Crisis communications: How to prepare and mitigate with REED

According to the Institute for Public Relations, a crisis is a significant threat to business operations that can negatively affect an organization, its stakeholders and an industry if not appropriately handled. A crisis can threaten public safety, financial loss and reputation loss.

REED’s crisis management service is designed to protect an organization and its stakeholders from threats or reduce the impact felt by threats. We’ve successfully worked with many kinds of organizations in this capacity, from healthcare to children’s services to restaurants. We also established a dedicated, free crisis communications hotline during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to help companies of all sizes navigate one of the greatest crises of our lifetime.

A crisis can stem from an unplanned or unintended potentially dangerous occurrence or condition that requires an urgent response and has the potential to result in injury, illness, property damage or other loss. A crisis usually impacts an organization’s ability to operate.

For any organization, REED recommends creating a customized plan for crisis communications with our team and engaging us to train organizational leaders on how to execute the plan in partnership with REED in the event of a crisis. When a crisis arises, our team works instantly with an organization to follow the plan and form a response specific to the details of the current situation. We draft appropriate messaging, coordinate any media responses and provide coaching to executives throughout the process.

After we recently worked through this process with a healthcare client, they said, “Overall, I think the document is outstanding and addresses the issues as best can be without advance knowledge of the crisis we hope does not occur. Thanks to the REED team for developing this document.”

Preparation

An effective crisis communications plan guides communication and processes during crisis management, but the protocols included are flexible and pragmatic, depending on specific situations. It is a reference tool, not a blueprint.

To begin building a plan, REED conducts a discovery session to learn more about tactical risk management procedures within an organization, and we organize them in the plan for reference. This provides proof of an organization’s goal to minimize risk in all areas and equip its stakeholders for safety and success while aligning everything with its core values. The best crisis management practice is prevention through responsible preparation and careful execution.

Typically, screening, training and policies prevent many crises from occurring in general. Despite these precautions, unexpected circumstances occasionally arise. When a crisis occurs, having risk management procedures already documented in the plan creates a reference point for an executive team to ensure alignment and develop a response that includes the efforts taken to avoid a crisis in the first place.

A crisis communications plan also includes an extensive list of potential crises specific to an organization’s industry, customers, location and services. Naming potential situations that could threaten an organization’s safety, finances or reputation gives these situations less power, shows blind spots and allows more preparation before they occur.

When a crisis emerges, knowing who is responsible for what is crucial. Our discovery session for the crisis communications plan includes a discussion about key team members and outside resources who can be assigned roles during a crisis. We designate these roles and the chain of command in advance, so it’s one less thing to decide in the middle of a difficult situation. A crisis response team typically includes a team leader, a media spokesperson and public relations, legal, security, operations, finance, continuity and human resources leaders. This team is the decision-making body to make the final calls on all safety and response steps.

The last crucial piece to prepare in advance is the protocol for communicating with all stakeholders during a crisis, including staff, customers and investors. This should outline the tactics and methods for communicating with each group (phone call vs. social media post vs. text alert, etc.), the person or team responsible for executing that communication and the order in which the messaging should go out to each group.

Mitigation

Once the preparation phase of the plan is complete, REED outlines the general organizational guidelines for mitigating a crisis once it occurs. This part of the plan is especially flexible and used as a guide for REED and the organization to develop specific messaging and decisions during each unique crisis.

This section includes agreed-upon goals during a crisis. Some goal examples include customers’ and staff’s physical and emotional safety and clear communication between leadership and stakeholders. This portion of the plan also outlines the overarching steps during a crisis: assessment, securing safety, communication and documentation. Each step is divided among the crisis response team’s individual roles.

The communication step of crisis mitigation is REED’s primary focus, so the plan includes extensive tips, examples, strategies and guidelines for communicating with stakeholders. This section contains procedures for who, when, how and what will be communicated about the crisis. REED works with clients during crises to develop a situation-specific plan to answer these questions while relying on the existing crisis communications plan as a strategic place to start.

Based on our discovery session, REED develops overall brand filters for the plan and adjusts them in real-time with clients according to the specific situation. Brand filters are a reminder of what is important to your key stakeholders, and they serve as a litmus test to run all communications through, ensuring brand integrity in every message.

One of the most important stakeholders when it comes to a brand’s reputation is the media, and we consider all media relations alongside the strategy for communicating with customers, staff and other stakeholders. According to the details of each crisis, REED works with clients to determine if a proactive statement would mitigate damage or if preparing a statement in response to media outreach is more appropriate. To keep control of the messaging and exhibit transparency, REED rarely recommends responding to media inquiries with “no comment.” We also advise which type of media message would be most effective; the typical options are a holding statement, quote or press release.

Advance media training is one of the best ways to mitigate the effects of a crisis. REED includes media interview tips within our crisis communications plans, and we offer in-depth crisis media training for clients to practice and feel more equipped when a crisis strikes.

REED concludes our crisis communications plans with reference forms for documentation and staff guidelines. We also include our recommendations for areas where clients can improve their risk management and be better equipped during a crisis.

Regardless of whether we’ve created a crisis communications plan with a client in advance if a company identifies a potential or in-progress crisis, our team is ready to begin work immediately to help mitigate reputational damage.