Plan, prepare, anticipate crisis communication needs

It’s the middle of the night. The winds howl as a storm brews. Your nightlight flickers and then the power goes off. You’re in the dark. There’s not a flashlight in sight. You stumble out of bed and reach for your computer to check on the extent of the power outage, but your computer battery is dead. Then the phone rings, asking for comment on behalf of your company about the impact on your business from the latest power outage. How would you handle a situation like this?

Think it will never happen to you? Think again. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, the news is always on. And so are you as a PR professional.

Prepare your crisis communications

Whether it’s being prepared to comment on the impact to your business from a power outage, a weather-related emergency or a man-made disaster, crisis communications situations abound.

That’s why it’s important to think about and prepare for crisis communications needs in advance. Consider the business you’re in and what crisis risks you face. Prepare yourself and others who will speak on your company's behalf and how you’ll respond.

Draft key messages and prepare potential talking points. Craft a premise statement and key supports that back up your message. Think about ways to humanize and personalize your message, because others often don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Back up your statement with the responsible actions being taken to deal with the incident and resolve to do what you can do to prevent a future situation.

For example, weave these types of statements into your messaging:

  • We’re shocked and saddened by this situation.
  • Our thoughts are with those impacted by this incident and their loved ones.
  • We’re partnering with law enforcement officials to evacuate the immediate area in the interest of safety.
  • We’re grateful for the timely response of law enforcement and first responders in getting to the scene so quickly.
  • While the exact cause of the incident is unknown at this time, we’ll partner with officials in the investigation and take necessary actions to help prevent such incidents in the future.

Think about how to first show care and concern for those impacted by the crisis. Think people first, property second and safety always. Buildings and property can be replaced, but people can’t.

Establish a command center

In the workplace, consider setting up a dedicated room that can serve as a command center, including the people, supplies and equipment needed. If your workplace has a dedicated room that can remain set up for crisis needs, all the better.

Avoid confusion by having at least one alternate command center designated in advance as part of your crisis plan and make sure that your company’s crisis team has access to it. Encourage crisis team members to program the primary and alternate location addresses into their cell phones for quick driving directions.

Maintain contact information

Think your workplace’s computer or phone systems are infallible? Think again. Cell phone towers can go down and so can computer systems. I dealt with a crisis where our company's cell phone carrier towers were down for days in massive ice storms, and computers were also without service. To communicate, we were able to get through to personal phone numbers and emails using alternate service providers and we also deployed satellite phones.

Sometimes businesses only maintain work phone numbers and work emails in their systems. Have you stored your key contacts and all the ways to reach them into your cell phone? If not, now’s the time to compile that information. Some PR pros even carry two cell phones with service by different carriers to increase their odds of getting through in a crisis situation.

Develop messages and content

As you plan for your crisis communications, craft text messages that can be used as part of your messaging strategy. In a crisis, text messages often go through before emails. Train your team to watch for text messages on work and personal phones.

Consider a dark website you could stand up in an emergency, especially if your main website is out of service, or you want to divert traffic to another website. Think about what messages and images you could pre-populate on that website and what you can add about the actual crisis, and/or share on social media channels.

Monitor issues that could impact your business, and prepare for potential questions you may face as a result. Develop holding statements, talking points, backgrounders, news releases, social media posts and frequently asked questions to help think through what you can anticipate for questions from the media and other key audiences. By having this information developed or outlined as templates in advance, you’ll save time in filling in details once a crisis strikes. Think about the who, what, when, where, how and why aspects of your message. For example, who is impacted by this, what do/don’t you know at this time, where did it occur, how is it being dealt with, when will further updates be made, and why does this matter?

Develop a plan

These are a few of the things to think about when it comes to preparing your crisis communications strategy and developing your plan.

The time to prepare for a crisis is long before it occurs. While some say they can “wing it” in a crisis, or believe it will never happen to them, public relations professionals realize its time well spent to consider what you can and should do long before a crisis occurs. Take the time to develop a written plan, involve key stakeholders in the process, and practice your plan periodically to continuously improve it. Make sure that those who need access to the plan have it—and have it readily available at work, at home and while traveling.

If you do experience a crisis situation, update your plan based on what you learned and experienced. Keep what worked well, and improve on what didn’t from a communications messaging and process standpoint.

While you’re at it, streamline your approval processes so that when time is of the essence, you empower people to speak on behalf of your company, without complex, lengthy, overly burdensome approval processes that don’t sync with the speed of today’s news cycles and social media pace. If your business insists of layers of approval processes, it’s all the more essential to have pre-approved message templates that can be tailored to a specific situation, with quick and minimal approval.

Respond to the media

If you are caught off guard by a cold call from the media in the middle of the night or during working hours, give yourself some time to compose your thoughts. Ask the caller for their name, media outlet and best number and email at which they can be reached, as well as their deadline. Then compose your thoughts and craft your message, before getting back to the media member within their deadline. Consider an email message as a follow up to your call, to make it easier for the media member to see exactly what you said, and convey your message in writing, especially if you’re conveying technical information, or a lot of specific details.

What if you have a technology emergency, like a computer failure? It can and does happen. Keep your key files on a USB drive, and/or stored so if one computer fails, you can access your key files from another. Have multiple means of charging your electronic devices from your home, workplace and vehicle.

Monitor the weather so you know what’s on the horizon and how it could impact your business. Plan ahead and take your laptop and key materials home so you can work remotely in case severe weather makes it difficult for you to get to the office.

Additional resources

Looking for more tips on managing your way through a crisis? PRSA offers a wealth of materials to members at, including informative webinars. Take part in the programs and events offered by our PRSA chapter at our meetings and annual OctoPRfest. And network with our PRSA members who’ve successfully navigated crisis communications throughout their own respective careers.

Preparing in advance for crisis communications needs is the mark of a public relations professional. It’s also a way to increase the likelihood of positive communications outcomes if and when you experience a crisis situation.

Submitted by Kathy Krafka-Harkema, APR, Ethics Chair



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