Imagine one of your team members behaves inappropriately in public. One of your students starts a social media protest campaign against a specific staff member. Or you have to fire a couple of beloved staff members due to budget cuts. Each of these situations – and there are many more – will make you take a hit on your reputation. This is especially true today, when Internet and social media have become a constant presence in everyone’s life and are more powerful than ever.
Let’s not discuss if the allegations are right. We will assume everyone tries to do the right thing and crisis happens when we fail. But crisis does happen – so how should you react?
As always, the key to success is preparation. Developing a crisis communication plan prior to the problem is the only true action you can take to keep things in control. Of course, it will not cover all the possible problems that can happen. Neither will it take into account such things as human error and a number of unexpected ways in which the crisis can spin out of control. What it provides is a guarantee that you will manage to do everything in your power to solve the problem and save the day.
So, what is a crisis communication plan?
A crisis communication plan involves actionable steps, a plan or message you use in times of crisis to protect your institution’s reputation, to express a stand in a particular situation, to respond to inquiries, etc. We all know that crisis can take various shapes and forms:
- A political event, natural or other disaster. How do you react upon it fast so you are able to protect your team, your students and property?
- A crime such as sexual assault, murder, suicide that takes place on campus and affects students, faculty members and the local community. How do you respond, support the victims and address the perpetrators?
- Protest activities that take place on a national level, including your campus. Do you actively support, or do you try to smother it?
- Inappropriate acts, especially ones that your students or faculty commit online. How do you ensure this will not happen again?
- Controversial decisions by leadership, such as downsizing or corruption. How do you provide help to affected people and restore trust?
Why do you need a crisis communication plan?
Crisis happens in every organization in one form or another. It doesn’t matter how small or big you are. Just a couple of misplaced words by a spokesperson, a post by an unhappy team member or sometimes, an actual problem will trigger a series of unfortunate events that might stain your reputation.
There are 3 golden rules that will not allow the crisis to spin out of control:
- The reaction must be swift. You cannot wait 2 days to answer a question by the media, even if it’s the weekend. Also, written answers provide less interpretations and can often save your institution’s name and reputation.
- You need to control the narrative. The information about the crisis must come from you, the official source. If you are silent, somebody else will make their own interpretations, and they will not always be in your favor.
- All team members must be informed. People caught off guard tend to talk whatever comes to their minds. You don’t want that. The standard answer by every team member who is not informed about the crisis must be: “I apologize, but I am not fully aware of this situation. Please contact our…”
And how to build an effective crisis communication plan?
Prevent the problems
You need to always answer inquiries on social media and your website. Have a standard time frame for that, for example no longer than 1 day on social media, and 2 days on other channels. Usually people don’t start a riot before checking first if they can reach a solution through civilised methods. Also set up Google alerts to provide you with all mentions of your institution online. You will see that the buzz can be both positive and negative. That is the first step – being informed and trying to avoid the crisis before it takes place.
Figure out the possible problems and the objectives
List all the previous communication crisis your institution and try to add those that did not happen yet but might in the future (such as aforementioned natural disasters, crime or inappropriate activities). What is the objective for your institution while solving these crisis: get back to status quo, save the reputation, excel as a great problem solver? Figure out the key directions where you want to go with your plan.
Assess the situation and define the response
List what kind of situations require a solid response and which does not? Many crisis happen when a serious problem is looked upon lightly. But if you sound an alarm with every negative comment on your Facebook page, you will use up the resources you need when the real crisis happen. Define how you respond to a problem and which situations need to be solved without much thought, about which ones you need to inform the team.
Designate roles and responsibilities
Prepare a crisis communications team and make sure that they know their roles. Who is going to be the key communicator? What kind of support they will require? From where the information needs to come? Make sure that everyone is clear what kind of action is required at what kind of point during a problematic week.
Provide guidance to the team
Once it is clear that the situation needs to include other team members, they need to know what kind of specific steps they need to take. Do they share the information further, do they try to solve it? What kind of information can be shared with the press or on social media? During the crisis, a couple of calls to provide help and support can do wonders.
What kind of questions you still have about communication during crisis? Let us know in the comments!