Several years ago, I was sitting in an aisle seat on a plane heading home when a flight attendant announced they were looking for volunteers to deplane and take the next flight out. Of course, no one volunteered, so the attendant sweetened the deal and offered a gift card for meals in the airport while waiting for the next flight, which happened to be about seven hours later. Again, no takers. Then I noticed the attendant was walking down the aisle, appearing to come straight for me. And, why wouldn’t she? I was traveling alone. I didn’t check my luggage. But she didn’t stop at my row. Instead, she turned to the man sitting across the aisle from me.

I watched as the man calmly and politely refused to get up, explaining he did not want to leave his family. Eventually, another traveler volunteered so the man could stay with his wife and kids. Within minutes, another business traveler gave up their seat and deplaned as well. I never gave the incident much thought until earlier this week when news broke of a similar situation that turned physical in Chicago.

There are many issues with this incident that we could discuss:

  • The slow response from the airline;
  • The ongoing negative publicity circulating about the victim; and
  • The way in which the flight crew handled the situation on the plane, etc…

But what I’d really like to dive into is the importance of crisis communication training and a plan that everyone from the CEO to the cleaning crew can understand and execute with their eyes closed.


Crisis Communication Plan Basics

The entire purpose of crisis communication planning is to provide a roadmap of what to do when the “fit hits the shan.” From lawsuits and bankruptcy filings to workplace violence and accidental death, a crisis communication plan is crucial.

When an emergency occurs and business is disrupted, employees, customers, and other stakeholders need to know how they will be impacted. Here are three steps you need to take to begin crafting or updating your organization’s crisis communication plan.


Identify and Define all Your Audiences

There are multiple audiences that will want information during and following an incident and each will have its own set of needs for information. To begin mapping out the specific communication each audience receives, first identify all the audiences, then determine their needs for information. For example, a local government official will likely want different information than the business on the floor above you. Here are some potential audiences to consider:

  • Customers
  • Employees and their families
  • News media
  • Community
  • Company management, directors, and investors
  • Government elected officials
  • Suppliers and partners

It’s important that registries of each audience be kept up-to-date and are easy to access by the crisis communications team. Electronic contact lists should be hosted on a secure server for remote access with a web browser in case of a data breach or natural disaster. Hard copies should also be available at a secondary location.


Draft all Messaging for Each Audience for Various (Likely and Unlikely) Scenarios

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of things that can go wrong at any moment in time. Incidents happen and no matter how often we prepare and train to handle what may come our way, it’s never quite the same as when you’re in the middle of it. Try to think through the more common crises that could occur and develop clear and concise communication for each audience, noting how the communication will be provided whether via email, letter, telephone, or other means.

This exercise is helpful in working through what the organization will say and to whom, but it’s even more effective in deciding how the communication will be shared. NOTE: Please confirm with regulatory bodies what types of communication they require in the case of an unexpected incident.


Designate a Company Spokesperson

A good crisis communications strategy also identifies who the authorized spokesperson is when dealing with members of the press. This individual should be trained on working with the media and it should be widely known throughout the organization that they are the only person who is permitted to speak with the news media when the crisis communication plan is enacted. In many publicly traded companies, there is a company policy in place designating the authorized spokesperson for the company—usually the CEO, President, or head of corporate communications.

These three steps are a good starting point in developing a crisis communication plan and procedure that can help organizations respond as quickly as possible (hopefully immediately) to incidents that impact critical audiences. To learn more about crisis communications, check out this article from Forbes or drop us a line via our contact form.

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Lauren Littlefield headshot

Written by Lauren Littlefield

“I love the people I work with at Willow, but I come to work to help our clients. I genuinely want to do great work for them.”