A crisis manual is something every business has, in the form of a plan that is up-to-date and relevant to the current business model. While a crisis can impact long-term reputation or their ability to operate, all businesses need to prepare for the worst.
If a crisis situation occurs, it’s important to know how to respond from a communications and operational standpoint, in order to maintain your reputation and avoid any long-term damage to the brand.
The way that businesses respond to a crisis defines how they come out the other side.
How To Develop a Crisis Manual
Step 1: Establish the Potential Risks
Thinking about what the “worst-case scenario” might look like across different lines of the business is a good place to start — this requires some creative thinking. It might be that a line of your product gets contaminated sparking a campaign to boycott your brand or that you experience a large-scale data breach that exposes sensitive customer data. There’s a whole array of potential circumstances that will be specific to you and your business — but if you can realize those risks, you give yourself a better chance of a) mitigating the risks so there is less chance of the event happening and b) responding in an appropriate way, quickly.
It’s important to capture all the potential types of crises so that you are prepared for anything and everything. Digital marketing during a crisis will have a few key priorities, but each department will have their own crisis scenarios keeping them up at night. It’s crucial to speak to each area of the business, establish their risks and ensure all eventualities are accounted for.
Once you have explored all the different crisis scenarios, you’ll need to create severity criteria. A traffic light system works well here. For example, a number of customer complaints picked up by the media might be defined as a low-level risk but has the potential to escalate into a full-blown crisis if a campaign to boycott your brand is launched. Whereas an office fire will be defined as red, as it would have a devastating impact on both internal and external stakeholders and potentially impact the business’ ability to operate.
- Green: may affect reputation but does not require an urgent business-wide response
- Examples: negative conversation online, minor customer complaints
- Amber: a serious incident or issue with reputational implications, but specific to one site or part of the business
- Examples: widespread customer complaints, social media-based campaign
- Red: a critical situation or major emergency threatening reputation and its ability to operate as a business
- Examples: large scale data breach resulting in loss of customer data, a major fire or natural disaster, board-level scandal
Step 2: Clarify Your Incident Escalation Process
Once you know your red, amber and green-level crises, the next stage is to create an escalation process. One way to do this is to make a visual flow chart, showing from the outset of the incident who you need to inform and what needs to be asked. Having a clear, easy-to-follow escalation process will enable anyone, familiar with the crisis manual or not, to follow a company-wide agreed procedure to collate information, inform the right people and respond in a unified manner.
An example of a crisis comms team, taken from the TEAMLEWIS Guide to Crisis Communications
Considering different scenarios to create a template escalation process will arm you with the agreed protocol when a crisis occurs. It will also help you consider tasks like preparing a press release, managing internal comms and determining when to engage with your stakeholders.
Next, if relevant, notify your communications agency (or agencies). In the early stages of an issue or crisis, prioritizing your marketing efforts is crucial. Your agency will be able to monitor conversation online — both in the media and on social channels — to help create a clear understanding of scale as well as key influences that are joining in, or possibly driving, the conversation. During the crisis, your agency can be called upon to help create comms material, messaging, Q&As and media statements. Post-crisis, they can help understand the reach and potential impact of the event. Additionally, they can create a post-crisis report or action plan to build the company’s reputation once again. This would allow your brand to fully understand why the event occurred, what you can do to mitigate chances of it happening again, and identify key influencers, stakeholders and journalists.
Step 3: Create a Simple, Easy-to-Read Document Outlining the Process
When a crisis hits, there isn’t always time to think. Having everything in place beforehand will undoubtedly put you in good stead when it comes to following an agreed procedure. As a result, crisis manuals need to be easy to follow and easy to read. There is nothing worse than having a 100-page document that has old contacts, unclear procedures and a lot of fluffy business jargon.
There is no one-size-fits-all when writing a crisis manual. However, there are some top tips, that can be applied to all plans. This will ensure you not only move quickly but also attentively to avoid missing any key details.
Top Tips To Remember:
- Include a contents page – Crises are fast-moving, help yourself by making it easy to find what you or anyone else might be looking for, quickly.
- Keep it short and sweet – A crisis manual is no place for “fluff” or long, complicated sentences. Make it short and snappy, easy to read and follow.
- Have a crisis checklist – There is no harm in having a generic checklist at the back of your manual. This could include things like informing legal, monitoring activity on social media platforms or preparing reactive media statements and relevant Q&As.
- Have a template meeting agenda – When a crisis team meeting is called, this should include the following
- Attendees and their roles in the crisis
- Information you know
- Your reputational objective
- Actions and priorities for each member
- An agreement of your next team meeting
- Include contact details – Speed is of the essence. As such, having key contacts with 24/7 numbers and email addresses will enable you to move with speed and ease.
- Consider including third-party stakeholders – While this varies hugely depending on the nature of your business, this could be local law enforcement contacts and the ICO or FTC in case of a data breach.
- Always ask, “Are we doing all that we possibly can?” – Going above and beyond during and after a crisis can ensure that you come out the other end to maintain your reputation.