is a tool that is particularly helpful to the media, who may not be especially familiar with your organization or industry.


Communication via email is vital during a crisis situation. Global emails from a company leader are an important part of any crisis communications plan and response. Email messages to customers and other external audiences should be a part of your toolbox.

During a crisis, you have to move fast. If you’re operating with a lean team, you may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of creating and updating these communications tools internally.

Outsourcing these projects to a professional writing team may be a great solution, saving you both time and unnecessary headaches. These writing teams can also help you create your communications plan and assist with developing policies, procedures, and other elements that should be included.

How often do you update your crisis plan? 

Once a crisis is over, you may feel tempted to put away the plan and continue moving forward with other priorities. While this is understandable, it’s critical for your business to debrief on the crisis and update your plan accordingly. References and resources, such as your contact list, should be reviewed at least quarterly, so you’re always prepared.

Don’t let it collect dust.

“People and processes change all the time. You can create a stellar crisis communications plan but if it isn’t regularly assessed and adjusted, the odds are you’ll be caught flat-footed when your company’s reputation is on the line,” says MaryJane Mudd, principal of MJM Communications and a Houston-area crisis communications expert.

A crisis communications plan is not designed to stuff in a binder somewhere and collect dust on a shelf. It’s a living, breathing document and needs to be revisited regularly. We don’t have a crystal ball to tell us when a crisis will emerge. All we can do is prepare and be as ready as possible for when the inevitable occurs.

Thanks to the power of the internet, a local event can become international news in minutes. And when that event is something that can threaten operations or reputations, you need to implement a strategic, speedy response across traditional and new media.

But what if you’re short-handed, with simply not enough staff dedicated to handling the unexpected?

Or what if you need specialized skills – like someone who really understands how to scrub an environmental report to produce a public-facing release? Or someone who can convey potentially negative news to your employees in a way that allays their fears and helps them become brand ambassadors at a critical time?

Consider The Writers For Hire your crisis communication backup.

Our journalism-trained writers have experience reporting, editing, and teaching. They know what it’s like to have to write about difficult issues or troubling news – and they’re experts when it comes to crafting honest, appropriate, and accurate content that tells the right story in a crisis, locally and globally.

From the first holding statements released immediately after an event to follow-up tweets, The Writers For Hire will deliver clear, concise information in the correct tone for:

  • External websites
  • Intranet
  • Social media
  • Broadcast and print communications
  • Internal meetings
  • Stakeholder presentations
  • Vendor, customer, and partner bulletins

Because we work in teams, we’re always at full strength and never short a key person. That means the crisis communication wheels keep turning to meet every immediate deadline.

Our writing team focuses on the kind of information stakeholders are looking for after a crisis, and we create strategic messages that protect reputations. With experience in journalism and public relations management, our writers know there’s no place for “no comment” after a crisis. They’ll put the right words in place, without overpromising.

The Writers For Hire provides a full complement of communications tools for companies and crisis communication agencies, including:

“White Label” Services for PR Agencies

Public relations agencies often avoid crisis communications work because of the staffing requirements. Under your name or ours, The Writers For Hire can provide press releases, social media content, and other support to help you expand your service offerings.

We are adept at quickly immersing ourselves into your team, your processes, and your clients’ specific needs, industry, and personality. We don’t miss deadlines, and we treat your clients with the same care and attention we would our own.

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Take a Stroll Down the Customer’s Journey

Recent studies done by Word Stream show that the average conversion rate for pay-per-click advertisers is 2.35%, which is about the same chance some have of becoming a millionaire.

What happens between the click and the customer being converted or not? What sort of journey does the customer go through, and how can companies make sure that each customer stays on the path to a purchase?

If marketers zoom out and take a look at what a potential customer’s journey might look like, they can fill in the gaps between what a customer wants that experience to be and what kind of experience you would like to give them.

Visually mapping that journey, gathering all of the data points, the analytics, the emotions, and strategies involved is one of the best ways marketers can begin to understand their customer.

We spoke with two Houston marketing experts to get some insights on how they are using the customer journey map to help their clients.

Graph showing search conversation rate distribution
Graph showing search conversation rate distribution (Image from Word Stream)

But What Exactly is a Customer Journey Map?

It’s easy to get lost in marketing and advertising jargon, but the core of what a customer journey map is really quite simple. It tells the story of what a company’s customer would go through to buy their product or service, or whatever the company’s particular end goal is.

The journey a customer goes through could lead down a hundred different paths. A map could focus on the web journey, an experience at a traditional brick-and-mortar store, a call experience, or the map could encompass every route. More touchpoints mean a more complicated map, but it is the important or key ones that are crucial to get down.

Source: Behance
Source: Behance

The experience a customer has with a company is already on its way to overtaking importance in price and product, and according to a recent report, by 2020 it will have succeeded. Experience will be 16% more important than price.

