In part one of this series, we covered the importance of establishing a monitoring system for digital media (Listen), and why that is the critical precursor to any crisis strategy. In part two, we examined the idea of building an engagement strategy for social media that develops an invested community of brand ambassadors who will advocate for you in a crisis (Engage). The third part of the series is the meat and potatoes of the matter: the plan and its components (Respond). Your plan is your response mechanism. Without one, you may stumble.
Research indicates that organizations that plan and practice are more successful in navigating a crisis. According to the 2011 Crisis Preparedness Study by Burson-Marstellar, companies with a plan recover faster and lose less money in a crisis than those who don't.
An effective crisis management plan has three pieces: operations, communications, and recovery. We will focus on the communications piece of the plan here. Good resources for help with the operations planning include:
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
- National Emergency Management Association (NEMA)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- Emergency Management (website)
There are numerous professional and training organizations in the crisis management operations field. I've only included a snapshot in the links above.
Five Essential Plan Elements - Respond
(each one of these elements should include a complete chain-of-command)
Crisis Communications Leadership/ Teams: A full list of teams, leaders, and members is needed that includes contact information and job descriptions. Represent all the key departments involved in crisis on your communications team including legal, public relations, marketing, governance, operations and the leadership. It might not be necessary for all these people to meet at every juncture, but there should be a protocol of eyes and ears that are involved in the communications efforts.
Emergency Communications Channels:
Email distribution plan for stakeholder groups. Different stakeholder groups should be on different email lists. The order of who-gets-what-when will be determined by the crisis and how you have prioritized the stakeholders in the plan.
Emergency text message or SMS alert system. Many vendors handle these needs including some social media management systems (SMMS) and standalone companies such as Trumpia, CallFire, RapidReach, Sumotext, Clubtexting, Blackboard (CONNECT-Ed) and more.
Dark or emergency website pages. An emergency website should be designed and ready to activate in the event of a crisis that warrants it. (see response matrix below)
Electronic signage. Many campuses (business and education) have electronic signage at various points on campus that can be used to contain emergency information, especially in the event of a lockdown or quarantine.
Phone chains. This is an older version of an emergency text message system, but includes the names and contact information of people that need to be in a notification chain if a crisis erupts.
Contingency communications channels. What if you lose connectivity in a crisis-- electrical, cell phone, internet, or other? Your emergency channels section should include contingencies for communication that include equipment and protocols.
Social Media Policy. A social media policy provides guide rails for anyone using social media during crisis times as well as in day-to-day operations. The policy should have a specific crisis section that identifies a messaging chain of command in addition to plans for any social media feeds that represent the organization. Here's a look at how to put one together (three part series), and here is an extensive data base of examples from Chris Bourdeaux. The crisis section of your social media policy should include:
Response matrix: How do you know when you should implement that dark website or address a specific situation in social media? A good response matrix will help you answer those questions according to your organization's culture. I don't believe there is one universal matrix that fits all. Your response matrix should be guided by your commitment to good crisis communications principles: trust, speed, transparency, engagement, and accountability. How your organization defines those principles will determine how your matrix is set up. A good place to start is with the Air Force's response matrix that suggests when you should monitor, answer, fix the facts, or restore. It also contains a series of guiding principles on the bottom line. Even though this particular matrix concerns only blog posts, the same principle can guide a full matrix for all digital channels.
Lines of responsibility: Who is in charge of messaging, monitoring, and managing the social media channels in a crisis? Do you have more than one Facebook page or Twitter feed associated with your organization? Are you going to carry the same messages on each channel, or let "unofficial" channels carry on as normal? How will you handle it if an unofficial channel gets hijacked by the crisis? Will the community manager monitor/post to unofficial channels in a crisis? You should maintain a log that tracks sentiment, numbers of posts, frequent posters, and your posts that will help you navigate the stages of the crisis. This can be done with a simple spreadsheet. Make sure you have a contingency plan for using staff from other areas to help with monitoring tasks in case the crisis produces an inundation of interest. Some social media management systems can help you handle this overload as well. If your crisis is too large and too fast for you to keep up monitoring, you may want to consider hiring a private company to help that specializes in analysis such as Radian 6.
Posting policies. Your social channels should include a posting policy that is easily found by the public. On Facebook, it can go in your "info" section. Your blog or website can have a special tab for this purpose. The important point is to have a public posting policy that will let people know exactly what is allowed and what is not. You may want to include hours of operation, or times you will be present, and other contact information. During a crisis, I would never recommend you let a channel go unattended. Make sure that someone is monitoring your official channels 24/7 at first, and at least hourly until the initial phase of the crisis is past.
Training or tabletop exercises. Practice might not make perfect, but it is one of the keys to preparedness. You can run your own simulation, or hire a consultant firm to simulate one. Weber-Shandwick has a new product called Firebell that does just that. If you construct your own, I would recommend looking back at a recent crisis in your sector and seeing how the digital communications unfolded to give yourself a template.
Media Relations. A communications plan needs to include a schedule for communicating with the media that has suggested message templates, holding messages, press conference schedules, venue designations, spokesperson designations for various venues and contingencies, a complete media contact list (telephone, email, and social media).
Messaging and Media Training. A crisis communications plan should contain several message templates that include press releases, holding messages, and value statements. Managing your reputation in times of pressure requires words and actions that revolve around your firmly held values. Any attempt to put across a message that does not line up with the way your organization behaves day-to-day will raise red flags with the public. It's important that you develop message values that are intricately connected to your organization's personality. Consult a good media trainer or, if you want to do this in-house, use a good resource like Jeff Ansell's When the Headline is You. Above all, make sure that everyone that has to deal with the media receives proper training--a worthwhile investment in your reputation.
Listen, Engage, Respond. Three pieces of an effective crisis communications strategy. How does your organization stack up? Are you ready to face a crisis? Please contact us or visit our website if you have any questions on how to build your own crisis communications plan.