Never before have I said the phrase “crisis communications” as many times as I have in 2020. Before this year, I had taken crisis communications courses in school, but there had been mercifully few reasons to require practicing them in my work.
In 2020, however, my No. 1 piece of advice for companies and communications professionals has been to develop a crisis communications plan. If a company already has one, I recommend iterating on it for current events. Startups should be especially mindful of this advice as they often don’t have a dedicated communications person or agency yet. So when something happens that requires a response, they need to manage crisis communications themselves. Knowing how to proceed in times of crisis without damaging the company’s reputation can be tricky, though.
I hope this article can serve as a guide for setting up an initial crisis communications plan. Trust me that writing a few things down in advance of a catastrophe is well worth the effort. That way, in the heat of the moment, you’re operating based on a plan rather than allowing emotions and stress to dictate your decisions.
What Are Crisis Communications?
For the purposes of our discussion here, a crisis is any threat that can negatively impact a company or its reputation if not handled correctly. There are broadly two categories of crises. The first type of crises either stem from within a company or are centered on it, which I call internal crises. The second type, crises that originate outside the organization but still impact the company, I call external crises. Further, an internal crisis impacts just one company, but external crises affect multiple businesses simultaneously.
I’ve found that most people focus primarily on internal crises. As an example, imagine that a software company was hacked and user data was compromised. This qualifies as an internal crisis because it’s focused on that company’s users and their data. Resolving it requires communication between anyone who needs to be kept informed. Often, that list includes employees, customers, and any key stakeholders or investors.
A crisis can also come from outside of a company, though, as we’ve seen this year. COVID-19 is an excellent example of an external crisis that has, for many businesses, impacted employees, customers, and profits. In many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has required communication about how the company was impacted and their planned action, but it’s not focused on any one company.
Although some communication principles might be similar in these two situations, the first is easier to prepare for. Because external crises can take so many forms, preparing for the second type is almost impossible. Many software companies have existing policies in place for security breaches, downtime, or hacks. Prior to this year, though, few companies would have been able to point to a crisis communications plan for a global pandemic.
To help illustrate the crisis communications principles below, I’ll offer an example to illustrate how this works in practice.
Crisis Communications Principles
I have a few principles that I use when presented with a crisis communications situation at work. I’ve outlined my approach below, but keep in mind that your company will probably require slight variations on these principles and perhaps even additional elements that I haven’t presented here. Use these steps as a guide to get started, but feel free to build off of them accordingly.
1. Choose a Decision Maker
At Buffer, we have implemented the a model based on Dennis Bakke’s The Decision Maker. The goal is to help teams make better decisions by leaning on the collective knowledge, experience, and wisdom of a variety of teammates. In practice, a leader chooses someone and empowers them to make a critical decision. That decision maker seeks advice, gathers information, and ultimately makes the final decision.
Crisis communications always require a decision maker. Keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be the CEO, either. At Buffer, we aim to choose the person closest to the challenge or problem that we’re trying to solve. Generally, a trained communications or public relations person would be the ideal candidate as the problem most clearly impacts their area of responsibility. If your company doesn’t have a communications manager, you might choose a marketing manager with experience crafting messaging or someone else who understands the intended audience.
Crucially, you must choose only one decision maker per decision. Without an acknowledged leader in this space, there could be competing decisions. Two contradictory statements could be made by different people at the company, leading to disastrous consequences. The wider team must also know who the decision maker is so that they can bring new information forward as it emerges. For example, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our customer advocacy team highlighted customers who were struggling. The decision-maker for our COVID customer assistance program was then able to take those experiences into account.
2. Get the Right Input
The decision-maker model emphasizes collecting information to support the leader in making the best decision possible. Your organization should ensure the decision maker is getting the most relevant information, especially from teammates who are central to the issue or who might be most impacted as a result of the crisis.
We experienced this when the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year. While drafting our communications and deciding what kind of action we could take, it was important to hear from our customer advocacy team, as they were getting emails from customers whose businesses were being severely impacted. We’ve learned from experience that a lot of problems can be solved before they happen by simply bringing the right voices into the conversation and giving them permission to question decisions.
3. Communicate With Your Team Early
In a crisis situation, communicating with your employees is just as important as communications with the public. Ensure that your whole team is in the loop and knows who the designated decision maker is. Further, make sure that anyone who communicates with customers or other company stakeholders knows whether to reach out right away or hold until an official statement comes out. For startups with smaller teams, it’s easy to forget this step and assume that everyone knows what’s going on. Failure here can cause problems later on, though. For instance, if someone miscommunicates with the public, you’ll then need to backtrack, worsening the crisis or potentially starting a new one altogether.