Beau Pedraza, the SEO Lead at Forthea, a Houston-based internet marketing company, agrees.

The ultimate goal is not just to satisfy the end goal by having a customer purchase a product, or engage with a call to action. Its to make it easy and intuitive for anybody to reach that end goal and then come back because we made their experience easy and seamless. Theres the human side of it that I think a lot of people in marketing, especially digital marketing, forget about.

With  two-thirds of customers willing to spend more with a company that they believe has better customer service, it is definitely worth the time spent to make a customer journey map.

How Do You Track the Customer Journey?

The most important part of beginning to map the customer journey is the customer or user themselves. Brandi Lalanne, the Senior Digital Strategist at The Black Sheep Agency, a cause-driven Houston marketing firm, said it best.

You need a user in order to map them down the path.

Designing CX, a website dedicated to helping customer experience innovators and change agents, laid out some fairly simple steps in a course on creating a customer experience map, and it starts with selecting a user.

  1. Select a user. Do you want to map the journey of a stay-at-home mom? Or maybe the person you want to map works 40 hours or more a week. Or they’re a student in college. Or maybe, you need to map them all. Getting to know the user and what route they might take is important in creation of the map.
  2. Map out a user’s step-by-step experience. This is where marketers can make sure that their customer is going to have a good experience and set them off on the right path. The Designing CX course suggests working from point A to point B, starting with assumptions and then gathering hard data. Does your user go straight to a phone call, or maybe to the website first? After the phone call, what happens? Is there a research phase, a waiting phase, a purchase phase? You have to keep asking yourself, “What happens next?” Map the answers to this question, but remember, everything is from the customer’s point of view.
  3. Map touch points and systems “on stage” and “backstage.”Identifying the touchpoints, every physical or virtual interaction, for each step of the map is what is important here.
  4. This could be where the hard data comes in. Pedraza explains.We use an assortment of methods of the digital side ranging from Google AdWords to Google Analytics, and other analytics that are at our disposal. We also use call tracking; we use ad data; we use all the granular offerings that each one provides. They tell us how the customer engages, [how they] use the site, how they flow through a website; if they go to the home page, what’s the next page they go to. If they arrive on a landing page, where are they ultimately trying to go?If your data tells you that the average phone wait time before a customer will hang up is 12 minutes, then you will want to make sure that your customer’s experience reflects that. Does it take a customer 2 hours or 2 days to decide to purchase? Analytics can show you where you need to make improvements, changes, or if there is redundancy in your touchpoints.Google Analytics has proven paramount in tracking customer experience. Ariat, one of the nation’s leaders in equestrian footwear and apparel, used analytics in their website relaunch. The measurements and data allowed the company to see where improvements were needed, ultimately leading to a 14% increase in conversion.GA-graphics
  5. Add customer attitudes and needs. On the other side of hard data is the emotional side. Empathy mapping is a huge part of the customer experience, and that is the fourth step in the Designing CX course. Pedraza believes that this step is of the utmost importance. We like to see what people think about our clients, and that information should never be discounted… it’s [the end user] that is the engine that drives it all. They are the ones that our clients are interested in, and we should be interested in them as well. To find out the emotions, Pedraza suggests asking for reviews or surveys from past customers, using the analytics, asking yourself what your customers are saying about you, or just using a little guesswork.Tracking emotions and empathy can be difficult, because, as Lalanne states, “You can’t track joy as a metric.” However, as the below image shows, the emotional experience is an important part of the map. Human emotions by nature are on a constant roller coaster, but companies will want to keep their customer as stable as possible.By knowing how the customer feels and is treated at each touch point on the map, companies can glean valuable information to help direct the customer to a purchase.
  6. Identify problems and opportunities.Topographical-MapThe last step in the course might be what marketers have the most trouble with. Once the map is finished, some marketers might find themselves asking, “now what?” Lalanne laughs about this, reiterating how important it is to refer back to the map. It’s continuously living and breathing, if you refer back to it, you’ll be fine.It is understanding the customer’s journey that can lead to improvement.Sometimes, that is precisely what the map helps you do. Such was the case with Pedraza. Assuming the end user for a particular project wouldn’t utilize a mobile site very much, Pedraza left off the mobile part of the journey.I felt like in the map that we created initially we were missing these big segments on mobile, and when we started to cater to mobile, we saw these massive uptakes from 10 to 15% in traffic in about two months…That was the biggest thing that really got me on customer journey mapping… that especially in our line of work, that we have all these assumptions of what people might do or what people might think…but you need to be willing to test your own theories and willing to accept that you just might be wrong.After your map is finished, it will also show you whether your brand ideas and promises match up with your actual customer experience. Does your company promise fast service, while your map suggests otherwise? Why exactly do your customers’ emotions take a turn for the negative during the purchase process?Designing CX suggests redesigning the experience as needed to influence attitudes. If your map isn’t working, it’s OK to change it. Keep referencing the map. Keep it alive. A customer’s journey never ends, and neither should your map.

