The tornado hits! The earthquake trembles! The pandemic sweeps! There is a plethora of crises that disaster response agencies will have to contend with, but communicating to the public through those emergencies is a finicky act that can make or break our community’s trust in your ability to handle a crisis. This is where a solid crisis and risk communication plan comes into play. A crisis communication plan is a set of directives, prepared by leadership or a crisis communications team, for use in the event of an emergency or some other crisis situation. If you’re new to developing a crisis/risk communication plan, then this article is for you. If you’re an experienced navigator in the field, then going back to basics on the several tenets of the crisis/risk communication might be right up your alley to dust off those rusty communication joints as we explore the C-Suite of Crisis Communications.

To be fair, there is no one “right” way to develop a crisis/risk communication plan. It truly is what is right for you, your agency, and community. There are really only “best practices” that we attribute to writing a crisis communication plan. What may be more challenging for some, depending on the field you work in, is adding how a crisis communication plan works during a disaster. Regardless of the company, each organization should have a crisis communication plan for how they intend to talk to the public and the media. Often, those plans get shelved and collect dust for the day they “might” be used, much akin to a piggy bank of old pennies that people forget about.

But the disaster incident is the time when your crisis communication plan should shine and not the time to get the polish out. I once worked for a government entity that didn’t put much stock into crisis communications and it proved to bite them in the hind parts when they need it the most. We had various written plans (versus the one plan that we should have been using), power struggles as to who was in charge, and a lack of understanding of the differences between the roles of a Spokesperson versus a Public Information Officer. Needless to say…the organization’s crisis communication plan was a mess nor was it important enough for the organization’s leaders to sit down and hammer out their differences.

Then Covid-19 happened…and I’m sure you can imagine the rest of the story.  

I had left the organization only two weeks before Covid-19 was declared an outbreak, so I never had the opportunity to work through the communication problems, but I did monitor it from a distance and quietly shook my head. The organization suffered several mishaps of misinformation and lack of communication to the public. It was a cluster-cuss to say the least.  

Maybe this is your organization. Hopefully you have a solid crisis communication plan in place, but if your organization is like many, the support of your crisis communication and the development of your C-Suite of Crisis Communications may be lacking from your administration or peers.  It becomes an “insurance policy” that once written is good enough to stand the test of time without further updates or training. This, my friend, is dangerous ground to stand on…especially in the tumultuous times we live in today. Rather than write a plan that you may never intend to use, it might be better to construct a crisis communication plan that makes sense, is easily understandable, and most important… its’s applicable.  

"A good crisis communication plan acknowledges the emotional impact on stakeholders and demonstrates empathy towards those affected."

A Good Crisis Communication Plan Incorporates a C-Suite of Communication Principles

A good crisis communication plan is essential for any organization to effectively navigate through challenging situations. Firstly, clarity and transparency are paramount. The plan should outline clear lines of communication, detailing who communicates what, when, and to whom. Transparency builds trust and credibility, reassuring stakeholders that the organization is forthcoming with information.

Secondly, adaptability is key. A crisis can evolve rapidly, requiring swift adjustments to the communication strategy. The plan should be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected developments while maintaining its core objectives. This might involve designated crisis management teams empowered to make real-time decisions and adjust C-Suite Crisis Communication tactics as needed.

Thirdly, empathy and compassion are vital components. A good crisis communication plan acknowledges the emotional impact on stakeholders and demonstrates empathy towards those affected. It should prioritize human connection, showing genuine concern for the well-being of individuals and communities impacted by the crisis. This can be conveyed through both words and actions, such as offering support services or actively listening to concerns and should always be a part of your C-Suite Crisis Communications toolbox.

How to Best Utilize a Few C-Suite Crisis Communications Tools

A crisis communications plan is not just a document to have on standby; it's a dynamic blueprint for navigating turbulent times with clarity and resilience. First and foremost, it's essential to understand the plan thoroughly. Every member of the crisis management team should be intimately familiar with their roles and responsibilities. Regular training and scenario drills can help ensure that when a crisis hits, everyone knows their part, fostering swift and coordinated responses.

Secondly, effective communication lies at the heart of any crisis response. Transparency, honesty, and timeliness are paramount. In the initial stages of a crisis, there may be uncertainty and speculation. However, a well-prepared communications team can provide regular updates, acknowledging what is known, what is being done, and what steps are being taken to resolve the situation. This not only helps to manage the narrative but also demonstrates accountability and a commitment to addressing the issue head-on.

Lastly, a crisis communications plan should include provisions for post-crisis evaluation and learning. Once the immediate threat has passed, it's essential to conduct a thorough review of the response. What worked well? What could be improved? These insights are invaluable for refining the plan and strengthening the organization's resilience in the face of future crises. By continually adapting and evolving their approach, organizations can turn crises into opportunities for growth and improvement, emerging stronger and more prepared than before.

