A crisis can happen to any business at any time. While planning for a crisis may seem quite ironic, given that the very definition of the word is something that happens unexpectedly, it is incredibly important that business owners invest in creating a crisis communications plan. A thoughtful and well-crafted plan has the potential to save your business from complete catastrophe.
In this article, we’ll explore what a crisis communications plan is, why your startup needs one and why it’s important to make the creation of a plan one of your top priorities.
What is a crisis communications plan?
Since no business is immune, your startup needs to ensure it is prepared for anything that could have a negative impact on its reputation and brand.
A crisis communications plan provides a sound blueprint for how your business will communicate about crises, offering proactive and reactive protocols and messaging to help protect the reputation and integrity of your business during a crisis.
The ultimate goal of a crisis communications plan is to decrease the time between making decisions and communicating them. The crisis communications plan is your single source of truth for how you rationally and reasonably determine things should be done when you weren’t in crisis mode.
While every crisis communications plan is unique, all plans should contain the same basic elements:
- Designated crisis team. Includes the names, titles and contact information for individuals who need to be involved in making decisions and communications, both internally and externally.
- Audiences. Define the different internal and external parties you may need to communicate with in the event of a crisis (e.g., customers, stakeholders, vendors or employees).
- Potential events or situations. Identify the most likely crises your business may face that could negatively impact your brand image or reputation.
- Draft messages and materials. Key messages and templated materials that can be quickly updated with exact crisis details and information.
- Approval and dissemination process. A formulated outline for how and when messages will be shared with audiences during a time of crisis.
Make crisis communications planning a priority
As a small business owner, you’re most likely already wearing several different hats and trying to figure a variety of different things for your business. Perhaps you’re thinking that you can’t possibly put one more thing on your plate, especially one that focuses on something that may or may not happen and doesn’t have an exact deadline.
There are five key reasons why entrepreneurs like you need to make developing a crisis communications plan a top priority now:
You’re not currently experiencing a crisis
It is almost impossible to predict when a crisis may strike your business, but if you’re reading this article, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not experiencing a crisis at this very moment.
Creating a crisis communications plan during a non-turbulent time is essential. As most crises are at emotionally charged times and filled with high stress and uncertainty, building a plan now — while you’re not overcome by other feelings and factors — will allow you to avoid communication regret, wishing that you’ve said or done something different upon looking back at the situation.
You need time to get the right team in place
One of the key components of a crisis communications plan is identifying the team that will assemble and take action during times of need. This go-to team will depend on many factors. At larger companies, the team typically includes the CEO and heads of corporate communication or media relations, along with representatives from human resources and legal. As your startup may not have these different positions, it is important to build a crisis team that fits your business.
If you are your company’s sole employee and you don’t have team members to delegate roles to, consider looking outside your business to find experts and organizations that can help you during a time of crisis. For example, if you don’t already have a lawyer who knows you and your business, now is the time to find one.
Additionally, if you work with vendors and contractors, you’ll need to figure out who is the appropriate contact in case of an emergency and how you can contact them outside of office hours.
You can’t and don’t control everything
A crisis communications plan is similar to an insurance plan that covers you against not only accidents that are your fault but also incidents that are the result of the actions of others.
Think about the number of individuals and entities that your business engages with. Perhaps you have a wholesaler, manufacturer and distributor, credit card processor or a website management company. If you’re doing business with any supplier or vendor as part of your supply chain or fulfillment process, you’re already not in control of everything.
Like it or not, every single one of these is a potential liability to you. In an instant, one of them could make a mistake that ultimately puts your business immediately into crisis mode.
What about employees? Maybe right now, it’s just you, but within the next year, you plan to hire a few more team members. And as your business grows, so does the likelihood that a human error could occur.
Having a crisis communications plan in place provides peace of mind so that regardless of who causes the crisis, you know what to do and how to take ownership to save your business.
It’s a long process
A crisis communications plan is detailed and thoroughly considered. In my experience, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to months to create a comprehensive plan. As with many things, there is never going to be a perfect time to sit down and craft it. There is never going to be a good time to start a long-term project, especially when you have so many immediate needs to address.
Building a crisis communications plan is going to take a considerable amount of time. Long before you get to the “final product,” you’re going to have to dedicate time to stepping back from the weeds of the day-to-day of your business and think about the larger picture. It is during this process that you may be able to proactively identify areas that can be improved or processes or risks that should be addressed now before they become a bigger problem and make their way onto your to-do list.
You need to go into this project knowing it’s not going to be done overnight. And most importantly, this is a living document that you’re creating. As your business changes and grows, your plan is going to need to be revised and updated, too.
A crisis will happen eventually
In my professional career, I’ve built dozens of crisis communications plans, ranging from simple to nearly 100 pages with dozens of potential crisis scenarios. (Funny story: The last crisis plan that I developed failed to include “worldwide pandemic” in the list of possible scenarios. We all know what happened next).
The truth is: every business (even yours!) is going to have a crisis at some point. It may not be a monumental crisis that shuts down your facility for a week or a product defect that causes injuries, but there will be a time when a crisis arises, bringing you stress, chaos and the need for quick decision-making and response.
It’s important you realize this, come to terms with it and take action now to ensure that when this time comes, you’re prepared to confidently begin triaging the situation.
Key takeaways on crisis communications
While the majority of crisis communication happens in the moment and varies depending on the situation and timing, you can (and should) prepare now so when that inevitable crisis occurs, you have a preliminary plan to follow. If you’re still thinking that a crisis won’t happen to you, I urge you to play it safe and build the plan anyway.
Remember, business tycoon Warren Buffett once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
Originally published July 21, 2021.