And how to prepare for the worst so you get the best outcomes.

TL;DR version:

You need a crisis comms plan that includes prepared statements for every one of your audiences, a playbook for what will happen when, and FAQs for everything you’re forgetting to think about.

The full story:

“What goes up must come down.” Let’s just say that 2023 is doubling down hard on this expression. In last week’s blog we discussed the massive Salesforce layoff, and just one week later thousands of employees were let go from tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. People can debate all the reasons why, after a couple of years of knowing no bounds and hiring in frenzies, businesses of all sizes are belting out their best “Let It Go” rendition by sending staff on their way.

Know what isn’t up for debate? The need for businesses to have their ducks in a row for crisis comms so they aren’t ducking for cover when the worst happens. With all of these layoffs, horror stories of how the news was relayed to employees are filling social feeds and becoming headline news. And unless the entire comms team of a company has been let go through layoffs, whoever is left has the responsibility to manage the narrative lest it manage them instead.

Here are a few whys and hows for your business to have a crisis communication plan in place.

The Statements

Why you need them. Face it: the only time you want your business to be featured prominently in the public eye is for good news. Celebrating milestones like successful fundraising for your startup, or the big get of a well known executive for your leadership team, or an award recognition for your brand’s differentiators are all simply gorgeous when they start appearing across the internet organically. Compare that to the cringeworthy feeling of when the bad news you didn’t want to get out (or at least not right away or super quickly) starts snowballing around the internet.

You need a crisis comms plan in place waaaaaaay before anything bad or negative happens. Why? Because – and yes this is another expression but it so fits this topic – “when you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”

How you get them. First, you need to write out exactly what the issue is that you’re anticipating a crisis for. Think of it like a story you’re relaying to a friend or colleague where they ask you to “start from the beginning.” You want to write where things have been and what led to the crisis itself, whether it’s an action the company or a person in the company is taking or if an action is being taken against your company by someone or something else. Include any added context where external or internal forces outside of your control can influence the root issue. Make sure you workshop what you’ve written into something that, if it finds it way into the public sphere, says just enough without saying too much.

Next, you need to prepare a unique statement (based off of your ready-for-public-just-in-case message) for every single audience who would potentially need a response or just basic information from you about the crisis. (This is where many companies fail to prepare because they forget about one or two key audiences that they assumed wouldn’t need a statement at all.) Prepare a statement or message for the following groups: Employees and Managers; Clients; Partners; Investors; Media.

While all of the groups listed above, except Media, are for internal audiences, you must assume that the statement you send to any of those audiences will be leaked externally.

Any message you send to an internal audience in your company can and will always be shared to someone outside of the company.

Bounce your eyeballs back up to where I said “say just enough without saying too much”. When you’re sending something in writing, that is documentation that can do all manner of good as well as bad. Even conveying crisis messaging through video is fraught with pitfalls since just about everyone has the means to screencapture or record what they’re seeing and hearing. This is why really workshopping your statement(s) before releasing them to their intended audiences is so vital.

With that in mind, if you don’t currently have someone on your payroll that specializes in public relations or media, it is entirely worth the investment to enlist an expert to at least review your crisis comms. You may just want to hand the entire issue over to them so they can prepare a thorough, comprehensive crisis communication plan and playbook your team can easily follow. (Scroll to the bottom for a resource I recommend.) You’ll also ideally want someone with legal expertise to review all statements to anticipate any consequences or pitfalls.

The Playbook

Why you need it. Having the final and approved statements isn’t enough for managing your crisis. The people in your business will feel stress and possibly fear related to whatever your crisis is, and we all know that can lead to spontaneous and possibly disastrous actions and reactions – especially if they are given no direction to follow.

By giving your teams step-by-step plans to follow in your crisis comms, you give them sorely needed peace of mind to know that if something messes up, it won’t likely be them. Plus you reduce the chances that the crisis can escalate further by someone going rogue.

