Crisis communications – Planning is the first step

crisis communication, planning, preparation, AGC of America, AGC BD Forum

Organizational disruptions are something every company will face. Sometimes these disruptions are easily managed, while other times they quickly morph into a crisis. How you manage and lead your team through a crisis begins with planning.

To effectively manage during a crisis, companies must first anticipate what could go wrong and create a crisis management plan, which is a blueprint for how to respond. 

“The more you have preplanned, the better position you will be in to respond,” said Chris Martin, president of Atlas Marketing, a marketing and communications firm based in Pittsburgh that offers crisis communications services for the construction industry. “Planning takes a level of stress off the crisis completely.” 

“It’s not the crisis; it’s how the company is going to respond to and interact with their audiences. That’s what people will remember,” said Martin. 

A crisis can result in significant costs for contractors, including loss of revenue, regulatory penalties, and higher insurance premiums. Not all costs are financial, though. Reputation may be tarnished. Customer loyalty may wane. Talented employees may lose confidence and depart. 

In the construction field, crises are not limited to safety incidents on a jobsite or weather emergencies. They can include everything from supply chain breakdowns and equipment theft to technology failures and cybersecurity breaches. With that in mind, a crisis is anything that substantially interrupts regular operations. A plan should be developed to address all possible scenarios. 

What a crisis plan should include

“The objective of the plan is to define people’s roles and responsibilities because, in a crisis, one of two things happens. It’s the deer-in-the-headlights moment where everybody stands and expects to be led or waits for a leader to show up, or everybody wants to be a leader and then it’s even more chaotic,” said Martin. 

crisis communications
crisis planning

“The real purpose of a crisis communications plan is to define roles and responsibilities of the team and then plan the actions as a result of the various scenarios identified,” Martin adds. 

Plans should contain a list of potential crisis situations and involve who should manage, communicate, and stay informed.  Other plan elements must include:

  • which audiences require communication,
  • examples of message points to communicate,
  • details such as phone numbers, email addresses, social media channels, websites, and other vehicles for sharing information,
  • what should happen from an operational standpoint in the first 24 hours, and
  • what resources are available to the crisis response team and how to manage through the crisis.

Developed plans typically are as detailed as possible and stored in multiple formats in multiple locations. Digital copies should be available on the company intranet, computers, tablets, and phones. Paper copies should exist as well, in case the crisis is of a technological nature.

The most important element of your crisis response plan should identify the team that will make decisions and the various audiences that will need information.

Roles and responsibilities within a crisis plan

Employees will need to know different information (should I report to work?) than customers and vendors (will my order be filled, or my project continue?) and the general public (is there a safety risk?). 

Internal audiences – employees, board of directors, owners, and other company locations – should be targeted first. 

The goal of the crisis response team is to quickly gain control of the situation, build trust and keep operations going as smoothly as possible. While some work may have to temporarily pause, other work, both in the field and at the office, must proceed. 

It is critical to look at the company’s entire operation to determine what should be paused. For example, if the crisis was a safety incident on a jobsite, the marketing team must make sure it does not proceed with planned promotions on social media about how safe your company is. Potential clients and the general public are perceptive and will not appreciate the conflicting messages. In fact, it could produce a separate crisis.

“The real purpose of a crisis communications plan is to define roles and responsibilities of the team and then plan the actions as a result of the various scenarios identified.”

Chris Martin, Atlas Marketing

Every team member must understand what their role is. Members can be issued a summary of their responsibilities. That summary can be physical on a wallet-sized card, digital for phone or tablet access, or both. 

For many team members, their role may be to proceed as usual and not to make any public statements. A dedicated spokesperson should be identified to handle messaging for consistency. The CEO may seem to be the obvious choice, but their time is better spent focusing on operating the business. 

How to communicate during a crisis

It is important to provide information to various audiences. At the initial stage of a crisis, the message may be that an investigation is ongoing and further information will be provided at a later point.

“While we don’t want to ever say ‘no comment,’ it’s OK to pause and gather the facts before a response is given. At this stage, simply communicating that the company is working to gather details is acceptable,” Martin said.  

As more detail emerges working with an external spokesperson may be an option.

“Public speaking often produces major anxiety for professionals, and many executives will shy from the opportunity to tell their stories,” Martin shared. “However, we have found during the plan development phase trust and rapport is built and companies have turned to Atlas to be their spokesperson.”

While working with an experienced crisis management firm may not be an option, there are other methods leaders should consider when communicating during a crisis.

Many times, providing a written statement helps to shed light on the situation and does not require speaking with the media or others outside of your organization. Another option is to utilize the company website or social media platforms as resources and communications vehicles.

The key when communicating during a crisis is to provide truthful and timely information that works to solve the crisis.

After the crisis subsides

A crisis management plan should include a review process once the crisis has been resolved. Did the plan work as intended? What lessons were learned that could be applied in the future? 

After a plan is written, practice and review are vital to its success as well as reinforcing roles among the team.

“It’s always good to do a fire drill–just like we did when we were in grade school–and make sure by testing the process that the process works,” Martin said. 

The plan also should be updated regularly, at least annually. Updates should account for changes in personnel, additional corporate locations, or new scenarios for a crisis. 

“Be prepared. If you are not prepared or choose to stick your head in the sand, that crisis will be much harder and a lot more stressful,” Martin said. “Being ill-prepared will prove more difficult to address the situation.” 

How a company responds to a crisis can make or break the brand. Having a plan in place and preparing for when something happens ensures your company can successfully respond and return to regular operations as soon as possible.

This article originally appeared on the AGC BD Forum’s website in the national group’s Business Development Best Practices section.