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Crisis communications management: 5 mistakes to avoid

Every company needs a crisis plan. Let me say that again for the people in the back: Every company needs a crisis plan.

Crisis communications management: 5 mistakes to avoid
[Sergey Nivens / Adobe Stock]

I got the frantic call on a Monday morning: “Our hotel chain is making national news for a negative situation that occurred at one of our properties. We don’t know what to do. Can you help?”

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As the leader of our crisis communications practice at Next PR, this call was both exciting and disheartening. Yes, I would love to help—the fast-paced, think-on-your-feet nature of a crisis is where I thrive—but the thought of a national, household, name-brand hotel chain not having a crisis plan was shocking. But what I’ve learned is that it’s unfortunately not uncommon. And according to a report from PwC, only 35% of companies that do have a crisis plan in place say it’s still relevant.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve worked with clients to navigate various scenarios—many of which I couldn’t have imagined would occur—and I’ve learned a thing or two about the common mistakes companies make. Here are the top five mistakes I’ve witnessed firsthand, and how companies can prevent them from happening in the future.

You don’t have a crisis plan in place.

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Every company needs a crisis plan. Let me say that again for the people in the back: Every company needs a crisis plan. I’ve been working with clients for 15 years, and I continue to be shocked by how many companies do not have a plan in place. Or, if one does exist, it’s outdated and irrelevant to the current landscape. I understand it’s easy not to prioritize this. Emerging startups have bigger priorities; some well-established companies have never experienced a big crisis, so it’s not top of mind. Yet I assure you, not having a plan in place and putting it off until tomorrow is a mistake you will come to regret.

Your crisis plan is too long.

When a crisis happens, if you need to sort through a plan that is 10 pages, single-spaced, you’re going to regret it—I promise. A good crisis plan is one that is simple and easily digestible. Think short, bulleted slides. It must be something you can share with other people, and they can understand without any context.

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You have a plan for every scenario.

While this sounds like a good idea, the truth is that it’s impossible to plan for every scenario. Each crisis has its own nuances. The more time you spend planning for every single incident that could happen, the more time you are wasting. Your best bet is to plan for the most probable four to six scenarios and understand there needs to be flexibility in the moment. If you have the core elements of a plan in place—think of a chain of command, roles and responsibilities, and templated messaging—all you’ll need to do in the moment is make some tweaks depending on the details.

You aren’t meeting regularly to review your plan.

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Many companies have a crisis plan, but it collects dust on the shelf. It’s a box that has been checked, and everyone feels good that a plan exists. Yet the moment a crisis happens, you have no idea where to find the plan (was it sent via email from your PR agency as an attachment? I think I have it somewhere in a Slack chain…). If people don’t understand their role when a crisis hits, it will be as if you didn’t have a plan at all. At a minimum, meet quarterly to review and update your plan. Do you have new hires who need to be involved? Did someone’s contact information change? Is there a potential scenario that has an increasing chance of occurring? Act as if a crisis is going to happen tomorrow and ask your team: “Would you know what to do?”

You avoid a post-crisis debrief.

As soon as the dust has settled, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief and is ready to move on with their lives. The last thing anyone wants to do is revisit the crisis—and yet that’s exactly what should happen.

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Schedule a debrief to discuss how the team handled the situation and consider the following questions:

• Were the correct people involved and assigned the right roles based on their strengths?

• Were the actions taken in a timely manner, or did people move too slowly?

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• What would you change about your crisis plan for next time?

• What actions do you need to implement based on the situation that just occurred?

THE FINAL WORD

One of my favorite quotes is from author Jonathan Swift: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” During a crisis, you want to control the narrative the best you can so that misinformation and rumors don’t run rampant. The best way to do that is to ensure you have a succinct crisis plan in place, everyone knows their roles, and your team is open-minded enough to learn from every situation that occurs.

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Oh, and that hotel chain disaster? They made it out alive, and relatively unscathed. But it wasn’t pretty.


Shannon Tucker is the Vice President at Next PR, a national tech PR agency. She lives in Denver. 

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