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Crisis Communication Plan

Communication needs are immediate when emergencies happen. If a business operation gets interrupted, customers want to know all that will get impacted. Regulators might need notification and local government will want an update of what is happening in the community. Employees, as well as their families, may be anxious and want more information. Neighbors who live close to the facility might need information—especially if the incident threatens them. All of these people will want the information from the business long before the business can actually start communicating.

The crisis communication plan is essential to the preparedness program. A business has to be able to respond quickly, confidently, and accurately during emergencies in the hours, days and weeks that follow. Several different audiences have to get reached with specific information for their needs. The public perceptions of how the business handled the incident can impact the business positively or negatively.

Direction for the development of a crisis communication plan is provided by this particular step of Ready Business. The key is to understand each potential audience, since each audience will want to know: “How is this going to affect me?” Another part of this plan includes help for scripting messages for individual audiences and their interests. Use the Contact & Information Center tab to learn how to gather and distribute information and use your existing resources both during and after an incident.

Knowing Your Audience

One of the very first steps in developing a crisis communications plan is understanding each audience a business will need to reach during an emergency. Several potential audiences will want to have information both during and after an incident. Each audience will have its own need for information. The hard part will be to identify the potential audiences, figure out their needs for information, and then determine which employee will be the best at communicating that information to each audience.

Potential audiences:
  • Survivors and their families impacted by the incident
  • Customers
  • News media
  • Employees and their families
  • Company directors, management, and investors
  • Community—particularly neighbors who live near the facility
  • Suppliers
  • Government elected officials, authorities, and regulators
Contact Information

During an incident, contact information for every audience needs to be compiled and accessible immediately. Existing information like supplier, customer, and employee contact information can be exported from databases already in existence. For each contact, include information like contact name, organization name, cell number, business telephone number, email address, fax number, etc. Lists needs to have regular updating and be secured in order to protect the confidential information. This should be made available to the authorized users of the emergency operations center or another location for members use from the crisis communications team. Remote access using a web browser can also make available electronic lists—when it is hosted on secure servers.

Customers

Because customers are what make the business, contact with them is one of the top priorities. Customers might know of a problem right when their electronic orders don’t get processed or their phone calls don’t get answered. The business continuity plan should outline the action to have incoming calls redirected to a secondary call center if one is available. If it isn’t, redirection to a voice message relating that the business is having a temporary problem will work. The plan should also have the procedures needed to ensure that the customers are correctly informed about each status of any orders that are or were in process at the time the incident occurred.

If an incident occurs, the sales staff or customer service staff who are normally assigned to work with the customers should have the assignment to communicate with them about the incident. In the case of several customers, a prioritization list should be made so the most important customers are reached first.

Suppliers

The business continuity or crisis communication plan needs to have documented procedures for notifying suppliers. The procedures must identify how and when they must be notified.

Management

The protocols for notifying management need to be documented and clearly understood. Think of events that could happen in the middle of the night or on holiday weekends. Staff should clearly understand what would require immediate notification for management regardless of time or day. Similar procedures and protocols for notifying investors, directors, and other important stakeholders should also be established. The last thing management wants is to learn about a problem from an outside source like the news media.

Government Regulators and Officials

Communication with any government official will depend on the severity and nature of the incident as well as the regulatory requirements. A business might get a fine if it fails to notify regulators in the prescribed amount of time. OSHA regulations specify that notifications to OSHA are done when there are at least three or more people hospitalized from an incident or if there is one fatality. Environmental regulations need notifications done when there are at least three or more people hospitalized from an incident or if there is one fatality. Environmental regulations need notifying when there is a chemical release or spill that is more than threshold quantities. Other regulators need notification if an incident occurs involving contamination, product tampering, or quality. Notifications and their requirements that are specified in regulations must be documented and kept in the crisis communication plan.

Elected officials will have their attentions captured by a major community incident. A senior manager needs to be assigned to communicate with public safety officials and elected officials.

Victims, Employees and Their Families

The Human Resources (HR) department is responsible for any day-to-day communication with the employees about benefits administration and employment issues. The HR management should also assume a similar role within the crisis communications team. HR should also coordinate communication with supervisors, management, employees, and their families. HR also needs to coordinate communication for anyone involved in employee care or involved in the provision of benefits for the employees and the families of the employees. Close coordination between company spokespersons, management, HR, and public agencies is needed in order to manage the sensitive nature of the communication related to incidents involving death or serious injuries.

The Community

The community will be an important audience if there are hazards that impact the surrounding community at facilities in the community. When this happens, the community outreach needs to be part of the business’s crisis communication plan. The plan needs to include the coordination with the public safety officials in order to develop procedures and protocols for advising the people of hazards as well as the best protective action that needs to be taken.

News Media

The news media will either be calling for details or on the scene if the incident is serious. Numerous requests from regional, local, or national media can come in for information. It can be overwhelming to deal with numerous requests for information and interviews or public statements. Prioritizing requests for press releases, information, and talking points will help with the need to communicate effectively and quickly.

