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5 keys to an effective crisis communications plan

A crisis communications plan is vital as organizations are faced with evolving technologies and the risk of social media increasing the potential of minor issues escalating into catastrophes.

6 min read

MarketingPublic Relations

several people siting around a rectangular table with their laptops open while a woman stands at a planning board that consists of post-it notes. Image for story on 5 keys to an effective crisis communications plan

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During my two decades working in public relations for education companies, I’ve seen a major shift in crisis communications. It used to be that most crises arose from financial issues such as taking kickbacks or layoffs. These situations still come up, but today the more common types of crises companies need to prepare for include:

  • Data breaches
  • Ransomware attacks
  • Taking a stance on a current political or social issue
  • Issues arising from the use of generative AI, including copyright conflicts

Social media also has increased the potential for any given crisis to escalate. It’s easier than ever for consumers to swiftly gather and protest against companies, especially on the internet. People feel comfortable airing their grievances in an online forum, and the current divisive tone of cultural and political discourse has made those opinions more extreme. 

To be prepared, your organization needs a comprehensive crisis communications plan that takes into account issues specific to your community. While you can’t predict every potential emergency, the planning process itself is valuable. It can illuminate any gaps in your company’s protocols for responding to issues, including those in other business areas, such as product development or human resources, that could prevent a crisis if closed. 

Here are some essential steps to get you started.

1. Assemble a crisis response team

Know who is responsible for handling potential issues and assign clear roles and responsibilities to each member. It may be helpful to include an outside partner (such as a PR firm) in your crisis response planning since they can point out gaps, act as a devil’s advocate and respond without the emotion employees may face as they deal with the crisis at hand.

Consider what roles will need to be filled as you manage a crisis situation and who within your organization is best suited to respond to those concerns. Ideally, you should assign your crisis response team based on positions within the organization, rather than to individuals. This will help keep your crisis response plan up-to-date even if you make changes across the organization. 

Some roles within the crisis team would include primary and secondary spokesperson for public and internal statements, who handles monitoring of the situation and reports back to the team, and team members responsible for creating and approving any content or statements needed to address the situation at hand.

2. Consider all potential scenarios

Focus beyond the most obvious scenarios. Take the time to consider other potential crises that might strike your organization, and prepare for them.

For example, in the edtech space, companies most often think about the obvious possibilities, like data breaches, unexpected server downtime and layoffs. They’re less likely to think about their lack of diversity or how even their lack of a stance on an issue that their audiences care deeply about could create potential crises. 

It can be helpful to talk with other organizations in your field that have already developed a strong response plan. The more time you spend in preparation, the quicker and more effectively you can respond when a crisis does occur. 

3. Take into account all the audiences that might be affected

Once you’ve covered what your crisis scenarios could be, create a list of who could be impacted. In education, for example, that list includes:

  • Company employees
  • School and district employees
  • Parents
  • Students
  • Board members
  • Community members

You need a clear plan to address each of your unique audiences. In the education field, the message companies share with administrators may be very different from the one they share with parents. 

Furthermore, consider how each type of crisis will be most likely to affect each segment of your audience. While a ransomware attack might not have a significant impact on students, political and social issues can be much more delicate, and may require careful, targeted messaging. 

4. Establish communication protocols and escalation procedures

Set protocols for how communication will take place with each segment of your audience. Make sure you lay out the messaging you want to use with each one, and have escalation plans in place. For example, an acquisition might start out smoothly but then go awry. Maybe it causes delays in products being delivered to customers or customer service issues as the company reorganizes roles. That problem could further escalate if the media got wind of issues that were previously only known to a small group of internal people.

When you’re thinking through crisis communications and all the communication channels you might use to reach your audiences, keep in mind that sometimes in-person conversations or just a phone call can make a significant difference. Sometimes, we rely too much on technology to communicate when what people really need and want is human-to-human interaction.

In education, companies should consider whether it makes more sense to speak face-to-face with students, rather than sending out a text or email communication — or whether teachers should be encouraged to speak one-on-one with students in the event of some type of crisis. 

5. Provide (and update) staff training

To be prepared to react to fast-breaking issues, staff members need training on crisis response and working with the media. Include policies for which staff members can speak to the media, what topics they are cleared to speak about and when they should openly communicate. For example, some school districts have a policy that teachers and staff members shouldn’t communicate with the media until they have spoken with the crisis response team. 

Also, make sure employees  know who on your team to contact during a crisis if they need any further information. Knowing that they have backup can make them feel much more confident about their own responses. 

As technology continues to get more complicated, you’ll need to update your crisis communications training. (A year ago, who would’ve thought we’d all be worried about AI?) 

Even with regular training, there’s always a chance that a situation will pop up that you didn’t see coming. You won’t necessarily be fully prepared for it, but if you have your crisis communications plan and team in place, you’ll be set up to do your best for the customers who rely on your product, and for your employees who rely on your company for their livelihood. 


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Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.