Protection of Assets: Developing Effective Crisis Communications Plans
This is an excerpt from the Protection of Assets (POA) Crisis Management volume from ASIS International. Learn more about the POA here.
Like crisis management, crisis communications is strategic, not tactical. It is focused on not only communicating messages regarding a disruptive event but also on broader issues that support the organizational resilience, survival of the organization’s business model, and future strategic business plans. For example, if an organization is experiencing a disruptive event, it must not only deal with the acute event but must make decisions and communicate those decisions to key external audiences that may be affected by future plans such as changing share value, IPOs, purchasing other companies, expanding to new markets, etc.
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Communications tactics are those tools used to carry messages to specific audiences such as news releases, social media, use of a company’s website, town halls, etc. They should not be confused with strategic communications.
A good working definition of crisis communications is:
- Effective communications using public relations standards. Example: At times, crisis communicators were asked by senior management to “spin” their way out of a crisis. Spinning means a communicator goes on a news program and attempts to downplay the significance of the crisis, deflect blame, and get attention away from the core issues. This tactic rarely works, is not up to professional public relations standards, and may actually result in loss of trust in the organization.
- Carefully worded messages to specific audiences. There is no such thing as the “general public” in a crisis. Crises affect specific audiences (employees, shareholders, venders, customers, etc.), each of whom have unique concerns requiring messages tailored to those concerns.
- Focuses on critical issues, disruptive events, and crises.
- Is executed in a compressed time frame.
Crisis communications is an essential part of the overall crisis management process and crisis lifecycle. It is not a standalone function and is integrated into the crisis management infrastructure, including the senior leadership team, crisis management team and incident command.
Crisis communications will also be judged by outsiders—typically, even if an organization has a terrific crisis response to a major event, the media will focus in on how well the organization communicated their efforts to their key audiences.
In a crisis, there is never enough time to communicate in the same manner as a non-crisis event. Time gets compressed, which in turn makes the impact and consequences of crisis communications greater than normal.
Crisis communications must execute at a rapid pace with little time for research, deliberations, or message development. Therefore, it is essential to have a crisis communication plan prepared in advance so that less time is spent determining what to say, how to say it, and by whom.
All organizations have detractors. They are organized and have their messages already developed as well as tactics to deploy those messages. In many crisis situations, organizations find themselves the subject of criticism before they have their first message out. As a result, organizations often appear to be on the defensive, which reduces their credibility.
Programs and Teams
An effective crisis communications program is comprised of the same elements of a crisis management program: planning, training, exercising, response, and recovery. The size of a crisis communications team will be dictated by the organization in terms of size, management levels, regions, or facilities. In most medium to large organizations, the roles are as follows:
Senior communications advisor/lead. The senior communications advisor is typically the most senior communications person in the organization and is ultimately responsible for crisis communications. In a crisis, the senior communications lead sits with the senior leadership team as they discuss strategy in dealing with the crisis. This is important as the senior communications advisor is able to take the high-level deliberations back to the crisis communications team so they can develop messaging that fit with organization’s response strategy. The senior communications advisor also provides strategic communications counsel to the senior leadership team.
Crisis communications team lead. Leads the crisis communications team, executes the crisis communications plan, and ensures deadlines are met.
Crisis communications team (CCT). The CCT represents various communications functions within the organization. They develop messages, deploy tactics, and conduct media and community relations. Adjunct members of the crisis communications team may include subject matter experts within the organization that assist the CCT in crafting messages to ensure accuracy. A member of the CCT should also be a liaison to the CMT in order to keep track of the ongoing situation.
Incident command staff. In the event of a large disruptive event at a facility where there is intense public scrutiny, a member of the CCT should be assigned to the incident commander. In some cases, a communications person may have a full-time role at the facility. If not, a member of the CCT will need to travel to the facility to fulfill this role.
Depending on the severity and duration of the disruptive event, the CCT may need to expand or contract accordingly. In organizations with a limited number of communicators, it is common to engage the services of an outside public relations agency with crisis communications experience.
Members of the CCT should be participants in the organization’s risk assessment. This gives the CCT an enormous amount of information from which they can identify key external audiences and issues. Using this information, the CCT will be able effectively build important portions of the crisis communications plan.
The crisis communications plan (CCP) can either be a standalone document or be integrated into the overall crisis management plan. In either case, the CCP should have notification and activation procedures identical to the crisis management plan. The CCP will list the members of the CCT and their roles. The most important part of the CCP is the actual communications section. Using information from the risk assessment and other sources, the CCT will document the following for each disruptive scenario:
- Identify affected or key audiences.
- Identify audience concerns.
- Develop messages specific to audience concerns.
- Determine a spokesperson/messenger for each audience.
- Select tactics to deliver each message.
