Q&A with one of our crisis communications specialists, Hollye Kirkcaldy

What is a Crisis Communication plan? 

A crisis communications plan is a set of pre-agreed guidelines and templates which prepare a business to respond proactively to a potential crisis in order to minimise commercial, operational and reputational impact. It can take a huge amount of work to put together, but it will enable a business to work quickly under potentially difficult circumstances.

Does every business really need a crisis communication plan?

The common misconception among businesses is that they’ll never experience a crisis at a level that requires a crisis communications plan. Crises can come from any angle – from data breaches and workplace accidents to employee wrongdoing and natural disasters – and can cause more reputational damage than you can possibly imagine, so it’s always better to be prepared. At the VERY least, just spend a few minutes thinking about any potential scenarios where you might be negatively impacted, and jot down a few thoughts on how you’d respond.

What are the key aspects of an effective crisis communication plan?

There are a number of elements in a comprehensive plan, including: 

  • Crisis assessment tools – the questions that need to be asked when something first happens to determine what level of crisis this is, and what the appropriate response needs to be. 
  • Procedural guidelines – the steps that everyone across the organisation should follow when a crisis first breaks. Ideally, these should be broken down by time frame, for example – within the first 2 hours. It’s important not to forget follow-up actions in these guidelines, such as reviews 
  • Scenario plans – consider what could possibly go wrong and work out your appropriate response.
  • Crisis management team – these are the key people who will need to be directly involved in activating the plan, and make sure the plan includes contact details. More on this below.
  • Template for statements and press releases – it’s obviously impossible to write out in advance a media statement for every single possible scenario, but a good plan should at least have a draft holding statement and press release which covers the most likely issues. The point of these templates is to simply save time when you may not have much of it. 
  • Key messages – what are the most important company messages that you need to stick to and emphasise?
  • Internal communication protocols – it’s easy in an externally-facing crisis to forget about what your own team is talking about internally. There is very little point working hard on the message from your CEO to press, while somebody further down the chain says something completely different to a friendly journalist over coffee. Make sure everyone across the business knows what they can and can’t say.

What’s the first rule of crisis response? 

Acknowledge that there is something going on as quickly as possible. Sticking your head in the sand when a crisis breaks and continuing with business as usual is a big mistake. With social media, news spreads rapidly whether it’s accurate or not, and nipping it in the bud as early as possible prevents people making up their own version of the truth. 

If you’ve decided that the issue is potentially serious enough to merit action, our recommendation is to always put out a holding statement to media within the first hour. This statement should simply let journalists or the general public know that you are looking into the problem and you’ll be able to provide further information as soon as possible. It puts you on the front foot and should give you enough breathing room to investigate matters and decide on the next step. 

Who needs to get involved?

Put simply, less is more. The key is to assemble a small core team who take the decisions and bring in other team members from different departments depending on specialism who can provide advice, information and recommendations as and when needed. The make-up of the team can differ depending on the type of crisis or the type of business, but essentially, if you keep it to the CEO or MD, the person who leads your company communications (e.g. Head of Comms, PR Manager or Marketing Manager) and somebody who is in charge of day-to-day operations, you’re off to a good start. 

What are some early warning signs of a potential crisis and how do you spot them?

In today’s digital age, the vast majority of crises will originate and play out on social media channels so that will often be where you’ll see those initial ripples. The types of crisis we are seeing regularly at the moment stem from things like inappropriate social media posts. Proactive social monitoring should be a key part of any organisation’s communication strategy. 

How transparent should you be, and won’t an apology just make everything worse by admitting wrongdoing?

The easy answer to this is very and absolutely not. NEVER lie. You will always be found out, and by then your reputation will be irretrievable no matter how good your crisis communications plan is. Honesty really is the best policy here. When it comes to apologies, if you’ve established the facts and you’re at fault, it’s crucial to say sorry and be sincere when you do it. Come clean and acknowledge you’ve made a mistake – it’s amazing how much better people tend to respond to this.