At Buffer, we start employee communication by sending a message in our general Slack channel. We aim to share what’s going on, what action (if any) to take, and where the future conversation will be happening (likely Slack or Dropbox Paper for us) so that teammates know where they can send or find any new information.
We also keep everyone updated on any timelines for when messages are going to be public. This step is especially helpful for our customer support team as they are more likely to be impacted by higher ticket volumes or responses on social media.
4. Create a Plan and Set Goals
Things will probably move quickly during a crisis. Circumstances outside the company are likely to be fast-paced, and stakeholders within the company are understandably keen to resolve the crisis. At the beginning of any crisis, I recommend creating a communications plan specific to that crisis that embodies all of the principles I am outlining here but is tailored to the situation. Though the bedrock principles will work in most situations, every crisis will feature unique key players and impacts on the company. At the outset, quickly specify in your plan when to start communicating and who to share messages with, as well as setting goals related to the outcome. Doing so will help focus all communications and set your team on the same path.
The crisis communications plan should look like an outline that includes audiences and goals. The plan should detail which audiences need to receive updates as well as which channels you will use for that communication. Social media, email lists, and press releases are all examples of channels that you might use.
Next, I generally set clear timelines for communications and the desired outcome. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, communications goals might have included how quickly we wanted to create our customer assistance program and how many customers we wanted to participate.
5. Communicate Action, Not Just Words
Nothing exacerbates a crisis more than putting out a statement meant to help your company’s reputation that instead causes further damage. Dishonest communications inflict this kind of damage, as do messages that lack any meaningful commitment to action.
When communicating during a crisis, you have to make sure your words aren’t empty. During the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies moved to make their memberships free for a period of time or to offer free content to people. Those are great examples of taking action that directly helps customers and community members.
Getting permission to make these kinds of decisions sometimes involves several layers of permissions, and that’s another reason that the decision-maker model works so well during a crisis.
6. Stay True to Your Values
One of Buffer’s values is to default to transparency. We’re committed to operating in a transparent fashion both when it’s easy and especially when it isn’t. Buffer was hacked in 2013, and we were open throughout the process both on our blog and across social media. The instinct in this situation might be to wait until the situation was fully resolved before saying anything. Instead, we documented our process for handling the security breach transparently, cementing the fact that we live by our values regardless of circumstance.
Whatever your company values are, make sure that you can stick by them even in a crisis. If your values fall to the side when times are tough, it will reflect poorly on you both to your employees and to your customers.
7. Communicate Clearly
Finally, always make sure that you communicate in clear and unambiguous language to avoid misunderstanding. The tech industry, with its pervasive, highly technical language and abstract concepts, must be especially cautious here.
When Buffer was hacked in 2013, it involved access tokens. Rather than centering communication around explaining what “access tokens” are — a definition irrelevant to almost all of our customers — we focused instead on what they cared about most. Instead of a detailed explanation of a technical process, then, customers received assurances that their passwords and billing information was not compromised during the breach.
If simplifying technical language is particularly difficult for your team, bring in someone who hasn’t been involved in crafting the statement to read it and make sure they understand everything.
8. Reflect After a Crisis
After a crisis ends, it’s normal to want to avoid discussing the topic further and focus instead on how to prevent further crises from occurring. Although that conversation is of value, so too is reflecting on how the overall crisis communications went and what could be done differently.
If there wasn’t a crisis communications plan in place, debriefing after a crisis with key stakeholders is a great way to grab some best practices for your organization and create a simple checklist like the one I have below. Even if there is a plan in place, each crisis is unique and could present opportunities to evolve and expand on your crisis communications plan.
Crisis Communications Checklist
To help kick off your crisis communications checklist, here's the list we use at Buffer.
During a Crisis
- Identify a decision maker and other contributors.
- Create a space where the work happens and loop in key stakeholders.
- Define the goal at the beginning of any crisis.
- Designate a venue where the conversation is happening and give people permission to join in.
- Give those involved permission to question decisions as they are happening.
- Create a response plan for this particular crisis.
- Inform the team as soon as possible.
- Ensure there's been proper input before anything is made public.
After a Crisis
- Have a debrief meeting with key stakeholders.
- Adjust crisis communications guidelines as needed.
Ultimately, difficult times can and will test your company values. Developing a plan allows you to operate in accordance with those values because you can avoid making rash, stress-based decisions. When you tackle a crisis correctly, your company will win greater loyalty from both customers and employees. So by putting together a clear plan, you can empower yourself to emerge from your next crisis successfully.