CCT members should receive training on how to deploy the crisis communications plan. CCT members, as well as designated spokespeople, should receive annual communications training. The training might include traditional interview skills in front of a camera or telephone and radio interview skills. In either case, spokespeople need to learn how to deliver effective messages.
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The crisis communications team should be a part of the organization’s overall exercise program at both the crisis management and incident command levels.
At some point in the crisis lifecycle, the organization will need to pivot from response to recovery. Recovery communications supports the organization as they attempt to get back to normal, or in many cases, the “new normal.” The CCT should begin planning for recovery communications while the organization is still in response mode.
Family and victim support. Aiding the welfare and morale of employees and their families can pose a serious challenge in an emergency. The American Red Cross, FEMA, and similar government and public health organizations can provide assistance and guidance in that regard.
Not all emergencies require provisions for family or victim support, but when such help is called for (for example, after a building collapse with trapped victims), the organization should be prepared to deal with fearful, distraught, or angry victims and family members. There should be a designated organizational point of contact for family members and victims. This individual should ensure that family members and victims are informed of the efforts taken to resolve the incident. The organization should also plan for family and victim logistics, addressing such issues as the following:
- Establishing a family and victim support center away from any media facilities;
- Providing food, beverages, and temporary lodging;
- Providing counseling or pastoral support; and
- Providing transportation to the incident site, if appropriate.
As major aviation accidents have graphically illustrated, the manner in which family members and victims are treated attracts media scrutiny. Any missteps in this matter may have an extremely negative effect on public perception of the organization.
Public affairs and media relations. Disasters and other emergencies are fodder for news representatives, who ask for information immediately. Mishandling the release of information to news agencies can result in negative press for the organization or permanent damage to its brand. To avoid confusion, the emergency plan should provide for the orderly release of information, preferably through a single source in the organization. The existing public or community relations division may perform this function. Procedures should ensure that the public relations director and alternates are regularly updated on developments by the organization’s emergency coordinator.
As soon as news representatives make contact, they should be told what has occurred through prepared press releases and oral briefings. It is best to avoid answering questions with the phrase “no comment.” If the media gain the impression that the organization is not releasing adequate information, they may contact individuals far removed from the actual situation who have little or no information. That approach leads to the propagation of rumors, conjecture, and speculation. A public impression that the organization is hiding something could produce a lasting, unfavorable view of the organization.
Press representatives usually cooperate if they understand why the enterprise must limit the release of information. For example, safety considerations might make it necessary to limit access to the disaster area. If so, the problem should be explained, and individuals who have been in the area should be available for interviews. The names of those who have been killed or injured should be released as soon as possible. Press representatives understand that relatives must be informed before such information can be released to the public. The handling of information concerning casualties is an important aspect of internal human relations as well as public relations. The method of handling this information should be defined and included in the written emergency plan.
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Organizations should be prepared for media requests for interviews with subject matter experts on specialized issues. In an ongoing incident, such as a barricade or hostage situation, one should expect the perpetrators to be monitoring the local and national media. Organizations should also be prepared to deal with media logistics in the event of an extended incident. It may be necessary to provide a location for media briefings and filings, offer tours of the incident scene, issue media credentials, establish media access control points, or provide a parking area for microwave remote vehicles.
Photographic coverage of the incident scene is important for insurance purposes and to support legal claims. Photographs and videos can be taken by the organization’s photographers, or arrangements can be made to obtain copies of photographs taken by news photographers.
Communicating, Testing, and Exercising Plans
Developing and implementing a plan to cope with possible emergencies is a time-consuming process. Software tools can significantly reduce the labor of capturing the necessary information. Emergency management consultants can also help ensure a complete plan. However, neither software nor consultants can reduce the need for responsible participation by the organization’s management team in plan preparation. Management must be directly involved in the identification and evaluation of the organizational assets as part of the plan development. Th is process will identify the key assets of the organization that need to be protected. Managers directly involved in day-to-day operations can make risk analysis more manageable.
The purpose of an emergency plan, as with any aspect of an enterprise security risk management (ESRM) program, is to highlight the types of problems that decision makers and other key emergency management personnel will encounter and to require them to consider, in advance, how to react when an emergency develops.
The planning process is critical and often misunderstood. Far too often, if plans are developed at all, they are put on the shelf and forgotten. For a plan to be effective, it must reflect the requirements of the organization to which it pertains. Furthermore, all persons tasked with responsibilities must clearly understand their responsibilities and be trained to fulfill them.
In addition, the plan must be tested through practice, and it should be revised considering such testing. An exercise or an actual implementation of the plan may point to the need for revisions, reassignment of responsibilities, or retraining of personnel, after which the plan should be retested. The most important thing about planning: it is a continuing process that is never finished as long as the plan exists.