Many companies have no crisis communications plan available to help them prepare for and manage their reputations during a crisis. Rather than invest in a crisis comms plan ahead of time, most companies will end up trying to improvise their way out of a crisis. Others may seek professional help, but only after a crisis strikes.

Companies taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach are invariably caught flat-footed by a crisis. They miss out on the opportunity to help frame the message communicated by the media. The narrative of the crisis can quickly become a spectacle on a public stage with the company stuck playing the role of villain. In a situation like that, no amount of PR help can keep the company from experiencing damage to their brand reputation, future revenue and capital valuation. 

But it should be noted that the creation of a crisis comms manual is not a one-off event. A crisis comms manual needs upkeep or it will gradually lose its value over time. It should be seen as a living document in need of continuous updates to ensure it reflects your most recent risk analysis, as well as internal and external organizational changes.

To keep your company as prepared as possible we recommend you follow a 2-step approach to updating your crisis comms manual. First, the ‘owner’ of the manual should make periodic updates as he or she hears any news about something that might impact the plan or staff assigned to support the crisis comms initiative. For instance, if a new CEO is hired, then that person’s name and contact information should be added to plan.

The second part of keeping your crisis comms manual up to date is to conduct an annual systematic review, which is designed to be more thorough than a periodic update. Since there is a lot more involved in this kind of update, we have spelled out four areas you should address:

Is staff information current?

You might have updated a couple of names during the past year, but did you really cover everybody mentioned in the manual? Are all the members of the crisis communications team still the same? And have there been any changes to people’s contact information (for example, an office or cell phone number)? Are the internal experts on your knowledge map still the ones you recorded a year ago? Or is Mary no longer in charge of quality control but now a line manager? As part of this exercise, send lists with people from your manual — be it an org chart or list of names with corresponding role titles and contact info —  to the respective department heads to ask for their corrections.

Are the scenarios still appropriate?

The world can change a lot in a year. If your manual mentions scenarios that are useful for training purposes, are those scenarios still as relevant today as they were a year ago? Do you need to add additional scenarios? For instance, last year you didn’t have to worry about your organization coming under fire from an inflammatory tweet by the President of the United States, but now you do. Your crisis comms plan scenarios should always reflect the newest risks to a company’s brand reputation.

Let’s make it clear, however, that using scenarios to prepare for crisis communications should never give the organization the false sense of being ‘ready’. Nevertheless, scenarios that are reflective of their times are a boon to the organization in two important ways: they continue to raise awareness among staff about the need to be vigilant and they help increase the likelihood of staff performing well during a similar crisis.

Are the processes still adequate?

New crisis scenarios could also come with new processes, timing risks and real-world impacts to your brand. For instance, how is your follow-up of damaging conversations on social media at 5:00 in the morning currently organized and staffed? Is there a social media team to capture what is being said? If so, is there an escalation process in place that can have the social media team alert the corporate communications team of a potential crisis?

Of course when it comes to crisis communications preparedness there is a trade-off between what would need to happen to fully prepare a company and the budgetary realities of the company. We are not saying that small companies need to go on a hiring spree to prepare for what probably amounts to very unlikely events. Nevertheless, some thought should at least be given to analyzing the way your processes are keeping pace with evolving internal needs and the situational threats in the world around you.

Are the external resources still up to date?

You might have checked whether your in-house staff was still in place, but are the people from the outside agency who are ready to support you still the same ones from last year’s meeting? Can the hotel you put down as a back-up offsite location still be counted on to host your emergency press conference? Your external resource list is as important as your internal one, so you should check that all the information contained in it is still up to date.

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