With that, there are several foundational considerations to consider before you put pen to paper and write a plan and utilize some C-Suite Crisis Communication tools:

C-Suite Consideration #1: Plan a crisis communications response strategy before a crisis occurs

Think about what could go wrong when you are building a crisis communication plan. Assemble a crisis management team and brainstorm a list of potential crises that could affect your company or community. To help you get started, these crises may fall into several larger categories (information, criminal, natural disasters, economic, reputation, or product-related) but can point you in the right direction. Knowing what might happen can help you think about what you can do, and you may find steps you can take now to eliminate the risk of a crisis in the first place.

Next, determine how you’ll communicate with employees and community members in a crisis situation. Communicating may include:

  • Setting up special channels on your branded mobile app that can be activated at a moment’s notice,
  • Drafting holding statements (crisis messages) so you aren’t preparing them when you should already be disseminating information,
  • Choosing a point person for each scenario, and
  • Setting up human resources and your crisis management team to be able to effectively communicate with employees.

Different people consume content differently. Some will check email regularly, others only have access to their smartphones or tablets during work, and some may prefer a phone call or a notice on the company’s intranet

One method of communication will not be enough. You need to meet people where they are, and this includes having a crisis management plan in place in case your primary means of communication is not available. This is one C-Suite crisis communication consideration you don’t want to skip!

C-Suite Consideration #2: When a crisis occurs, plan to act quickly and strategically

In crisis situations, act quickly but strategically. In other words, don’t just jump into action without first pausing to make sure your information is as accurate as possible. The last thing you want to do is put out inaccurate messages during a crisis. If you’ve done your crisis management process planning, you’ll be in an excellent position to respond quickly and start getting information out to the public through the media even if you don’t have the exact answers. Remember, you want your community or employee base to trust the authority of your messaging, and not gather information from unreliable sources during a crisis situation.

Update them regularly so you know they consistently have the most up-to-date information. Instead of trying to stop them from sharing information, provide accurate information for them to share. Draft a simple crisis message that answers or addresses their most important questions to the best of your ability. As the crisis unfolds, adapt follow-up crisis messages as necessary and make sure employees know the situation is fluid. Your top priority should be to produce factual, consistent, and practical messaging in your crisis communications..

C-Suite Consideration #3: Conduct a post-crisis communication analysis

Companies and communities that have successfully navigated a crisis will often be anxious to move on. However, it is important to evaluate how the crisis communications plan worked. 

If you are practicing crisis communications in a business, ask yourself several key questions: Did all employees receive the necessary information? How many employees didn’t? Was your communication timely? Were you able to control the message? How did the communications perform? The same type of questioning can also be applied to your community and the media.

After you evaluate how the plan worked, make adjustments and corrective actions for next time. Keep what worked well, and change whatever didn’t go as expected. This may include shifting how you communicate, updating and clarifying your crisis messaging, or eliminating anything that slowed you down or created unintended problems. Include your key stakeholders, community members, and employees in this process! They’ll be in the best position to tell you what worked and what didn’t.

After you harden your ability to set the groundwork for developing and activating your crisis communications plan, consider some key cornerstone’s that give your plan direction and soul. Some communicators label these cornerstone components the “5 C’s” of crisis communication. In today’s culture of disaster readiness, there is actually a comprehensive list of “C’s” that can add to the effectiveness of a crisis communications plan. For the sake of this article, we’ll label them as the C-Suite of Crisis Communications.

"In times of crisis, a committed approach involves swift and decisive actions, clear and consistent messaging, and an unwavering commitment to resolving the situation ethically and responsibly."

C-Suite of Crisis Communication:

Crisis communication is a vital aspect of managing any unexpected event or issue that threatens the reputation or operations of an organization. The C-Suite of Crisis Communications framework provides a structured approach to navigating such situations effectively.

Candor: The first C emphasizes the importance of honesty and transparency in crisis communication. Being candid means providing accurate and timely information to stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the public. It involves acknowledging the severity of the situation, accepting responsibility for any mistakes, and avoiding the temptation to conceal or downplay negative aspects of the crisis. By demonstrating candor, organizations can build trust and credibility, essential for maintaining relationships during challenging times. While often overlooked, candor is a staple tool in the C-Suite Crisis Communications toolbox.

: This tool in the C-Suite crisis communication playbook emphasizes the importance of maintaining a sense of calmness both internally within the organization and in external communication with stakeholders. Remaining composed as a spokesperson allows for clearer thinking and strategic decision-making amidst chaos. It involves controlling panic and preventing the spread of misinformation. Leaders must exude confidence and reassurance to inspire trust and stability during turbulent times.

Clarity: Clarity in crisis communication involves delivering messages that are clear, concise, and easily understood by all audiences. It's crucial to avoid jargon, technical language, or ambiguity that could confuse or mislead stakeholders. Clear communication helps to minimize misunderstandings, prevent rumors or misinformation from spreading, and enables individuals to make informed decisions. Whether through written statements, verbal updates, or visual aids, maintaining clarity ensures that the intended message is received accurately, reducing the risk of further complications during a crisis.

