How to Make a Crisis Communication Plan

Your organization never knows when a crisis can threaten your company’s reputation, employee engagement, and the trust of stakeholders. That fact alone directs the need for a crisis communication plan because a crisis can quickly spiral into devastating consequences unless brought under control as rapidly as possible. Delays in communication leave people to think what they want, which is particularly dangerous in the age of social media and viral communication. Your goal is for management to take the lead and not become followers of difficult information and events. 

A Crisis by Any Other Name is Still a Crisis 

The most recent crisis impacting all businesses is the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have been plenty of prior crises that established the baseline for effective communication. A crisis always impacts your employees, even if it’s an external crisis, not directly of your making. For example, in 2018, Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken due to supply chain issues, and 700 restaurants in the UK had to shut down. The company used Twitter to correct rumors and transparently explained what happened to build trust in the marketplace again. The franchises were allowed to determine how they would handle worker pay while the restaurants were closed.

When it comes to #crisis communication, your goal is for management to take the lead, not to become followers of difficult information and events. #workplacecommunication

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The 2010 BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico was a disaster made worse by an unprepared spokesman making untrue comments. After the fact, it was discovered there were dangerous workplace practices at play. The cleanup crew suffers from health effects to this day due to exposure, making this crisis a long-term safety event. The company, now Exxon Mobile, is facing new crises as it deals with a COVID-19 triggered a global economic recession and falling oil prices and has announced it will downsize its workforce by 5-10 percent per year in the next 3-5 years. The company suspended employee bonuses and stopped contributing to 401k saving plans. The employee comments on social media are negative. 

Crisis as an Opportunity  

A crisis can be anything that negatively impacts the company. Remember the idiom, “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure?” Well, one company’s crisis is another company’s opportunity. The goal of a crisis communication plan is to keep your employees engaged, prevent reputation damage, prevent opportunities to form for the competition, and even to stay union-free. It’s really about business continuity because it’s a plan for proactively responding to a crisis in a way that minimizes disruption. 

For example, what if your supervisors detect union activity? This is a crisis in a company that strives to stay union-free. Do your leaders know the next steps to take? Do they know how to communicate during a worker protest, or as the pandemic showcased, when something jeopardizes employee safety, scaring the workforce enough that employees go public? 

Developing a crisis communication plan takes careful analysis of your organization’s communication system to ensure it reaches everyone it should inform and your leadership structure, so all managers and supervisors are adequately trained. UnionProof previously discussed the six basic qualities of a crisis communication plan. The next step is developing the crisis communication plan that you can put into immediate action. The following steps focus on communicating with employees, but a full communication plan will expand to address communication internally and externally with all stakeholders. 

crisis communication plan

Step 1: Assemble a crisis communication team for plan development and centralized communication.

Any business strategy comes together only when a group of people has input into the plan. A crisis communication or response team is responsible for overseeing the development of the communication plan and putting the plan into action when the time comes. The team can include anyone you want, but as a minimum, members should include an organizational leader, a Human Resources executive, representatives from different areas of concern like labor relations and workforce health and safety, and your corporate communications person. 

What constitutes a crisis? The team will identify the most likely crises, how to identify a crisis, and when to put the crisis communication plan into effect. Identifying the various types of crises drives the plan’s development because it determines the leaders who will ultimately be responsible. Senior leaders will address every crisis, but the next management levels have different responsibilities.

For example, high-level leaders from Human Resources, health and safety, and environmental safety communicate with employees concerning employee health and safety policies and procedures during the ongoing COVD-19 pandemic. The next levels of managers and supervisors – the people managing employees daily - ensure the policies and procedures are followed. 

Step 2: Identify the constituencies to keep informed.

Every business has groups of people who have the most influence on the business and determine its success or failure. Constituencies include employees, customers, investors, suppliers, and the general marketplace. Your crisis communication with employees is undoubtedly the most important initial and ongoing communication because their perspectives and understanding of the crisis will drive employee behaviors with peers, with your managers and supervisors, on social media, and, as the pandemic proved, with union representatives. Your goal is to reduce employee anxiety about the situation as quickly as possible. 

Of course, your employees will initially want to know how their work lives will be affected. They will wonder if their safety and the safety of family members are at risk if their jobs are threatened and if things like paid time off or remote work will be offered (if justified by the crisis). Your other stakeholders will have different perspectives and concerns. Your customers may care about social responsibility, and your investors are concerned with financial risks. But if you get messaging right with employees, the crisis is much less likely to spiral out of control. 