How to make it. Put some reverse-engineering into work here. Remember the different audiences you prepared statements for? Which people make the most sense to be involved in delivering those statements and any additional information to those audiences? For employees, you’ll want a step-by-step plan for people managers as well as your human resources reps. For clients, you’ll want a plan for account managers and possibly customer support teams who interact with clients the most. For partners and investors, consider who their primary points of contact are and provide them with instructions. For media, you’ll want to establish a spokesperson within the company who can be used as a source for the journalist if/when they file the story on their publication. Additionally, if you have someone managing your brand’s social media, it’s best to loop them into the planning as they will be the first to see any public sightings or responses to the crisis at hand.

Now that you know who all needs a plan, start by bulleting out (with timings included) what should happen when. Here’s an example list (though based on the crisis you can certainly adapt as needed):

  • Overview meeting with internal points of contact (Monday, 9am)
  • Share crisis documents, materials, and playbook with internal points of contact (Monday, 10am)
  • Send company wide email with prepared/approved messaging from CEO (Tuesday, 10am)
  • Have internal points of contact begin scheduling calls or sending approved emails for their assigned audience. (Tuesday, 10:05am)
  • Hold follow-up meeting with internal points of contact for status updates, concerns (Tuesday, 4:00pm)
  • Schedule AMA meetings for employees with managers present to field questions or concerns. (Wednesday, 10am)

Throughout all of this, your empathy muscle should be getting flexed on repeat, because you always need to be asking yourself, “What is a normal human response this person in this audience might have to this news?” By all means, don’t do this on your own! Enlist a diverse group of those you can loop into the crisis situation and ask them what they would hope to see or hear from your company as things progress. Which leads me to the final Why and How of this blog…

The FAQs

Why you need them. This is probably the most important aspect of your crisis comms because the absolute last response anyone wants to hear from you in a crisis is “I don’t know.” By preparing frequently asked questions – and well-reasoned answers to them – you help control the narrative of the crisis and might even boost credibility and trust right when you need it.

You also need FAQs because no matter how smart or empathetic you think you are, you will probably not anticipate every single concern someone else might have. By developing FAQs, with a little help from trusted colleagues or friends or PR professionals, you also help prepare everyone internally for the unforeseen or improbably outcomes of your crisis.

How to make them. Start with your final statements you’ve developed. Based on each detail provided, draft a question that would lead to that answer. You should be able to get a list of at least 4-6 FAQs drafted this way. These starter questions should get your brain awakened to tangent questions.

As you draft, put yourself in the position of someone just hearing about this crisis. What would you want to know? What would you like to know even if you think the company would never tell you? What would your loved ones or dependents want to know? Would this crisis make you feel angry, hurt, or afraid? If so, what questions would you ask seeking consolation or reassurance? Are there any positive aspects or directions once the crisis is done?

You or your colleagues may truly get uncomfortable as you draft these because of course questions, whether they’re coming from somewhere internal or external, open you up to vulnerability in several ways. But that’s why we create FAQs: to provide answers that aren’t off the cuff or unscripted, and they might possibly lead to better results than a response of “I don’t know.”

Get your crisis comms plan done NOW.

Run, don’t walk. Don’t wait. Don’t put this on a back burner. We live in a world where a single tweet by a public persona can dramatically shift world perspectives, economies, and events. You and your company only has so much control over the world in which you work and live. And, even if it turns out that your company or someone in it is causing the dramatic shift, having a crisis comms plan ready to jump into action will only help the situation. I promise.

Speaking of promises…

I have a recommendation for a PR/media resource you can enlist immediately or in the future: Novitas Communications. Michelle Lyng is the CEO and she, along with her team of pros, are incredibly responsive, empathetic, and experienced in the ways of public relations. Tell her I sent you her way; she has helped me and my teams with public and media relations for the last several years.

Do you have a crisis comms plan in place? Have you ever worked somewhere that didn’t have one and ooooooh-boy did things go completely off the rails? Do tell.

Published by Rachel

In the words spoken by Samuel Jackson in Ironman 2, “I’m the most real person you’ll ever know.” Although I have a flair for the dramatic, I’ve never been one to live behind a facade. From the moment you meet me, I can promise you an experience grounded in transparency and lively with humor. My 40+ years of life have taught me the ability to laugh and to help others enjoy the moment with me. I use my eye for detail and focus on the big picture to bring success to anything I try, and that includes the work I do for my clients.

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