Good communication is the glue that holds a disaster response together, and I’m not talking about radios and agency acronyms. Communication, on a specific scale, relates to how we message our community through the media, and this takes planning well in advance of the disaster incident or crisis. When it comes to writing a strong crisis communication plan, there are key elements that should be recognized as best practices. Emergencies are immediate. A strong crisis communication plan should always reflect that immediacy while also recognizing that different audiences must be reached with information specific to their interests and needs.

A crisis communications plan is a vital part of an organization’s crisis and preparedness program. Regardless of the crisis, organizations and business should respond promptly and accurately during the entire lifecycle of an emergency, especially in the hours and days that follow the incident.

While not an exhaustive list, the following 9 steps are foundations in which to start writing a strong crisis communications plan:

Step 1: Identify and reach Your audience

Following an incident or crisis, particular audiences, each with their own needs, will need information designed to protect their well-being. The challenge is to identify the audiences based on demographics, their association with the crisis, and the methods to best deliver disaster messages to them. The best time to address this challenge is prior to the disaster occurring in the first place, and this takes a process of identifying potential hazards that could occur in your community or organization. Once you understand what crises you may be prone to, identifying potential audiences and corresponding crisis messages becomes easier. This enables you to develop message templates that you can store away which will aid in the writing of a strong crisis communication plan were the worst to occur.

Step 2: Include your stakeholders with up-to-date contact information

Communication specialists and leaders should identify potential stakeholders and customize messaging for them as you would your potential audiences. A stakeholder includes anyone who plays an essential part in disaster response and includes anyone from media outlets to government officials to local businesses. Stakeholders should also include those cultural communities who’s first language may not be English, or whose cultural norms do not align with other members of society. 

As an example, I live in a region in which the Amish community is very prevalent. If you don’t know, the Amish do not conform to practices of who they deem as the “English” population which includes most Americans. While they may approve of the occasional use of a cell phone, most other forms of technology are forbidden in the Amish community which makes communication during a disaster challenging to say the least. To exacerbate the problem, one cannot simply print off a flyer with disaster-based communication and deliver it to an Amish resident. For the Amish to integrate with the English community, they must coordinate with a local Bishop who not only approves any interaction with the outside community, but typically is the official intermediary between the two groups. 

Knowing such information is vital to deliver crisis messaging to a cultural community and should be incorporated into the planning process as you construct your crisis communication plan. This includes competencies in all communications that are accessible and easily interpreted by the specific audiences they need to reach. Once relationships are identified and nurtured, then contact information for each audience should be compiled in advance and be accessible during an incident, then regularly updated and secured.  

Step 3: Identify spokespersons within your team

You’ve heard the adage that plans are only as strong as the weakest link. When writing a strong crisis communication plan, it is essential for all people involved to know their specific role for the plan to run smoothly. Those who handle the plan should present a cohesive strategy that is consistent and accurate, thus mirroring their recruitment of responders and spokespeople for specific components of the plan. This means that team members and spokespersons should be well-informed about the emergency so they can effectively answer questions, display genuine empathy in their responses, and have some level of decision-making authority. A spokesperson doesn’t have to be a subject matter expert (SME) in the field of incident, so it helps to have an SME on board to help the spokesperson field questions at a later date if need be.

"Once you understand what crises you may be prone to, identifying potential audiences and corresponding crisis messages becomes easier."

Step 4: Coordinate a plan of action with others

Emergency Managers and communications professionals will need to work with others related to the disaster response such as local authorities, community leaders, and emergency responders. Any strong crisis communication plan should include a collaborative effort that includes some recognition (at a minimum) or input from corresponding agencies and leaders. This is to ensure that relationships and plans are not created after the incident occurs, but well before so that communication is seamless between all who are involved in the disaster, including communities and the media. A strong crisis communication plan should develop the roles and responsibilities for each group, so an official process of information dispersal is established before the communication plan is publicly disseminated to minimize confusion. If saving lives is the point of disaster planning and response, then a strong crisis communication plan that envelops this concept helps to ensure that the public stays informed of response efforts throughout the crisis.

