Man stroking his beard while pondering the potential threats to his employees and business
Emergency Management May 20, 2021

The Role of Communication in Crisis Management

In this post, we discuss how to create a crisis management plan and explore the role communication plays in keeping people safe and businesses running before, during, and after a crisis.

Every business has experienced a crisis of one kind or another. A survey of more than 2,000 senior executives spanning 43 countries found that 69 percent of organizations have experienced a crisis within the last five years. For some, it may have been a public relations or brand reputation issue stemming from a flawed product or unexpected service disruption. For others, it may have involved a natural disaster, workplace injury, or another emergency that impacted employee safety.

Regardless of the reason, organizations around the world regularly experience crises that have a huge effect on their people and everyday operations. These events, no matter the circumstances, put organizations’ business continuity, emergency preparedness, and crisis communication capabilities under a microscope. Those that navigate crises effectively can, and often do, come out the other side a more resilient organization. Conversely, those that fail to meet the moment often experience devastating and lasting consequences. As Warren Buffett once said:

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

So what exactly constitutes a crisis for your business? And, more importantly, what can your organization do to effectively prepare for and respond to a crisis?

In this article, we’ll answer these two critical questions, explain how you can create an effective crisis management plan, and explore the important role communication plays in keeping your people safe and your business running smoothly before, during, and after a crisis situation.

What is a “Business Crisis”?

A business crisis is any event that has the potential to threaten the success and health of a company by tarnishing its reputation, damaging its business operations, negatively impacting its finances, or harming its employees. Put simply, a business crisis is any event that threatens your organization’s success and safety.

From IT outages to outbreaks of COVID-19, a business crisis can be caused by internal or external factors. Due to the severity of a business crisis and the effects one can have on your organization, it’s important to be prepared to manage these events. The first step in creating a successful crisis management plan is learning the phases of a crisis and what to expect when the unexpected occurs.

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Types of Crises: What to Prepare For

Given the vast differences and unique characteristics of different industries, it’s difficult to narrow down the list of potential crises as virtually anything could feasibly serve as the catalyst for a crisis manager having a bad day. However, there are some common scenarios that any business might encounter that escalate to a crisis incident.

Financial crisis

For public companies, a financial crisis may involve reporting quarterly results that are significantly below market expectations. A sizable “miss” may result in a crisis of confidence amongst investors or employees losing faith in the company’s strategy or leaders. For other organizations, a financial crisis may involve an inability to raise capital, regulatory fines, or other unexpected expenses that impact financial metrics.

Personnel crisis

A personnel crisis can be isolated to a specific individual or involve a large group of employees, as in the case of a work stoppage. Often, personnel crises involve an employee being implicated in a criminal event, HR complaints, or unethical behavior which requires the organization to take formal disciplinary action, such as suspension or termination, until the matter is resolved.

PR crisis

An organization’s reputation is vital to its ability to recruit and retain talent, attract new customers, and win market share. For that reason, the adage “all press is good press” is frowned upon by most business leaders and crisis management teams. A PR crisis can truly be anything—a high-visibility oil spill or product recall, unflattering media coverage stemming from a spokesperson being taken out of context, or customer complaints about decision-making during a pandemic. Each scenario requires a different approach and crisis management strategy, which is why a well-developed crisis communication plan is a must.

Technology crisis

A technology crisis is any scenario in which a critical part of your organization’s infrastructure goes offline. This may include unplanned outages with a key service provider or disruptions caused by severe weather, natural disasters, or human error.

Workplace injuries and accidents

In its annual Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary for 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a worker died every 99 minutes from a work-related injury. Common causes for workplace injuries include lifting heavy objects, general fatigue and overexertion, dehydration, industrial accidents, and incidents involving hazardous materials. Each of these has the potential for creating a crisis for environmental, health, and safety teams and/or human resources, particularly in instances where the impacted employee feels that the employer was at fault.

Workplace violence

Tragically, workplace violence remains a major issue and concern for employers in virtually every industry. According to Injury Facts, workplace assault resulted in 20,790 injuries and 453 fatalities in 2018 alone. Beyond the obvious threat to employee safety, crises involving workplace violence—which may include criminal acts, conflicts between colleagues, or even incidents where an employee is threatened while at work—can cause significant reputational damage to the business and lasting concerns from employees and job candidates.

The 4 Phases of Crisis Management

For many organizations, crisis management begins once an incident has been reported and key stakeholders convene to determine the appropriate response. However, organizations that are best equipped to navigate a crisis begin planning long before the crisis takes place.

To organize your efforts, organize your plan based on the four key stages of a crisis: pre-crisis, latent crisis, acute crisis, and post-crisis. The goal of any crisis management strategy is to get from phase one to phase four as quickly as possible, so let’s examine how to do so.

Phase #1: Pre-crisis

Think of this as your crisis management planning phase. Spend this time thinking through all the potential crisis scenarios that could occur—both self-inflicted and as a result of external forces—and examine how you’d respond. Try to fit each scenario into a corresponding crisis type or category. Create a communication playbook and templates for each category and determine who within your organization is most likely to be impacted if the crisis strikes to help prioritize who should be notified, and in what order.

Additionally, in the pre-crisis phase, you’ll want to build your crisis team. Designate a crisis manager for each scenario and ensure each team member’s contact information is up to date. Consider which individuals from relevant business groups (e.g., business continuity, disaster recovery, HR, PR, etc.) should be involved and their respective roles and responsibilities.

Phase #2: Latent crisis

You’ve identified the early signs of a crisis beginning to occur, and it’s time to put your crisis communication plan into action. In this phase, you need to focus on preventing the crisis from expanding in size, and you need to begin engaging stakeholders as quickly as possible. Remember that you may not have all the answers as the situation unfolds but promise to update stakeholders as more information becomes available. Be proactive as possible in the latent phase to get ahead of the crisis.

