The Most Common Mistakes in Crisis Communications Planning

Do you know how your team would handle a crisis situation or who would be responsible for communicating to employees and stakeholders in the midst of an incident? 

If you don’t, you’re like the majority of other companies that will be caught unprepared when a crisis occurs—and risk suffering more than necessary in the aftermath. Even more concerning, the mere lack of a crisis communications plan could increase your legal liability in the event of an incident.

Fortunately, by thinking ahead and creating a crisis communications plan in advance, you can proactively prepare how you would handle crisis incidents that could impact your organization. Below I explore some of the most common mistakes in crisis communications planning and ways to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Planning for Situations, Not Decisions

In the old days, crisis communications plans were filled with “if this, then that” guidance. However, in today’s fast-paced world, underscored by an always-on digital environment ripe for crisis, it’s nearly impossible to predict the specific crisis that will affect your company. Therefore, if your plan is written only for certain “what if” situations, it’s likely to be useless when you need it.

Instead, effective crisis plans should define the decision-making process and actions that should be taken during each stage of a crisis. Those processes are defined based on the organization’s primary vulnerabilities and are often tailored to crises of varying severity. For example, the process for responding to an incident that entails loss of life is very different from a data security breach. Yet, the fundamental steps of how you respond to that critical incident from a communications standpoint remain the same. And your plan should reflect those steps—addressing everything from the key points of contact and messages for media spokespeople to social media monitoring.

Mistake 2: Having Overlapping or Incomplete Response Teams

Another critical mistake in crisis planning is having ill-defined, overlapping or incomplete teams. When a crisis occurs, nothing is more important than knowing who the essential team players are that will handle your organization’s response—and preparing them effectively with crisis communications training.

Industrial organizations are required to have an Emergency Response Plan (ERP), which clearly indicates who should handle each step during an incident to address the emergency, while securing the safety of personnel. However, is the commander identified in the ERP the same as the lead for crisis communications response? If so, you risk running into a problem because one person cannot be primarily responsible for both putting out the fire and leading the public response. It’s essential to evaluate the different responsibilities a team member might have to ensure no one individual is overloaded during a critical situation.

In addition, do you have enough depth on your crisis communications team? This is not just a job for your communications director or investor relations lead. Each team member's role should be clearly outlined. For example, the plan should indicate the leader who can facilitate speedy legal approvals; an HR representative who can assist with employee communications; and someone with the passwords and know-how to manage your website and social media accounts. Essentially, for every stakeholder your organization has, you should have a representative on the crisis communications team. In addition, you should have back-up team members identified when you realize someone is unavailable (on vacation or maternity leave, for example) when a crisis occurs.

Mistake 3: Making Slow Decisions

In the midst of a crisis incident, time is of the essence. That’s why having the right team in place, empowered to make decisions swiftly is the linchpin for effective crisis response. When a crisis occurs, the “business as usual” pace for making decisions and approving communications during a crisis will cause your message to be left in the dust in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

Organizations should outline in their plans how they will expedite decisions, as well as when and how to issue communications during a crisis. This also includes determining ahead of time the necessary approvals to ensure your organization can respond as quickly as the public needs in order to remain in control of your message—and safeguard your reputation.

Mistake 4: Ignoring Social Media

For many corporations—especially business-to-business companies that do not interact with the public—social media is often not part of the communications picture. Therefore, these social channels are not taking into consideration when planning for a crisis. Yet, the likelihood of your crisis playing out on social media is high, regardless of how many fans or followers you have. That’s because, now more than ever, social media channels have become a trusted source of news and updates, especially during a crisis.

There are several rules to managing a crisis on social media. For starters, you should own the social media handle or page relevant to your organization’s name, if for no other reason than to ensure someone else doesn’t claim your handle and start speaking on your behalf. In addition, your social channels can become an important conduit for fast, interactive communications to the public during a crisis. This is particularly helpful when your message isn’t being communicated clearly through mainstream media. Finally, you should ensure there are defined social media owners who are empowered to monitor, report and respond on your organization’s behalf in timely way.

Mistake 5: Failing to Train for a Crisis

A good crisis communications plan sitting on your shelf is useless if no one knows where it is or how to use it. Thus, to make your investment in crisis planning worthwhile, you must train your team on the plan regularly. This could include “table top” drills, when you walk through the plan together during a meeting, or actual simulated crisis drills where each team member acts in their prescribed role. Depending on the severity of your vulnerability to crisis and the pace of staff turnover in your organization, crisis training should take place anywhere from quarterly to once every two years.

The disheartening news for organizations is that the number and type of potential crises seem to grow by the day. Without the proper planning and training, the brand reputation you’ve been investing in and cultivating for years could be dismantled in a matter of minutes. The good news is that there are proven best practices and essential steps you can take now—before a crisis ever hits—to ensure you and your team are prepared to weather any storm.

To learn more about how Pierpont has supported organizations in crisis planning and training, explore our work or contact us today.

Stacy Armijo is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Pierpont Communications' Austin office. She leads crisis communications planning, training and management for a variety of clients and helps them swiftly navigate crisis situations when they arise.