What does your crisis communication plan look like? How does your internal comms team share information with employees when you have an event like snow or a systems failure, that has the potential to disrupt business?
The UK is full of conversations about the impending storm that is due to arrive (image courtesy of UKWeatherForecast).
We’re not sure how bad it will be and whether it will in fact cause the predicted chaos. With that in mind, I thought it was timely to encourage you to dust off your crisis communication plans and make sure if you need them now or in the future, you’re prepared.
Want to know what crisis communication is? See my glossary of internal comms – the phrase is used to cover a multitude of eventualities, from bad weather to protests, serious incidents and loss of life.
It is essentially an unplanned event that disrupts business as usual, provoking a reactive response. The level of ‘crisis’ can vary, but it’s the most common phrase that’s used to describe this situation. Other phrases include business continuity plans or emergency communication. Whatever you call it, the essence is the same.
Crisis communication should be unique to the situation you find yourself in.
Having templates or holding statements can give you a head start when responding to a crisis or looking at business continuity plan (bcp) communication.
It goes without saying that there will of course be certain unforeseen situations that you can do nothing to prepare for in advance. But of critical importance is remembering to tailor your new message and templates to the intended audience and situation, just as you would with any other communication.
Make sure you have an understanding of what has been said before in crisis situations in your organisation and know how and where employees expect to hear information and the methods they use to ask questions and seek clarification.
Blanket statements which are too generic and leave employees with more questions than answers are clearly less than ideal.
Who are they?
Bear in mind your audience – do you need to send separate messages e.g. to senior managers, line managers, frontline employees. Does it need different information for each group?
If your frontline employees are not online, do they know where to get info from? What channels do you have in place that you can use – how do they usually hear information? If you rely on frontline managers, are you providing them with everything they need, do they need additional support?
Make sure that if your email lists are ‘locked down’ you know who has the authority to send information to the employees you’re trying to reach if the usual people are not around during a crisis.
Timing is everything
Remember to let employees know when they can next expect to hear information – this reduces the questions coming directly to the comms team and manages expectations.
I’ve found that saying a hotline will be updated at a certain time or email will be sent at a specific time is helpful. Remember it’s also useful to say things like “at this point in time there is nothing further to add to previous communications, but we will update this information at X time.”
The fact that you are constantly communicating is helpful, it’s ok to say you don’t have anything extra, just keep those lines open and keep in touch. Remember to listen as well as broadcast – are you providing ways for employees to ask questions and find out more? Are you using comms champions or social media? The opportunities are endless.
Crisis situations are not about broadcast. You need to make sure the lines of communication are open and you have two-way channels in place to hear from employees/customers.
What are your experiences of crisis/bcp comms? Here are my top tips:
1) Preparation is key
Can your comms team access their email, shared drives and send messages remotely to the whole organisation when not physically in the office?
Do they have all the mobile numbers they need pre-programmed into their phones and the relevant chargers etc at home? Does everyone know how to update information lines remotely?
Can you prepare anything in advance – e.g. set up a conference call number for a cross-functional business continuity team or write holding statements as a starting point which you can tailor as required.
Top tip: Don’t keep access codes and instructions solely on email. If your system is down you won’t be able to get to the information you need – have a hard copy at home with instructions to follow and lists of phone numbers.
If you are able to use flash drives, having one you keep securely at home can be useful (bear in mind data protection responsibilities if you carry around lists of employee names and company information – refer to your relevant policies at work).
When I worked at Tube Lines, the people who were on call and part of the business continuity plan team had small folders (mine is pictured) packed full of information that would give us a head start in a crisis situation. It included information about the trains, press contact numbers, maps, phone numbers and email addresses for employees, hospitals etc. We reviewed the content a couple of times a year to ensure it remained current.
2) Refresh your memory
What have you said before? Have you had ‘snow comms’ before for example? What did you say then? How do your employees expect to know information?
3) Work with your business partners
During a crisis situation, consistency of messaging is key. The ideal situation is to have a cross-functional team including relevant departments e.g. external communication, PR agencies, HR, Facilities and IT. Ensure you have out of hours numbers for these people and that they know this forms part of their role.
If it affects your premises being closed, don’t forget third-parties who are impacted by the crisis e.g. catering and cleaning staff, delivery drivers etc.
Make sure you know:
- who your company spokespeople are, both internally and externally and ensure they are trained to speak to the press.