Phase #3: Acute crisis

If you successfully contained the crisis during the latent phase, then you don’t need to worry about the acute phase. The acute phase occurs when the crisis continues to develop. Most often, containing a crisis is out of your control, as in the case of a natural disaster or other unforeseen external events. In the acute crisis phase, react to new information as quickly as possible and keep stakeholders aware of your response with up-to-date messaging. Think through all the various communication channels you can use to disseminate information and leverage a mass notification system to ensure all team members are constantly informed. Lastly, be sure to set up a monitoring system to make sure you consistently receive updates on the situation at hand.

Phase #4: Post-crisis

When a crisis passes or subsides, your crisis management work is just getting started. Even if there is no additional information to immediately share, it’s important to remain in contact with your employees, customers, and other impacted stakeholders to demonstrate you are being proactive—particularly during crises that impact their safety. Again, make sure you have a reliable, two-way emergency notification system in place that allows you to get the word out quickly when a crisis occurs.

Finally, work with your crisis management team to review and analyze how your crisis management plan played out during a real emergency. How did your crisis communications perform? Did your audiences have any lingering questions or concerns that you neglected to answer? Integrate any lessons you learn into your crisis management process for future planning.

Now, let’s dive into the crisis management plan itself and how to create one for your business.

How to Create a Crisis Management Plan

Every organization has a duty of care to protect the well-being of its employees in and out of the office. When your people are counting on you to keep them safe from potential threats, your guarantee is only as strong as your crisis management plan. No matter the size or severity of a crisis, an effective plan will help you recover quickly and safely.

Step #1: Choose to have a plan

It may sound silly, but choosing to have a plan is a critical first step that not every business takes. While it’s likely most organizations have contemplated how they would respond to a crisis, a recent survey of communication leaders found that less than half (45 percent) have a documented crisis response plan.

Step #2: Identify all potential threats to your business

Business crises will vary depending on your organization’s industry, size, and location. While there may be obvious threats to your company (e.g., hurricanes for coastal businesses, a tornado for organizations in the midwest, and winter storms for those in the Northeast), it’s important to envision worst-case scenarios so that your team can plan to meet even the most unexpected challenges that could harm your people such as active shooters or even new government regulations that could set your business back.

Step #3 Determine the impact and severity of those threats on your business

After identifying all possible threats to your company, outline exactly how those threats will impact your business at every level of operations. Determine which employees will be affected, what damage and expenses your business will incur, and what the long-term effects of each threat will be.

Step #4: Formulate a response plan for each scenario

Once you’ve mapped out the severity of each threat, you can start planning your response. Identify the steps your organization will need to take to mitigate risks and come out on top. Also take into consideration who you’ll need to coordinate with outside of your organization, including first responders like EMTs and police.

Step #5: Identify and train stakeholders

Different crises will require input from different people on your team. Assign responsibilities to stakeholders for every crisis and train them accordingly so that they are well-versed in your crisis game plan. As a best practice, you should also conduct rehearsals periodically to identify knowledge gaps and opportunities for improvement. Consider cross-training staff on multiple crisis response roles to ensure sufficient coverage in the event one or more of your colleagues is unable to perform his or her normal duties.

Step #6: Develop response and resolution plans

When stakeholders know their role in solving a crisis, you can develop a definitive response plan with less room for error. Developing resolutions for even the most unlikely of crises can save you valuable time and money down the road.

Step #7: Revisit and update your plans regularly

Finally, it’s not enough to create a plan and lock it in place. Fulfilling duty of care obligations and successfully getting out of a crisis means having the most up-to-date solutions and management plans. Revisiting your crisis management and business continuity plans every couple of months can help you avoid blind spots, address gaps, and ensure the most accurate information is reflected.

The Role of Communication in Crisis Management

Communication can make or break your organization’s ability to overcome a crisis. From a “big picture” perspective, there are three themes that drive the need for effective communication during challenging times.

Duty of care

You have a legal and ethical duty to communicate with your employees during a crisis should it impact their safety or well-being. You also have a legal obligation to communicate the dangers and risks associated with performing functions within your business (i.e. informing employees of flooding in their area and making sure they are not putting themselves at risk by driving to the office). Not only does this keep your people safe, but it also shows them you care, which creates a stronger company culture and can boost employee morale.

Controlling the narrative

With technology at our fingertips, expectations for organizations are at an all-time high. 15-20 years ago, there was no iPhone, no social media, and no way to pull up information about an incident on-demand 24/7/365. Today, people expect to know what is happening in real-time. And if you don’t communicate what is happening to your employees, they will likely turn to social media or speak with their colleagues to figure out what is going on—meaning your organization lost control of the narrative.

If you can’t communicate, you can’t recover

Ensuring the rapid flow of accurate information is even more critical during a crisis. Rarely does everything go according to plan during an emergency, which is why crisis response leaders need the ability to both communicate out information and also receive feedback back from employees.

Studies show that during a crisis, information is as critically important to people as food or water. Not only can accurate information mean the difference between life and death, but it can also provide reassurance that response and recovery are truly underway.

How AlertMedia Can Help

Regardless of size, every organization will experience a crisis at some point. But, with an effective crisis management plan and a modern emergency communication solution, leaders can influence positive outcomes and prevent these incidents from escalating. While not every crisis will threaten the safety of your people, they all pose risk to your operations and reputation.

During any type of crisis, emails and phone calls simply won’t cut it. AlertMedia allows you to go a step further and communicate with your people via multiple channels like text, mobile app, voice, email, and even business communication platforms like Slack—all at the same time. Taking a proactive approach to communication during a crisis can help de-escalate threats, ensure employee safety, and keep your business up and running no matter what obstacles are thrown your way.

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