Step 5. Clear messaging

Disasters, by nature, breed chaos and confusion, so a crisis is a bad time to learn that your message isn’t easily interpreted by your audience. In a disaster, we hear and interpret information differently than we do on a normal day, so it’s important to not only give communities useful information, but easily understood messaging. In a crisis, we must provide clear information and guidance to those looking for leadership. So, as you plan to write your crisis communication plan, try to incorporate the following practices to ensure your messages are clear:

  • Use familiar terms that everyone can easily understand
  • Avoid technical jargon that is conducive to your agency
  • Do not overcomplicate your message or make it too long. Plan to communicate only the most essential information.
  • Use visuals, such as maps and diagrams to aid in your message delivery and incorporate common visuals ahead of time in your crisis communications plan.
  • Develop a plan and message template to use empathetic statements within the first thirty seconds of your message delivery.

"The more communication tools that you have in your toolbox, the greater the reach and ability you obtain to disseminate vital information."

Step 6: Create a living plan

Any well-developed plan is never truly developed. It is a living, breathing extension of your organization. In other words, it needs to be continually monitored, exercised, and updated. Nothing ever stays the same. This is especially when it concerns official roles and employment, contact information, technology, and most definitely society itself. Your crisis communication plan becomes stronger when you take note that cultural and societal ideas change over time Our crisis communication plan should change with them. Additionally, those in charge of disaster response must communicate quickly. Imagine after the tornado sweeps through your community and you reach for your crisis communication plan only to uncover that a quarter of your contacts no longer work for your partner agencies. Rather than being first, right, and credible, your community perceives you as slow, mistaken, and incompetent in your attempt to save lives. You’ve now taken the first steps in losing the all-important trust that you’ve worked so hard to establish with your audience. To stay on top of information and the situation, you must develop a plan that is flexible and up to date. Breathe some life into that bad boy!

Step 7: Create accessible crisis communications

Have you ever been on hold for an hour with a government agency with steam erupting from your ears…fire shooting from your nostrils…face red as Rudolph’s nose on a bitter cold day….only to find out that your government official that you’ve waited so long to talk to actually can’t help you at all…or worse…the call gets disconnected? Hell hath no fury compared to the anger we all exhibit when this happens to us, right? (by the way…it WILL eventually happen to you). We often laugh at the joke when someone who works in public service tells us that “I’m from the government and we’re here to help you.” We laugh because we know, often based off of personal experience, it’s a misguided statement. But the laughter stops when we need to hear from those in charge of a disaster response and there are crickets on the other line. Worst yet, the people on the other line seem incompetent, dishonest, or are trying to hide needed facts and information.  

In a crisis, we all need access to crisis communication so that we participate in safe practices and remain connected to our response agencies. Providing access to such systems is the right thing to do for our communities and the benefits that both you and your communities will reap are enough to move mountains. However, having “access” varies from person to person. In a well-written crisis communications plan, we should have already developed information dispensing methods to use to reach large swaths of a community. Additionally, we need to consider how we perform laser-focused targeting of specific demographics who may receive emergency information in more specific ways. Barriers such as language, culture, age, and disabilities should all be incorporated in a strong and well-written crisis communication plan.

Crisis communication leaders should consider several conventional and digital media platforms that their communities may use:

  • Television
  • Radio announcements
  • Street signage such as billboards
  • Telephone Hotlines
  • Phone calls to the public
  • Texting systems
  • Social media
  • Websites
  • Digital marketing technology such as Geo-Fencing

The more communication tools that you have in your toolbox, the greater the reach and ability you obtain to disseminate vital information. Just make sure that you update your crisis communication plan with your new tools!