The development of company policy, that only those who are authorized spokespersons can speak to the news media, will be important. Communicate this policy to each employee so they know it is important to speak with a single informed voice.

Figure out in advance who speaks to the news media and make sure you prepare that spokesperson with different talking points so that they are able to speak effectively, clearly, and in terms that are easily understood.

Developing the Appropriate Messages

Both in the middle and after an incident, every audience will want information that is specific for them. “How will this incident affect my job, order, community, safety…?” These questions will need to be answered when you communicate with each audience. After you identify the audience and you identify the spokesperson that is assigned for communicating with the audience, the next thing you need to do is script messages. It will be difficult to write these messages during an incident because of the pressure caused by “too much to do and too little time.” Therefore, it is advantageous to script templates beforehand if at all possible.

The pre-scripted messages need to be prepared using the information that was developed during the risk assessment. The risk assessment process needs to identify any scenarios that might require communications with any stakeholders. There could be several different scenarios but the communication needs will relate more with the impacts or the possible impacts of an incident:
  • Property damage on company facilities
  • Accidents that injure either employees or others
  • Service or production interruptions
  • Liability associated injuries or damages that are sustained by others
  • Product quality issues
  • Chemical spills or the release of potential off-site consequences, including environmental
Messages should be created to address specific needs for every audience, possibly including:

Customer – “How long until I get my order?” “How will I be compensated for the delay?”

Employee – “When should I be back to work?” “Will my job still be there for me?” “Am I going to be paid while the business is shut down or will I be able to collect unemployment?” “What happened to my co-worker(s)?” “What is being done to address my safety?” “Is it safe for me to return to work?”

Government Regulator – “When did this happen?” “What exactly happened (details related to the incident)?” “What have been the impacts (deaths, injuries, safety of consumers, environmental contamination, etc.)?”

Elected Official – “What impacts are there for the community (economy and hazards)?” “How many of the employees does this affect?” “When will the business be up and running?”

Suppliers – “When should we start deliveries again and where should they be shipped to?”

Management – “When did this happen?” “What exactly happened?” “Has anyone been hurt?” “How extensive is the damage to the property?” “How long until production resumes?” Neighbors from the Community – “How do I know that it is safe to go outside?” “How will you prevent this from occurring again?” “How do I get compensated for my losses?”

News Media – “What occurred?” “Is anyone injured?” “How much is estimated to be lost?” “How did this happen?” “How will you keep it from happening again?” “Who is responsible for this?”

Message templates can be pre-scripted with blanks for filling in later. Pre-scripted messages can be developed and then approved by management and then stored in a remotely accessible server for fast editing and releasing when necessary.

Another critical element for the crisis communication plan is the necessity of coordinating the information release. When something major impacts the business or there is an emergency, there could be only limited information of the incident and its potential impacts. The “story” could change several times as more information is gathered.

Having the message given consistently is an important aim of the crisis communication plan. The credibility and competency will be questioned if different audiences receive different stories. Protocols should be put in place to make sure that the core of the message remains consistent while specific questions from different audiences get addressed.

The crisis communications plan will want to move from the reaction of the incident, to the management of a strategy, to the overcoming of the incident. Management will need to help develop a strategy and the crisis communications team will need to help implement that strategy by calming concerns from every audience and positioning the organization to be able to emerge from the incident with the reputation still intact.

Information and Contact Centers

The communication before, in the middle of, and after an emergency is really bi-directional. Audiences or stakeholders will ask questions and want information. The business will provide information and answer questions. A communications hub should manage this flow of information.

The “hub” of each crisis communication plan is formed by the contact and the Information Centers. The centers get requests for more information from different audiences and then distribute the information to each audience. Employees from the different departments could get assigned to talk with different audiences.

The “contact center” takes questions from suppliers, customers, news media, and others. The contact center needs to be properly staffed and equipped by personnel to be able to answer the requests for information. Staff working in the contact center need to have scripts and a “Frequently asked questions” (FAQ) sheet in order to answer the questions accurately and consistently.

The “information center” is made up of the existing staff and the technologies (e.g. call center, website, bulletin boards, etc.) that handle requests for information from employees, customers, and others during the normal business hours. The information center, and its technologies, could push information to audiences and be able to post information online for reading.

The crisis communications team is made up of members from the management team. It should operate within an office environment that allows it to support the information and contact centers. These offices can be near the emergency operations center or at a different site if the first site is unavailable. The crisis communication team’s goal is to get information of the incident. This should include the monitoring of the question types that are coming to call center operators or other staff within the office; social media chatter or the stories being broadcast by the news media; and emails that are received by customer service. The crisis communications team can use this input to inform management about the issues that are raised by the stakeholders. Management in turn can provide input for the messages that are generated by the crisis communications team. The team will then be able to make appropriate messages and distribute the approved information for release.

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