Definition

crisis communication

Contributor(s): Paul Crocetti

Crisis communication is a method of corresponding with people and organizations during a disruptive event to provide them with the information they need to respond to the situation.

When a crisis occurs, proactive, quick and detailed communication is critical. A business should have a crisis communication plan that establishes a framework for spreading information to anyone affected by the situation. Without crisis communication best practices, people may respond inappropriately or incorrectly, safety could be threatened and rumors can spread.

Because a business' reputation is at stake when it faces a crisis, it's important to impart information to the public to ease concerns and counter false information. An outside public relations firm can help an organization interact with the media. However, if the organization resolves the crisis quickly enough, outside communication may not be necessary.

As certain crises, such as cyberattacks , have become more frequent, crisis communication strategies remain a key element of business continuity and disaster recovery. For better planning, an organization should assume it will experience a crisis.

The phases of a crisis

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a typical crisis includes five phases: pre-crisis, initial, maintenance, resolution and evaluation. An organization must communicate during each of those phases and evolve its communication along the way.

The pre-crisis phase involves planning and education. The organization should monitor emerging risks, anticipate possible crises, educate interested parties about possible risks and suggest actions in the event of a crisis. It reaches out to necessary authorities and groups for collaboration and future help. The organization creates potential messages and communications systems, and tests them. It also identifies the crisis communication team that will communicate during the event.

During the initial phase, the crisis has started and the organization begins communicating. Because it may be a confusing and intense period, the organization should seek to provide clear and accurate direction, provide resources for more information and calm fears if necessary. Even if there isn't a lot of information to provide, crisis communication is still important and should reassure people that the organization is working on a solution.

crisis communication diagram
According to Ready.gov, crisis communication should be handled using a communications hub.

In the maintenance phase, the organization communicates updates on the crisis and details any ongoing risks. At this time, the organization gathers feedback from anyone affected by the crisis, corrects any misinformation, and continues to assess the situation and how it is responding.

When the crisis reaches the resolution phase, the situation has effectively ended but recovery remains and communication continues. The organization should communicate how it is recovering and rebuilding, and provide more detailed information about how the crisis happened. The resolution phase is also a good time to remind people how to be prepared in the event of another crisis.

During evaluation , two-way communication is important. The organization evaluates and assesses how the response went and how it could be improved. The organization reviews the crisis communication plan and updates or improves it accordingly. An after-action report comprehensively documents the crisis and response.

What a crisis communication plan includes

A crisis communication plan is a comprehensive document that includes details about audiences, contact information and messaging, according to Ready.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Potential audiences for crisis communication include customers, employees and their families, survivors of the incident and their families, media, the neighboring community, company management and investors, government officials and other authorities, and suppliers, according to Ready.gov. With each crisis, an organization must determine who to contact, when and how.

The crisis communication plan contains contact information for each potential audience. That information must be easily accessible during a crisis. The contact information is comprehensive, including names, phone numbers, addresses and email addresses. It's important to update contact lists frequently.

The plan includes the potential crises that will result in the need for crisis communication. These crises include accidents with injury, natural disasters, cyberattacks , violence, production interruptions and accidents involving property damage.

Pre-written messages are an important feature. According to Ready.gov, "Writing messages during an incident can be challenging due to the pressure caused by 'too much to do' and 'too little time.' Therefore, it is best to script message templates in advance if possible." The message includes what has happened, how people are affected, what people should do and what the organization is doing. The risk assessment informs development of the pre-written messages.

The plan details who will communicate the message and how. The organization must ensure consistency of its message, so as not to confuse the intended audiences and cause harm to brand reputation. Communicators must be ready to answer questions from a variety of groups, including employees, customers and the media. Management should be in the loop about those questions, as well as social media posts about the crisis.

A crisis communication plan should never just sit on the shelf. It must be consistently reviewed, tested and updated.

Crisis communication tools and resources

It is important to have a variety of tools and resources during a disruptive event. According to Ready.gov, those resources -- at the business site and outside of it -- include phones, automated notification systems, email, faxes, webmasters for website updates, social media accounts, copiers, networks, site and building diagrams, forms for documenting events, message boards, and hard copies of emergency response, business continuity and crisis communication plans.

With a manual call tree, also called a phone tree, an employee calls a designated contact, that person calls a designated contact and so on. If the next person on the list cannot be reached, the caller continues with the next contact in the phone tree so the chain does not break. This method brings the advantage of human contact and interaction. However, there may be issues if people affected by the crisis cannot be reached.

Executing a call tree

AtHoc, Everbridge, One Call Now and OnSolve sell automated crisis communication software. Automated software places calls simultaneously to cell phones, home phones and office phones, helping to reduce or eliminate possible breaks in a call tree.

  • AtHoc integrates crisis communication from access controls and social media to fire panels, sirens, mobile app, desktop, two-way communication radios and wearable devices, according to the vendor.
  • The Everbridge system can lock employees' computers to force them to pay attention to the emergency and the required response. Everbridge can also locate employees through its mobile app.
  • One Call Now's system features message delivery with sequence dialing, quota calling and real-time reporting.
  • OnSolve features the Send Word Now and MIR3 communications platforms.

Vendors provide automated notification systems that go beyond simply making calls. An automated system can send out messages through email, text and social media to provide information about the crisis.

Social media is a useful tool for communicating during a crisis situation. Potential platforms include Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. An organization should have a specific strategy for how it uses social media to communicate during disruptive events, as it is a quick way to reach hundreds or thousands of people. However, it shouldn't be the only way to communicate during a crisis because not everyone is on social media.

This was last updated in April 2018

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