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How to build a strong crisis communications team

A crisis communications team works best when all members are fully aware of their responsibilities. Here are some tips on building a highly effective response team.

In these turbulent times, the important thing to remember about crisis situations is that adversity is never a matter of "if," but "when." That's why it's essential to build a crisis communications team ready to spring into action with clearly defined roles.

Crisis communications teams must be ready to take immediate steps to preserve an organization's resources and reputation, according to Steve Goldman, senior lecturer and director of crisis courses at MIT.

"A crisis is an organization's defining moment," Goldman said. "How an organization responds during a crisis will be remembered for a long, long time."

When building a crisis communication team, it is imperative to start early, not when an organization is actively involved in a crisis. Teams should be monitoring potential crises, according to Brian Collins, director of BDO USA, a business and financial advisory firm.

"Forming the team should be a proactive effort to combat the potential surprise, not a panicked reaction when a company is in its most dire state," Collins said. "That gives the business more time and resources to identify the best individuals for the crisis communications team."

Forming the team should be a proactive effort to combat the potential surprise, not a panicked reaction when a company is in its most dire state.
Brian CollinsDirector, BDO USA

Assign the right roles

Teresa Lindsey, CEO of The Board Risk Committee, a nonprofit leadership forum with an emphasis on operational risk management, said that a crisis management team must be flexible and extensible to effectively respond to a crisis.

Lindsey said organizations that plan to craft a crisis communications team consider assigning roles to parties that can address issues in the following areas:

  • Information security
  • Security operations center
  • Physical security
  • Third-party risk management
  • Legal
  • Privacy
  • Compliance
  • Technology
  • Property
  • Business continuity
  • IT procurement

Disaster recovery teams should also be engaged and actively monitoring potential incidents, and "The severity of the incident will dictate when senior executives or board members should be involved," Lindsey said. Teams should also be able to predict potential incidents and have plans to resolve them.

Delegate based on skill set

Appoint people who can communicate clearly, concisely and calmly. Goldman recommended assigning roles to members of the organization based on experience, leadership, functional capabilities within their specific area and members who are respected inside and outside the organization.

"It's also essential that these individuals have a solid understanding of the organization so they can understand and quantify the impacts of an incident," Lindsey said.

Crisis communications team members must always have their ears and eyes open, actively promoting a "speak-up culture" that is positioned to quickly resolve or prevent conflicts and disputes, said Michael Toebe, an independent communications, reputation and crisis specialist.

"Building a reliable, emotionally intelligent team that's constantly working on and testing its judgment and decision-making is a wise investment," Toebe said. Build strong relationships across the organization, as well as with the media and key enterprise stakeholders.

Goldman recommends periodically reviewing each team member's responsibilities in a crisis, and to "verify that your organization provides overall crisis communications training to the crisis communications team, the technical crisis response teams and senior management."

A review of the crisis communications plans and members' individual responsibilities, will enable organizations to revise and adjust the plans as necessary.

Action plans for smaller teams

Smaller enterprises that lack the internal resources of their larger counterparts need a crisis communications team that can multitask. "Within a small team some vital roles may overlap due to fewer resources and less internal staff to assign dedicated roles," Collins said. "This could require using outside resources who have specific planning and communication expertise where necessary."

Smaller organizations can also invite interested external parties, such as venture capital investors and advisors, into crisis planning conversations to help develop a crisis action plan of action.

Once a crisis has been resolved, it's time to prepare for the next one. "Gather with the leaders and honestly evaluate the response [and] compile a list of lessons learned," Goldman said. Assign a list of action items to complete within 30 days and conduct drill and exercises to test the revised plans and procedures.

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