It’s Time to Update Your Crisis Communications Plan

News reports and independent commentators are ramping up the resilience rhetoric in the aftermath of last week’s Colonial Pipeline cyberattack. The discussion is understandable as gas prices spiked to $3 a gallon and, according to the Washington Post, more than 10,000 gas stations across the Southeast ran out of fuel. Since I am not a cyber defender or supply chain expert, the incident was for me an urgent reminder that we must also include communications as part of our crisis planning.

The potential for a cyberattack has long been discussed at industry conferences and in policy discussions at the state and federal levels. However, seeing it happen in real-time on this scale is a jarring wake-up call. According to an Accenture study, 68% of business leaders recognize that their cybersecurity risks are increasing. And another pre-pandemic report shows that 62% of companies say they have a crisis communications plan, but more than half of them aren’t updated.

It’s clear we have work to do as public relations professionals.

What is a crisis communications plan?

A crisis communications plan details the spokespeople, messages and channels that a company will use to communicate to its internal and external stakeholders affected by a specific crisis.

Sometimes we make these plans sound more complex than necessary. You don’t need a 400-page document with cross tabs for every possible incident that may ever occur. There is no way for you to know every scenario, and complexity often leads to little use.

Good plans include the following:

  • Clear delineation of communications roles: Understanding who needs to draft the public statement, who will be the spokesperson and an agreed-upon approval process to streamline response times. There are often too many cooks in the kitchen during a crisis; this step helps make sure everyone stays in their lane.

  • Core messages and supporting points: The New York Times described the Colonial Pipeline’s first communication as a “vaguely worded statement.” I am sure that executive management and a phalanx of lawyers pressed the communicators drafting this language to say nothing in the initial statement. Agreeing on core messages ahead of time that include pre-approved content regarding proactive efforts in readiness can help avoid the vague press release. There are common crisis scenarios that keep your business risk experts up at night. Work with them to develop this content for the most likely possibilities.

  • Information distribution and monitoring plan: It doesn’t matter if you have the right content if there is no plan for distribution. This includes media lists, online and social targets, internal management notifications and general employee updates. Once distributed, you should also have a robust approach to monitor both social and traditional media channels and a feedback mechanism for employees.

Should my company practice our crisis communications plan?

Yes. There is a great quote circling online that says, “The person who sweats more in training, bleeds less in battle.” I can assure you that communicating during a crisis is a battle and practicing before the fight makes a significant difference in success or failure. Unfortunately, more than one-third of communications executives indicate they never conduct crisis exercises.

I worked at a utility in the late 90s with a two-unit nuclear plant. We conducted full crisis drills several times a year that included operational and communications response. We held mock press conferences, developed press materials under deadline and tested our systems to make sure we were ready for a real situation. While there was never a serious event, there were minor hiccups that required middle of the night notifications to the public and our training made this possible. This model isn’t for everyone, but some form of table-top exercise periodically is advisable.

How often should I update my crisis communications plan?

Maintenance is a reality in our everyday and work lives. I recommend an annual review of your crisis plan. Reporters move, new distribution channels become relevant and organizations shift internally. Your strategy needs to address these changes. You could even combine this review with a table-top exercise to give the updated plan a test drive. The need to update also reinforces the importance of a reasonably sized plan. It’s easier to review and edit 15 solid pages of guidance than your own personal version of Moby Dick.

There will be another Colonial Pipeline, another crisis

The resilience conversation is so meaningful today because there will be another attack on our infrastructure, government systems or corporate entities in general. The Visual Capitalist developed this great infographic identifying the most significant cyberattacks by country during the past 15 years as further proof of the challenge. It highlights the disturbing fact that cybercrime will cost the global economy $10.5 trillion a year by 2025. That’s nearly $20 million every minute.

Communications executives identify “reacting quickly” as the most difficult aspect of crisis response for their organization. As communicators, we can mitigate our portion of this challenge by maintaining an updated, practiced and thoughtful crisis communications plan.
Andy Hallmark
CEO, Clear Strategy Partners
Working with a great group of communications professionals to translate challenging topics for our clients’ audiences. We get to figure out this puzzle every day and it is rewarding to be part of a firm that cares about finding communications solutions that are honest and compelling.