Step 8: Plan for communication differences in your community

This is a combination of steps 1 and 7 and while it makes common sense, the idea should be developed as a standalone component in any strong crisis communication plan. As a teacher, I’m tasked to educate all my students, not just my higher achievers. Because of that, I must develop methods to educate a variety of students in a variety of ways. We are all different and as stated before, we hear and interpret messages differently…especially in a crisis. Some audiences, for example, are highly suspicious of any message released from social media and may not resort to apps such as X, Facebook, or Instagram to get their information. This is especially relevant today since there has been an increase in political polarization within social media platforms. Because of this, well-written crisis communication plans should incorporate a strategic mix of information channels to make communications as accessible as possible. 

As a side note, while a robust webpage with all of the bells and whistles is not essential, a functional one should be. I know…I’ve been there. As a representative of a local government who oversaw their marketing program, great web design doesn’t always fly well with what many government administrators don’t feel is a fantastic use of taxpayer’s money. The issue is this: did the government administrator ever ask the taxpayer what they would like to see on a website? Private corporations have government officials beat nine times out of ten when it comes to marketing efforts since they have more monetary backing to fund next-gen websites. I get it…governments have strict budgets to meet the basic needs of their communities. In the 21st century, however, communication has become one of those basic needs…especially in a crisis. A webpage doesn’t have to be flashy, but it does have to be accessible, easily navigated, and up-to-date. Since most Americans will receive their information from official websites during a disaster, this is one component of a strong crisis communications plan that should be planned ahead of time and well designed for audiences to receive vital information during a disaster.

"Social media is a fantastic way to monitor information concerning an emergency, but it’s important to note that it shouldn’t be used to debate with your audience."

Step 9: Include social media in your crisis communication plan

Social media is a vital component to developing a strong crisis communication plan today. It is, in fact, the go-to medium for most Americans to receive their daily news, especially for disaster-related incidents. Social media will be the standard for delivering real-time urgent news and emergency notifications… always.  We spend a considerable amount of time using social media each day and we expect to learn about breaking news from our devices first. This is because news agencies are also utilizing social media as a method of receiving information about an incident and will select their own social media accounts to break the information first. Social media is also commented upon by active social media users, which further shares and distributes the content. This becomes a double-edged sword. On one hand, commentaries made by social media users help decide what content is distributed by an agency. Say, for example, you receive negative backlash concerning a message that you distributed through social media (or any other media platform). You now know how to redesign your message to better reach audiences with more concise information. On the other hand, social media is also fantastic to counter rumors and myths which are more than likely to occur during a crisis.

This poses, however, one major temptation:

Social media is a fantastic way to monitor information concerning an emergency, but it’s important to note that it shouldn’t be used to debate with your audience. I have a friend in marketing who once told me that debating online is like wrestling a pig in slop. Both of you get dirty and the pig is the only one who likes the filth. Don’t get dragged into the mud of social media. You’ll come out looking bad while your debater loves their own publicity, no matter the cost to your own credibility. If you take your time in planning this contingency out, as well as the use of distributing and monitoring information on social media, you will most definitely be on the road to developing a strong crisis communication plan.

The 4-11:

The above nine steps are not the end-all-be-all of crisis communication plan components. They are, however, a strong foundation to which most crisis communication plans start. Individuals and families deserve timely, accurate information during emergencies so they can make informed decisions that may save lives. Once the disaster has been mitigated, communications and disaster management officials should come back together to analyze the crisis communication plan. This can help determine what methods worked, and what to improve for future disaster communications plans. Officials should also be open to any stakeholder feedback, and incorporate that feedback into future plans whenever possible.  In the end, you’ll get out of your crisis communications plan what you put into it. Over time, with conscious effort, you’ll develop the strongest crisis communication plan that fits your organization best.

About the Author

Mark Linderman is the owner of Disaster Initiatives, an online company that provides communication leaders with the tools needed to address their communities and the media throughout a crisis, and teaches the communicator to approach crisis communication from the listener’s perspective. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and nineteen-year veteran of Public Health. He instructs Crisis & Risk Communication within the field of disaster preparedness for seven universities, including Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. Mark is considered a Subject Matter Expert in the field of disaster-based communication and is a widely received public speaker and advocate for disaster preparedness. 

Mark Linderman,

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