The 7 Elements of a Crisis Communication Plan

18 Jul 2023


A crisis communication plan is a vital component for any organization to have in place to manage and respond to an emergency effectively.

One of the key benefits of having a crisis communication plan is that it reduces uncertainty for staff during a crisis. When staff members clearly understand what they need to do and how they can contribute to managing the situation, they can better handle the crisis with confidence.

Moreover, organizations need to proactively develop a crisis communication plan before disaster strikes. Waiting until a crisis happens can be too late, leading to ineffective communication and potentially causing further harm to the organization’s reputation.

By having a crisis communication plan in place, organizations can take proactive steps to minimize the potential impact of a crisis on their operations, stakeholders, and reputation.

What is a crisis communication plan?

A crisis communication plan is a document that outlines the procedures and processes to follow in case an unexpected event threatens an organization’s reputation, operations, or stakeholders. The plan aims to provide a coordinated and effective response to the crisis, minimizing its impact and restoring the organization’s credibility.

7 Elements of a Crisis Communication Plan

Crafting a crisis communication plan requires careful consideration of virtually any potential situation. Thus, the elements of a crisis communication plan must focus on helping organizations and staff get the support they need, particularly when staff may not know what to do.

The following points cover the seven most important elements of a crisis communication plan.

1. Risk Assessment

The first step in developing a crisis communication plan is to assess the potential risks that the organization may face.

This element includes identifying possible scenarios, evaluating the likelihood of these events, and determining the potential impact on the organization and its stakeholders.

The risk assessment should be conducted regularly to ensure the plan remains relevant and up-to-date.

For instance, a manufacturing company produces and distributes food products. The company identifies potential risks such as food contamination, product recalls, and supply chain disruptions as part of the risk assessment process. The company also evaluates the likelihood of these events and the potential impact on the organization and its stakeholders. In particular, the crisis communication plan focuses on the channels and timing of communication, including internal and external stakeholders, the media, and social media.

Consequently, the organization’s staff can act swiftly, communicating with stakeholders and the media to ensure everyone is up to date on the fallout from the crisis.

2. Crisis Team

A crisis team is a group of individuals responsible for managing the organization’s response to a crisis. This team should be identified in advance and have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The team should include representatives from various departments within the organization, including senior management, legal, communications, and operations. The crisis team should be trained and rehearsed to respond effectively.

Here are some individuals and roles that would comprise a crisis response team:

  • The Crisis Manager is responsible for overall crisis management and coordination. They will oversee the response and make critical decisions regarding the company’s communication strategy.
  • The Legal Counsel provides legal guidance and support throughout the crisis. They will help to assess the company’s liability and ensure compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.
  • The Communications Lead is in charge of all internal and external communications, including media relations, employee communications, and customer notifications. They will ensure that the messaging is consistent, accurate, and timely.
  • The IT Lead oversees coordinating the technical response to a breach. They will work to identify the source of the breach, contain the damage, and restore systems and data.
  • The Customer Service Lead is responsible for managing customer inquiries and concerns related to the crisis. They will provide accurate and timely information to customers, address their concerns, and work to maintain customer trust.
  • The Operations Lead is in charge of ensuring that business operations continue during the crisis. They will work to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the company’s operations and ensure that critical functions continue.

3. Communication Protocols

Effective communication is critical during a crisis; the crisis communication plan should outline clear communication protocols.

This step includes identifying the primary spokesperson for the organization, establishing procedures for internal and external communication, and defining the channels and timing of communication.

The plan should also include a process for monitoring and responding to social media and other online platforms.

Here is an outline of how communication protocols may work out:

  • Immediate notification. The company’s crisis team is notified of the incident immediately. The team will include representatives from different departments, such as operations, legal, and communications.
  • Internal communication. The crisis team holds an initial meeting to assess the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. The team will then communicate the situation to all relevant employees, including those who may be affected by the incident or involved in the response effort.
  • External communication. The organization designates a spokesperson to communicate with external stakeholders, such as the media, regulators, customers, and suppliers. The spokesperson provides timely and accurate information, responds to inquiries, and coordinates all external communication efforts.
  • Social media communication. The organization uses social media channels, such as Twitter, to provide updates and answer questions from the public. The social media team is trained in crisis communication and monitors social media channels for any misinformation or negative comments.
  • Stakeholder notification. The crisis team notifies all relevant stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, and partners, about the incident and its impact. The notification includes details about the company’s response efforts and any measures being taken to mitigate the impact of the incident.
  • Follow-up communication. The organization and staff provide regular updates to all stakeholders throughout the crisis. They follow up with affected stakeholders after the incident has been resolved. This step will help to maintain transparency and rebuild trust with stakeholders.

4. Stakeholder Identification

A crisis can affect many stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, and the media. The crisis communication plan should identify the key stakeholders and their needs, concerns, and expectations. The plan should also outline each stakeholder group’s appropriate communication channels and messages.

For example, a pharmaceutical company experiences a safety issue with one of its products. In this case, the stakeholder identification process could include:

  • Customers. The safety issue will most directly impact the company’s customers. The company must identify all customers who have purchased the affected product and may be at risk. The company must communicate with these customers directly, provide information on the issue, and advise them on the appropriate steps.
  • Employees. The company’s employees will also be affected by the safety issue. The company will need to identify all employees who may have been involved in the production, testing, or distribution of the affected product. The company should provide clear and accurate information to employees, address any concerns, and provide guidance on the appropriate response.
  • Shareholders. The company’s shareholders will be concerned about the impact of the safety issue on the company’s reputation and financial performance. The company will need to identify all shareholders and provide timely and accurate information on the issue and its response efforts.
  • Regulators. The company must identify relevant regulators, such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and communicate with them about the safety issue. The company must provide detailed information on the issue, the steps to address it, and any potential impact on public health.
  • Media. The media will likely be interested in the safety issue and may report on it extensively. The company should identify all relevant media outlets, including traditional and social media, and provide them with accurate and timely information on the issue.
  • Partners. The company may have partners, such as suppliers or distributors, affected by the safety issue. The company must identify all relevant partners and provide them with information on the issue, the steps to address it, and any potential impact on their business.

