Proactive crisis communications planning: How not to be a deer in the headlights


One of our clients describes it as that deer-in-the-headlights feeling – that terrifying moment when your organization is faced with a sensitive and potentially sensational situation. Overwhelmed, you don’t know what you should, can and cannot share.

This type of situation falls into our definition of a crisis: Any event that surprises, threatens or stresses your organization because of its urgency. It can be negative or positive.

A proactive vs. reactive approach

There’s no doubt that any crisis is upsetting, even paralyzing. But, a proactive approach to crisis communications planning can help your organization avoid or reduce a panicked reaction. This type of planning prepares you – then guides you – through the stages of any crisis.

First, imagine the worst.

A critical early step in crisis communications planning is to develop a master list of any situation or event that could trigger a crisis for your organization. Your list will vary depending on your business, organization or industry. Here are some examples of general buckets in which to categorize events:

  • Executive – These crises are at your organization’s leadership level. They can include things like a death, scandal, firing or resignation.
  • Organizational – These events affect your entire organization and employees. For example, layoffs or strikes, location closures, or product recalls.
  • Environmental, health and safety – This category includes threats to health, injury or death, and violation of standards, rules or guidelines.
  • Financial – These crises are often seen in combination with other categories. They include events that impact your organization’s financial state, such as financial statements, rate notifications and/or increases, lawsuits, fines, and violations of law.
  • Reputation – These crises involve things like rumors, misinformation, challenges, customer service disputes, policies, lawsuits, personnel issues and disciplinary actions.

Some events will fall under multiple buckets. Any media or social media coverage by itself is not necessarily a trigger, but earned and social media tend to amplify the events.

Prioritize by impact.

After identifying possible crises triggers, it’s time to distinguish those with the biggest impact. Then, you can develop scenarios and messaging around the biggest threats.

Coming up with scenarios will help you be and feel prepared to handle different types of potential crises.

Define guiding principles.

The next steps include outlining guiding principles and protocol for inside and outside your organization’s walls. How would your organization act during a crisis? Do those actions align with your mission and values?

Identify who and how.

This includes identifying key audiences and stakeholders, messaging and channels:

  • Who you need to communicate with
  • What they need or want to know
  • How best to reach them
  • What can and should be shared
  • Who is in be charge of sharing

Proactive planning can reassure your organization, CEO and board of directors that you are prepared to deal with the worst – and the best – that can happen. Most importantly, when crisis strikes, you won’t feel like a deer in the headlights.

Is your organization prepared for a possible crisis? Wondering how to get started with a crisis communications plan? We’d love to chat.

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