In today’s rapidly moving world, a crisis can come up that threatens your business at a moment’s notice, and thanks to social media spread like wildfire before you’ve even gotten out of bed in the morning. Whether it’s a slew of online attacks or something more sinister, it’s more important than ever to have a solid plan in place before something goes wrong. A well-thought out crisis communications plan, prepared in advance, will help function as a guidebook while navigating treacherous waters.

Before the Crisis

A good crisis communication plan is prepared well in advance of a crisis. Trying to contain the crisis without a plan already in place will prove immensely more difficult. While individual situations and responses will vary and need to be customized in real time, you can still lay the groundwork for a crisis communications plan in advance.

  1. Identify Your Team

Who will be the go-to individuals in your organization should something go wrong? The crisis response team should be comprised of key executives and advisors from various departments (depending on the size of your business) that can offer insights as to how certain situations will impact the organization as a whole as well as its parts. The team will need a leader who will be responsible for making all of the important calls throughout the crisis, as well as a spokesperson. When selecting a spokesperson, think through skillsets, just because someone is adept at speaking in front of groups doesn’t necessarily mean they will be the best at one-on-one interviews and thinking on their feet. Once a spokesperson has been identified, have them go through some basic media training.

  1. Anticipate Crisis Situations

Gather your crisis communications team, and any other key team members and have a brainstorming session. What could go wrong in your business? Think through possible what-if scenarios of all sizes and how your organization would respond to the various situations.

  1. Create Holding Statements

Once you’ve thought through what could go wrong, if there are some situations that are more likely to occur it’s always good to go ahead and draft a few holding statements to have on hand. Holding statements are similar to press releases but are more reactive in nature. Holding statements are very brief and simply offer the basic facts and contact information. They are distributed only when needed.

  1. Know/ Build Your Supporters

“Know me before you need me…” Relationship building always goes hand in hand with business but it’s especially beneficial when things go wrong. Continually strengthening your relationships with key stakeholders within the community ensures that when a crisis strikes, you will have advocates who will (hopefully) stand by your side and support your business.

  1. Own Your Social Media

While social media has been a game changer for marketing, it’s important to remember that it’s also a customer engagement platform. The second something goes wrong you better believe that people will take to the Internet to express their dismay but also to get real, helpful information. If you’re currently outsourcing your social media to a marketing or public relations firm, it’s important to have a plan in place for someone on the ground with real-time knowledge of the situation to be able to take over social media responses. Now is also a good time to make sure that key individuals also have access to the various accounts. A crisis is not a good time to discover that only the intern can post to Twitter for your business. If you’re not careful, improperly handling a crisis on social media can take on a life of its own as a whole new public relations crisis, as Eurostar learned the hard way.

When a Crisis Strikes

Once something goes wrong, it’s time to kick into gear and implement the plan you’ve already laid out. The most important thing is to tell your story before someone else does – and they will.

  1. Rally the Troops

Pull together your crisis communications team whether in person or via a group messaging platform so that everyone is on the same page with all of the necessary information. During a crisis, communication could be coming from every department so it’s important for everyone to be consistent in their messaging.

  1. Respond Quickly

As previously mentioned, a quick response is imperative – customers will expect one and a lack of timely response makes your company look guilty. However, and this is a big however, it’s important to respond correctly and with intention. Take a moment to fully assess the situation and consult with your team before responding. When you do respond, respond via the platform where the issue was first introduced, if possible. For example, if the crisis was first mentioned on Facebook, respond via Facebook. When responding, it’s important to always, always, always put victims first. Acknowledge their pain and suffering. This is not the time to try and make excuses or blame others. Own the situation and be genuine in your response. If local authorities are involved it’s always good to mention that you are fully cooperating with them.

  1. Don’t Forget Internal Audiences

While you are extremely focused on your external audiences, it’s important to remember to communicate with your internal audiences as well. The rumor mill can be exceptionally powerful which is why open and transparent communication that is consistent with your external messaging is equally important internally. You should also share the same messaging with any key stakeholders that may not be within your organization but still have a vested interest.

This post is the final installment of a weekly series throughout the month of March designed to better equip small businesses to DIY their public relations efforts. Previous posts included Press Releases, Digital Press Kits, and Media Interviews