Why is the Customer Journey Important?

We’ve already noted that customer experience is on its way to becoming the most important factor in a customer’s decision making, and word of mouth is playing a huge roll in its rise. Esteban Kolsky notes that 13% of unsatisfied customers will tell at least 15 or more people about their experience; adversely, 72% of satisfied customers will share their experience with six or more people.

This year, 86% of companies expect to compete mainly on the experience of a customer, a 50% increase in the last four years alone. In a world full of consumers, paying close attention to the customer is possibly the best strategy a marketer could have.

Before hanging up, Lalanne left off by stressing this point.

I think everyone should [make a] customer journey map. If you really care about your users and your audience, then you should take the time to understand them as if they’re an actual person and not just a data point.

Striking the Right Tone with Your Clients

When it comes to advertising copy, few things are as important – and as hard to pin down – as tone. Any client can tell you what kind of widget they sell and why their widget is better than their competitors’ widgets – but not all clients have a clear idea of what tone they’re looking for. And, as a copywriter, it’s your job to help them find out. Unless, of course, you really want to write five zillion drafts of that web page until you get the tone just right.

Deciding on tone isn’t as black-and-white as, say, figuring out whether your client prefers bullet points or paragraphs. And, tone is extremely subjective: Something that sounds fun and innovative to one client may seem dry and technical to another.

So, how do you know exactly what your client means when he says that he wants something “energetic, yet fiscally responsible” or “high-energy and professional”?

Read on for a few tips for pitch-perfect tone:

1. Make a list of adjectives. Ask your client for five adjectives that describe her business. For example, does she see her company as hip and cutting-edge? Or would she prefer a straightforward and businesslike approach? Getting a few good descriptive words down is always a good starting point.

2. Ask about your client’s favorite websites (or print ads or blogs). Ask your client for a list of websites he likes, and then go visit them. You should get a pretty clear idea of the tone he has in mind. If all of the websites are serious and technical, it’s probably a good indicator of the tone that will work for him.

3. Provide tone samples. Sometimes, showing is way more effective than telling, and tone samples are a quick and effective way to provide your client with options. Take one page of copy (something pretty basic – I usually like to start with the home page), and rewrite it two or three different ways. Comparing tones side-by-side makes it much easier for you (and your client) to decide which one works.

Keep in mind that, when writing tone samples, it’s absolutely critical that you keep the same information in each sample. If one tone sample includes, say, a list of products and the other sample has a Q & A section, your client may get distracted by the differences in information and pay less attention to tone.

4. Identify your client’s target audience. Tone is going to vary by audience, so make sure you understand exactly who your client is trying to reach. A website geared toward teenage skateboard enthusiasts will be completely different in tone than a website aimed at nuclear physicists, or retirees, or stay-at-home-moms, etc.

Prevent Procrastination: How to get the job done without waiting until the last minute

Writers are known procrastinators. Whether we’re afraid our ideas won’t be good enough, or we’re waiting for inspiration to strike, we tend to set ourselves up for stress by waiting until the last-possible minute to begin serious work on our projects.

But it is possible to break away from this pattern.

Whether you have an internal email to write, a blog, or a white paper, these tips can help you break free from the pain of procrastination.

Always keep the main idea in mind. No matter the size of a project, refuse to let it overwhelm you. In one sentence, write down the purpose your text will serve. Keeping the main premise of your task in mind will keep you from venturing off onto unrelated tangents and/or becoming distracted. And the fewer the distractions, the faster you will finish.

The end is in sight. It always helps to visualize the end product…especially when you are working on a large project. Take it one word at a time always keeping in mind that each word written is one word closer to the end.

Just do it already. Stop regurgitating all of the excuses as to why you haven’t started yet, and simply start writing. Lucky for us, we can have first, second, third, and tenth drafts in the writing world. Even if your grammar and spelling aren’t perfect the first time around, the important thing is to just get something — anything — down on paper.

Reward yourself for a job well done. Everybody loves rewards, and what better way to motivate yourself than by knowing you can savor a glass of red wine, enjoy a round of golf, or shop ‘til you drop after meeting your deadline.

Lose the “I Work Better Under Pressure” mentality. This is one of my personal favorites. Instead of reminding ourselves that putting off an unwanted project until the last minute really makes us want to pull our hair out, we justify it with this overly used devil of a saying. Stop thinking this way, and just get to work.

You just may find that a project without stress is much more enjoyable than “working under pressure.”