Step 3: Identify the type of information to share

You won’t want your leaders to share confidential, proprietary information, but you do want your leaders to be as transparent as possible. Your employees won’t need unnecessary details that muddy the communication. What you share should be truthful but reassuring. That requires understanding employee needs and concerns. If you’ve developed positive employee relations, managers and supervisors know employee needs.  

Some information shared should be relevant to your employees and not anything that can be misconstrued in the public forum, like on social media. Yes, it gets tricky at times deciding what to share. One of the roles of the crisis communication and response team is determining the information to share.  

It can be tricky to decide what to share, but one of the roles of your #crisis #communication and #responseteam is determining what information to share.  #crisiscommunication

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Step 4: Decide the crisis communication channels. 

Two major points are addressed in this step. First, how will you reach all of your employees? Most workforces are spread out today – onsite workers, remote workers at home, field workers, and deskless workers. During a crisis, you want to include all of your workers in shared information. 

The second consideration is the mixture of communication channels your organization will use. They can include digital communication channels, including mobile communication, website, company intranet, blogs, email, video conferencing, podcasts, employee apps, and videos. One of the main advantages of digital communication is that it can reach every employee. You can hold onsite meetings as necessary, if practical and inclusive, or a combination of onsite and virtual meetings. Posting information on bulletin boards is still a common practice, and publishing updates in newsletters is another option. 

Keep Two-Way Feedback Going

The crisis communication channels should include a way to keep two-way feedback flowing. Your employees need opportunities to ask questions, contribute to solutions, request additional information, and express opinions.  

What is important for leaders to consider is how to best engage employees in your organization. There is no “one best way” because every organization is structured differently and has a different culture.  

crisis communication

Step 5: Identify the communication best practices. 

There are a number of crisis communication best practices. Part of your crisis communication plan is identifying the best practices your leaders should embrace and utilize as appropriate for their position. An organizational crisis becomes part of the employee experience or journey. 

  • Be transparent about the crisis as it unfolds, including mistakes made because people value honesty. 
  • Share information quickly and directly with employees. 
  • Regularly share information with employees and don’t leave them guessing; share every day during the initial crisis period and during the height of the crisis; share information every other day when the crisis begins to settle down. 
  • Don’t wait to share information until you know all the answers or solutions because that only creates anxiety and gives the impression management isn’t in control.
  • Focus on what is important to your employees.
  • Describe the how and why of decisions concerning the crisis, especially those that impact employees, like remote working and benefits administration.
  • Use empathetic leadership skills. 

Step 6: Regularly train leaders on the crisis communication plan.

All your leaders need training on the crisis communication plan, including the best practices named as essential to plan implementation. Your senior leaders will communicate high-level information, but all your managers and supervisors at every level of the organization should be required to communicate with employees. It’s only fair to train them on the plan and to provide additional employee engagement training as necessary. They need to understand what they can and cannot say about the crisis as it unfolds.  

It’s the lower-level managers and supervisors who are most likely to get direct daily questions from employees about the crisis and the crisis response, especially about policies and procedures that impact them. It’s also your lower-level manager and frontline supervisors who are in the best position to stop rumors and false information from spreading. Your senior leaders can reinforce organizational values, but the lower leadership put values into action.  

Note that the period between each crisis may be short or long. A Better Leader professionals recommend training leaders regularly in order to keep skills fresh. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve discussed in a blog on labor relations training also applies to crisis communication training. People quickly forget information they don’t use. There is often no way to predict a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic. If leaders have not been trained in crisis communication in a year or two, they are unlikely to remember everything they once learned.  

Deepening Employee Engagement 

A crisis communication plan can play an important role in preventing a crisis from escalating, with the caveat it must be fully and efficiently implemented when needed. How your company defines a crisis is up to management. It could be a natural disaster, economic downturn, a pandemic, employee misbehavior, accusations of embedded bias, or anything else. With a great crisis communication plan, you can turn a crisis into an opportunity to deepen employee engagement and prove the workforce trust in management is well-placed.  

The Projections team developed the How to Communicate During a Crisis lesson for leadership training because the next crisis is always around the corner. Making a crisis communication plan is important, but it’s only as good as its implementation and leadership communication skills.  

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.