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How to develop a Crisis Communication Plan (CCP)

This article talks through the proactive development of stakeholder engagement plans.

A primary objective of taking the time to work through a crisis situation with a model that allows you to predict stakeholder reactions is that you put yourself in a great position to develop pre-crisis communication plans. At some point in your organization’s crisis preparation process, you and leaders from your organization will want to consider a number of different crisis types and use the stakeholder reaction model to help you predict not only how stakeholders will react to each scenario, but also how your communications can help these stakeholders understand why you are making the choices that you are making, that you recognize the hardship they are feeling, and that you have their interests in mind as you do your best to resolve the crisis as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The real benefit of developing crisis communication plans, what some might describe as stakeholder engagement plans, is that they will allow you to rapidly adapt them to any scenario and begin, as quickly as possible, to help your stakeholders understand your key messages. If you wait to begin this process until you are in the midst of a full-blown crisis, time limitations and other critical responsibilities will make it difficult to engage stakeholders as quickly as you would like. High stakes leaders know that having these plans on the shelf, ready to tailor, provides the best possible opportunity to preserve stakeholder trust.

To help you think through the purpose and process of having these plans at the ready, consider the following. Keep these things in mind as you bring your leadership team together to work on a collection of these plans.

The first of two short references that will help your proactive development of stakeholder engagement plans comes from the book Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding (2019) by researcher and crisis management expert W. Timothy Coombs. Dr. Coombs work has informed a great deal of the content in this course.

“If an organization has done any crisis preparation, it is usually the drafting of the crisis communication plan (CCP). While important, a CCP is not a magic insurance policy that protects an organization from a crisis. Nor is it a step-by-step set of instructions for what to do when a crisis hits. It must contain the information needed to manage a crisis but should not be overly long and cumbersome. Long CCPs look nice on shelves as they collect dust but are not practical when a crisis hits. Smart crisis managers know a CCP does not tell them exactly what to do to handle a crisis. Crises create uncertainty, and no CCP could anticipate all the subtle twists and turns in a crisis. The value of the CCP is as a reference tool. Crisis management is the art of emergent strategy. The crisis team must react to the crisis events; the strategy emerges from understanding the nature of the crisis situation.

Crises are time-pressured events during which quick responses are essential. During a crisis, time should not be wasted finding needed background information, deciding who will do what, and trying to determine the sequence of events. A CCP helps to reduce response time by gathering these elements together beforehand. In addition to speed, the CCP helps create an organized and efficient response. A CCP creates a system that can save lives, reduce an organization’s exposure to risks, and permit remedial actions without embarrassment and scrutiny. The CCP is, at its roots, a communication document and involves identifying who to contact and how. Contact information is provided for team members and additional experts that might be useful to the team. A crisis communication plan covers such information as how to reach various stakeholders and the creation of pre-crisis messages. It can include reminders, in checklist form, of key actions that typically are taken during a crisis.” Dr. Coombs description of a Crisis Communication Plan (CCP) can be very helpful for high stakes leaders. Not only does this information provide a way to frame the creation of a proactive stakeholder engagement plan, it provides an acronym that will help you conduct further research on the topic when you are ready to lead your team through a CCP development exercise.

The second helpful reference included here can be referenced on HubSpot. While there are many different versions of recommendations for how to develop a crisis communication plan of your own, there is a great deal of similarity among them. And since this particular version is free and worth retrieving from here, we’ll use it as a final resource for this activity. You will notice as you read through these recommendations that there are several references to the concepts that we have already covered in this course.

Here is a set of recommended steps for the development of Crisis Communication Plan (CCP) for your organization:

  1. Identify the goal of the plan. Before you begin, your team should determine what the objective of the plan is. It can be as simple as: “This plan creates a structure for communicating with internal and external stakeholders, in the event of a crisis that affects the reputation or normal business functions of the organization.” This ensures every aspect of your plan aligns with this common goal.
  2. Identify stakeholders. When writing the plan, it’s important to know who the plan is designed for. Outline a list of all stakeholders you’d want to keep informed about the crisis. This list probably includes employees, customers and users, partners, investors, media outlets, the government, and the general public. The latter likely includes social media followers or people located nearby in the event of a location-based crisis. You should also add all necessary contact information for each of these groups in your plan.
  3. Create a hierarchy for sharing information on the crisis. The person or team that reports a crisis doesn’t always handle crisis communications. So, a part of the plan should be dedicated to forming a hierarchy outlining how information should be shared within the company. That way, no matter who notices the crisis emerging, they’ll know who to go to first. This order depends on the structure of your team. The first step may be to notify the CEO or president of the organization, followed by the head of communications or public relations. The plan should also constitute what information should immediately be disclosed to these parties. This might include known details about the crisis, the source of the incident, and any existing backlash
  4. Assign people to create fact sheets. Your plan should detail which people on the team are in charge of creating fact sheets about the crisis. Fact sheets are lists of known facts pertaining to the crisis. They prevent rumors or misinterpretations from spreading to media outlets. Additionally, you should set a deadline for when these fact sheets will be prepared. Depending on the crisis, you may need them within 24 hours, six hours, or even 30 minutes.
  5. Identify and assess example crisis scenarios. When a crisis does happen, you will likely feel overwhelmed. Your mind will race and you will feel pressured to respond to phone calls, social media mentions, and media inquiries. This is why it’s best to outline common scenarios in advance. Some types of crises that may affect your organization are natural disasters, disruptions in normal business functions, customer or employee injuries, and product tampering.
  6. Identify and answer common questions. During any crisis – no matter how big or small – people are going to ask questions. Whether they are customer advocates or reporters, the public will want to uncover the truth. After all, in most cases, companies are seen as guilty until proven innocent. Crisis communication plans can help you identify and answer questions that you can expect to be asked during your crisis scenarios.
  7. Identify potential risks. No matter how well thought-out your crisis communication plan is, there are always going to be pros and cons. Naturally, you’ll stick with the plan that maximizes benefits while minimizing costs. However, the costs are still important to consider. Under each plan, you should document the potential risks you’ll face. That way, if the plan does backfire, you won’t be caught off guard. You will have prepared yourself and laid out steps for recuperating from these additional losses.
  8. Create guidelines specific to social media. Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. To offer as much transparency as possible, teams should focus on preparing press materials and sharing information about the crisis. The more information you retain, the more the public will want to know what you’re hiding. Reactive communication is just as important. It’s vital that team members are focused on social monitoring during a time of crisis. Any negative social media mentions should be dealt with immediately and with consistency. There should be sections of your plan dedicated solely to social media crisis management.

There you have it – a really nice set of steps that you can use when you are ready to develop your own crisis communication plan. Many high stakes leaders will tell you that taking the time to create such a plan was some of the most valuable time they have ever dedicated to a project. Hopefully, you will discover this to be true as well.

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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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