- who has the authority to make key decisions, such as shutting sites. If it needs to go as high as the CEO for example, do you know how to contact them, especially out of usual working hours?
4) Promote your crisis comms channels
If you have identified channels you will use solely for crisis communications, are your employees aware of them? For example if you have an employee information line, ensure you promote it all year round and encourage people to save the number in their mobiles so it is to hand if they need it. I’ve worked in companies that produce wallet-sized cards for employees containing info like this which are distributed during induction.
Induction sessions are a great time to talk about your business continuity plans, so employees know from day one what to expect.
You cannot over-communicate how you will communicate in a crisis.
5) Keep in touch
If you have a comms lead to respond to crisis or business continuity plans, remember to keep the rest of the comms team and your stakeholders updated about decisions and next steps during the situation and afterwards.
If you operate an ‘on-call’ rota, it’s fair to say employees won’t know who the relevant person is and will pick up the phone or email the person they know. So ensuring you communicate effectively within your own team is crucial to ensure a consistent message.
6) Monitor conversations
If employees are asking questions to a shared mailbox, or customers are asking via social media channels, make sure you are monitoring the conversations and using them to inform the information you share. If there are recurring questions, it’s a good gauge to tell you what’s missing from your communication activities. Of course, it may not be appropriate to answer the questions they have or you may not have the information to be able to do so, but knowing what is being said is critical.
Once the crisis is over, have a review of how things went. What worked well, what could be improved for next time, what do you need to do differently?
Ask employees for their feedback – what did they find helpful, what did they need? If you have a crisis comms manual or checklist, make sure the contact numbers are up to date e.g. press contacts, union reps, key stakeholders, so you have everything you need for next time.
Create a folder on your shared drive to collate everything you communicated during this event. This means if you have another one in future, you have everything to hand, including the feedback from the review.
How would you react and respond if you found yourself in a crisis situation? My advice is to run a scenario in the ‘quiet time’ when it’s business as usual to enable people to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and needing to make decisions. You can do this as a planned exercise or spring it on the on-call team (make sure you tell them it’s a trial run though!).
When I was Head of Communications at London Overground Rail Operations Limited, a crisis scenario was simulated, complete with actors, ahead of the East London Line opening.
The photos on this page show ‘Operation Vanguard’ in action and it involved the community, emergency services and employees and formed part of the safety preparations before the train line opened.
You don’t have to go to this scale, but at least running through this checklist in your comms team is a good start.
A couple of weeks ago I ran Twitter training for another train company who are a client of All Things IC. Using locked accounts, I devised a crisis scenario and encouraged them to practice tweeting about the serious incident that was causing disruption.
This meant they could experiment with reacting and responding to fictional customer queries and complaints. Doing it during ‘quiet time’ and reviewing as you go means that if you find yourself in a similar scenario in future, you have at least experienced it before and can build on your learning.
Don’t think that a crisis can’t happen to you. It can. The best thing you can do is be prepared.
Free skills guide to crisis comms and social media. Produced by CIPR Social Media Panel September 2015
I Tweeted that I was writing this article and asked for any top tips from people in my network. My thanks to the following people:
— Jo Osborn MCIPR (@Osborn_Jo) October 28, 2013
@AllthingsIC Prepare and agree key lines in advance (no time for bureaucracy, just fill in the blanks)
— David Pearson (@davidthep) October 27, 2013
@AllthingsIC (It may be more for ext than int comms but holds good regardless I think – bruised by exp of 3 hrs to agree a press release!)
— David Pearson (@davidthep) October 27, 2013
@AllthingsIC Be honest & transparent in your crisis comms & remember “no comment” is not a comment (unless you want to fuel speculation).
— EK (@eksays) October 27, 2013
— MervynDinnen (@MervynDinnen) October 28, 2013
Gabrielle Laine-Peters @GabrielleNYC, kindly shared this flow chart from the US Air Force. It’s a good starting point for developing a team response for a brand. (The link and image go to my Pinterest Social Media board where you can see it in full).
Ben Proctor, @Likeaword, Head of Web and Communications at Herefordshire Council has created a Twitter list of all the relevant agencies to follow for updates on severe weather in the UK. You can see the list here (choose the subscribe button to follow it).
I hope you find this checklist a useful reminder. Do let me know what works in your organisation and if you have any top tips to add or would like to share the resources you’ve been using.
You can tweet me @AllthingsIC or comment below.
Post author: Rachel Miller
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First published on the All Things IC blog 28 October 2013. Updated June 2017.