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Holly Malthouse

Published on

April 23, 2018


crisis, crisis communications, PR, public relations

A crisis manual should be something every business has - in some form, that is up-to-date and relevant to the current business model. While a crisis may be defined as something that can impact long-term reputation or their ability to operate, all businesses need to be prepared for the worst.

If a crisis situation occurs, it’s important to know how to respond, both from a communications and operational standpoint, in order to maintain your reputation and avoid any long-term damage to the brand when you come out of the other side.

It is the way that businesses respond to a crisis, that defines how they come out the other side.

How to start developing 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. And 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 a fire breaks out in one of your distribution centres or that you experience a large-scale data breach that exposes sensitive customer data. There’s a whole array of things that will be specific to you and your businesses, but if you can realise those risks, you give yourself a better chance of a) mitigating those 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, on paper, prepared for anything and everything. Each department will have their own crisis scenarios keeping them up at night. So, it’s important to speak to each team, establish their risks and ensure all eventualities are accounted for.

Once you have explored all the different crisis scenarios, you’ll need to create a severity criteria. A traffic light system works well for this. For example, a number of customer complaints picked up by the media might be defined as 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 explosion, or bomb in your offices might 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, major fire or natural disaster, terrorist attack, board-level scandal

Step 2: Clarify your incident escalation process

Once you know what your red, amber and green-level crises are, 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.crisis comms map

An example of a crisis comms team, taken from the LEWIS 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 things like preparing a media statement, internal comms and when to engage with your stakeholders.

Next, notify your comms agency (or agencies). In the early stages of an issue or crisis, 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. It may be that they create a post-crisis report or action plan to help fully understand why the event occurred, what you can do to mitigate chances of it happening again, and identify key influencers, stakeholders and journalists, in a bid to build the company’s reputation once again.

Step 3: Create a simple, easy to read document outlining the process

When a crisis hits, often 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 loads of fluffy language.

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, that will not only ensure you can move quickly, but that you don’t miss anything out.

Top tips:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Have a crisis tick list – there is no harm having a generic check list at the back of your manual. This could include things like, inform legal, or monitor activity on social media platforms, or prepare reactive media statement and relevant Q&As
  4. Have a template meeting agenda – When a crisis team meeting is called, this could include: attendees and their roles in the crisis, what information you know, what your reputational objective is, whether you are going ‘above and beyond’ in your response, what actions and priorities each member is going away with, and an agreement of your next team meeting
  5. 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
  6. Consider including third party stakeholders – while this varies hugely depending on the nature of your business, this could be local police contacts, the ICO in case of a data breach
  7. 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, maintaining your reputation.

Looking for a helping hand with your crisis communications? Take a look at our PR services and contact us for a chat.

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