5. Message Development

The crisis communication plan should include a process for developing clear and consistent messages that address the crisis and its impact.

The messages should be tailored to different stakeholder groups and reflect the organization’s values and priorities.

The plan should also include pre-approved templates for press releases, social media posts, and other communication materials.

Consider a scenario where a large retailer experiences a major data breach that potentially exposes the personal information of its customers. In this case, message development could include the following:

  • Acknowledgment of the issue. The organization needs to acknowledge the data breach and express concern for its customers. The message should be empathetic and sincere and emphasize that the company takes the issue seriously.
  • Explanation of the situation. The staff must explain the data breach, how it occurred, and what information may have been compromised. The message should be clear, transparent, and detailed enough to reassure customers that the company is taking the issue seriously.
  • Steps being taken. The crisis team should outline the steps it is taking to address the data breach and prevent similar incidents from occurring. The message should convey a sense of urgency and demonstrate the company’s commitment to protecting its customers’ data.
  • Assistance to customers. The company needs to provide information on what customers can do to protect themselves, such as changing their passwords or monitoring their credit reports. The message should also offer assistance for affected customers, such as credit monitoring services.
  • Reassurance. The organization must reassure customers that their concerns are being heard and addressed. The message should convey empathy, provide a timeline for resolution, and offer a way for customers to contact the company for further information or assistance.

6. Training and Testing

The crisis communication plan should be tested and updated regularly to remain effective. This step includes training and simulations to prepare the crisis team for different scenarios and evaluate the plan’s effectiveness in a real crisis. The plan should also be reviewed and updated to reflect changes in the organization’s risk profile, stakeholder needs, or communication channels.

Suppose a manufacturing company experiences a fire in one of its factories, injuring several employees. In this case, training and testing could include:

  • Crisis response team training. The company needs to ensure that its crisis response team is properly trained to respond to emergencies, including communicating with stakeholders. The team should receive regular training on crisis communication, including message development, stakeholder identification, and media relations.
  • Tabletop exercises. The organization should conduct regular tabletop exercises to simulate various crisis scenarios and test the effectiveness of its crisis communication plan. The exercises should involve the crisis response team and key stakeholders, such as regulators and the media.
  • Media training. The crisis team must ensure its spokespersons are properly trained to communicate with the media during a crisis. This element includes training on delivering clear and consistent messages, responding to difficult questions, and managing media relations during a crisis.
  • Social media training. The company must guarantee that its employees are trained to use social media during a crisis. This point includes training on responding to customer inquiries and concerns, monitoring social media for potential issues, and using social media to disseminate information during a crisis.
  • Post-incident review. The crisis team must conduct a post-incident review after each crisis to evaluate the effectiveness of its crisis communication plan and identify areas for improvement. If necessary, the review should involve the crisis response team, key stakeholders, and an independent third party.

7. Evaluation and Improvement

After a crisis, the organization should evaluate the response and identify areas for improvement.

This step includes reviewing the effectiveness of the crisis communication plan, identifying any gaps or weaknesses, and implementing changes to address these issues.

The evaluation process should be documented to improve the organization’s preparedness for future crises.

Suppose a situation in which a healthcare organization experiences a major data breach, potentially exposing sensitive patient information. In this case, evaluation and improvement can encompass the following:

  • Post-incident review. The healthcare provider should conduct a post-incident review to evaluate the effectiveness of its crisis communication plan. If necessary, the review should involve the crisis response team, key stakeholders, and an independent third party. The review aims to identify areas where the organization’s response could be improved and to make changes to the crisis communication plan, as necessary.
  • Stakeholder feedback. The organization must gather feedback from its stakeholders, including patients, employees, and regulators, on the effectiveness of its crisis communication. This aspect could include surveys, focus groups, or interviews. The goal is to understand how stakeholders perceive the organization’s response and identify improvement areas.
  • Metrics and analytics. The crisis team should use metrics and analytics to evaluate the effectiveness of its crisis communication. This point could include metrics such as the number of website visits, social media engagement, and media coverage. The goal is to understand how stakeholders engaged with the organization’s response and identify areas where the response could be improved.
  • Continuous improvement. Based on the post-incident review, stakeholder feedback, and metrics and analytics, the healthcare organization should change its crisis communication plan, as necessary. This situation could include changes to messaging, stakeholder identification, media relations, or other areas of the plan. The goal is to improve the organization’s response to future crises continuously.

A Final Consideration

A crisis communication plan is essential for any organization to manage an emergency effectively. A crisis communication plan can help an organization quickly and accurately respond to a crisis, minimizing the damage to its reputation and credibility. By having a well-designed plan, an organization can ensure that the right steps are taken during an emergency, reducing the likelihood of mistakes and miscommunications.

Therefore, organizations need to invest the time and resources needed to develop and maintain a crisis communication plan. This approach will help them protect their reputation, maintain stakeholder trust, and ensure business continuity during an emergency.

Zach Richter 

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