Consistency: Consistency is key to establishing coherence and reliability in crisis communication efforts. It entails ensuring that all messages, both internally and externally, align with each other and convey a unified narrative. Consistent messaging helps to prevent confusion or contradictions that could undermine trust and credibility. Whether communicating through official statements, press releases, or social media updates, maintaining consistency in tone, content, and timing reinforces the organization's commitment to transparency and accountability throughout the crisis, ranking it high in the C-Suite of Crisis Communications.

Concern: Concern is the underlying motivator driving Crisis Communication, as it encapsulates the emotional response and responsibility felt by individuals or organizations when facing a crisis. In the realm of crisis management, concern manifests in various forms: concern for public safety, concern for reputational damage, and concern for the well-being of stakeholders. Effective crisis communication acknowledges and addresses these concerns transparently, empathetically, and promptly, aiming to alleviate fears, restore trust, and provide actionable information amidst uncertainty. It's the recognition and management of concern that underpins the strategic decisions and messaging strategies employed during crises, ultimately shaping the trajectory of public perception and organizational recovery.

Compassion: Compassion involves demonstrating empathy and concern for the individuals affected by the crisis, including employees, customers, and the community at large. It's essential to acknowledge the emotional impact of the situation and express genuine empathy for those experiencing distress or hardship. Utilizing compassion as a tool in any C-Suite of Crisis Communication effort reassures stakeholders that their well-being is a priority for the organization and fosters a sense of solidarity and support during difficult times. By showing compassion, organizations can strengthen relationships with stakeholders and mitigate the negative effects of the crisis on morale and reputation. This is one of the most important practices in the C-Suite of Crisis Communications repertoire that you can have, if not the most important.

Coordination: This C emphasizes the importance of coordinated and cohesive crisis communication efforts across all levels of the organization. Effective coordination involves establishing clear roles and responsibilities, maintaining open lines of communication, and synchronizing messaging and actions to ensure a unified response. By coordinating efforts between different departments, teams, and external partners, organizations can streamline their response to the crisis, avoid duplication of efforts, and maximize the impact of their communication strategies. Coordination also enables organizations to adapt quickly to evolving circumstances and address emerging challenges effectively, enhancing their overall resilience in managing crises.

Control: Control refers to managing the narrative and the flow of information during a crisis. It involves establishing communication channels, designating spokespersons, and implementing protocols for responding to inquiries and managing media relations. By taking control of the communication process, organizations can mitigate the spread of rumors and speculation while maintaining a sense of authority and leadership. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in their Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) program believe that to be in control of information, you must “Be First, Be Right, and Be Credible.” Want to maintain control of critical information flow? Then learn from the tenets of CERC!

Commitment: Commitment plays a pivotal role in C-Suite of Crisis Communication as it underscores the organization's dedication to transparency, accountability, and stakeholder trust. In times of crisis, a committed approach involves swift and decisive actions, clear and consistent messaging, and an unwavering commitment to resolving the situation ethically and responsibly. It entails prioritizing the needs and concerns of those affected, demonstrating sincerity and empathy in communication efforts, and maintaining open channels for feedback and dialogue. Ultimately, commitment in crisis communication fosters resilience, reinforces organizational credibility, and helps navigate turbulent times with integrity and grace.

Competency: Competency in crisis communication is indispensable as it directly influences an organization's ability to navigate turbulent situations effectively. Competency encompasses not only the proficiency in crafting and disseminating clear, timely messages but also the capacity to anticipate, assess, and address potential risks and challenges. A competent crisis communicator demonstrates adeptness in understanding various stakeholders' perspectives, maintaining transparency, and orchestrating cohesive responses amidst chaos. Their competency ensures the preservation of trust, minimization of reputation damage, and facilitation of swift resolution, thereby safeguarding the organization's resilience and credibility in the face of adversity.

Confidence: Confidence in crisis communication is indispensable as it forms the bedrock of credibility and assurance during tumultuous times. In the face of uncertainty or adversity, a communicator's confidence can reassure stakeholders, instilling trust and calm amidst chaos. Confidence imbues messages with authority and clarity, vital for guiding individuals and organizations through crises. It fosters an atmosphere of control and competence, essential for effective decision-making and swift action. Moreover, confidence, as a tool in the C-Suite of Crisis Communication, empowers leaders to navigate challenges with resilience and transparency, ultimately strengthening relationships and safeguarding reputation amidst turmoil.

The 4-11

Crisis Communication already has a plethora of tools at the disposal of those who wield its strength when needed. This is especially true in a disaster in which lives could be at stake. While there are no one correct set of “C’s” when it comes to writing and activating a crisis communication plan, using a C-Suite of Crisis Communication as a system of best practices can’t be a bad thing, especially as you cater its tools to fit your personality and that of your organization. When danger strikes and lives count, you definitely want to be comfortable with your own set of communication tools with your customized C-Suite of Crisis Communication, putting you head and shoulders above your average communicator.

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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