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Preparing for the next crisis: A guide on crisis communications for small businesses

Colton Redtfeldt | April 28, 2020

Coronavirus has shown business owners that a business-impacting crisis can hit at any time. It’s also made it clear that the worst time to prepare for a crisis is when it’s already happening. This has left many business owners asking: “How can I prepare for the next big crisis?”

A few weeks ago, we here at Craggy Peak were asking the same question. To answer it, we did what we do best: research. We found that a well-written crisis communications guide is a good place to start. In response, we scoured dozens of government and thought-leader articles on the topic and pulled together our own crisis communications. What we found is that most of those guides are written for companies with lots of personnel and time -- not a small business like us. We wanted to put something together that busy small business owners could use so that we can all be better prepared when the next crisis hits.

If you're still not sure what a crisis communications plan is all about, feel free to continue reading. If you’d rather get straight to the point, feel free to skip down to the “Planning Overview” section.

What makes a crisis communications plan so important?

When your business is faced with a crisis, different people are going to have different questions. You might have employees wondering how they should respond. You might have customers questioning a decision you made. If the crisis is bad enough, you might have a reporter calling you up on the phone asking what your next move is. How you respond to each of these different stakeholders will play a big role in determining how well your business will come out on the other side of the crisis. According to a Center for Disease Control guide on crisis communications, “research has shown that the public’s belief that a [crisis] response was effective correlates with how much access to information they had during the crisis.”

The goal of a good crisis communications plan is to ensure that you know exactly who needs to know what, so that everyone has access to the information they need. This will save you the stress of figuring it all out when a crisis hits.

To highlight how essential all this is, let’s look at a company that did everything right. In November 2014, A Virgin Galactic spaceship crashed during a flight test, killing a pilot. The incident was poised to drastically set the space-tourism company back. Virgin Galactic’s leadership and communications team quickly went to work. They continuously shared information about the crash and showed sympathy to the families of the victims. Their CEO, Richard Brandson, was quick to express his condolences. Because of their quick, transparent, and coordinated response, the company was able to ride out the crisis and came out stronger than before.

Now compare this with a company who didn’t do as well: United Airlines. You probably already know what incident we’re about to bring up. Back in early 2017, a video was released of a badly-injured passenger being dragged off a United Airlines plane. The video followed another incident a week before when two teenagers wearing leggings were denied entry onto a United Airlines plane. The video of the assault quickly went viral. In response, the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, released a statement apologizing that the company had to “re-accommodate” customers after a two-hour delay. The response infuriated many, and in 24 hours the company lost $800 million in value. The company followed up with additional statements, but the damage had already been done. Brand and communications experts believe that the incident permanently damaged the brand’s image.

While your company probably won’t face the kind of national scrutiny that these two brands faced, this contrast in outcomes highlights the importance of effective crisis communications. A good plan will ensure that when your business hits a crisis, it will end up more like Virgin Galactic and less like United Airlines.

What’s the difference between a crisis communications plan and an emergency plan?

In general, your emergency plan -- if you have one -- is concerned with telling you how to deal with a crisis. Your crisis communications plan, on the other hand, is concerned with telling you who needs to know about the crisis and what you should tell them.

The problem is that your general emergency plan and your crisis communications plan will overlap sometimes. Part of responding to a fire in your business, for example, might include calling your managers and telling them to come to your business. Your crisis communications plan will include this, too. But what your emergency plan might not include is what you should tell your customers, employees, and the media who come to report on the fire. That’s why it’s important to have both in your toolbox.

Planning overview

A crisis communications plan can be broken into three phases: pre-planning, the crisis, and the aftermath. The pre-planning phase is all about identifying potential problems and figuring out how you should respond to them. The crisis phase is about making quick and consistent communication with the people who need it most. The aftermath phase is about evaluating how well your plan worked and changing the parts that didn’t.

This process can seem a little daunting at first. But the times we’re in now are a great example of why this work is so important. At the bottom of this guide is a simple checklist that will help you keep track of what you’ve done and what you still need to do.

Pre-planning

During the pre-planning phase, your first step is going to be to establish a crisis response team. This team will be responsible for reacting to any crisis that your business might face. According to this great article by Forbes on the subject, this team should include the owner of the business, your operations manager, your HR director, your communications director, a legal counsel, and any senior managers. You might not have some of these positions in your business, but you should aim to have as many of these people as possible. You should collect the contact information for these people and have that information readily available in your crisis communications plan.

Once you have this team assembled, it’s time to sit down for a meeting. If you’re the only person in your business, it might be smart to get a few trusted people together to help you brainstorm. During this meeting, the team should work to generate a list of possible crises that might affect business operations. Think wild. Yes, even include a pandemic. If you’re in need of more information or tips on how to identify potential risks your business might face, the U.S. government has compiled a list of helpful resources that can help you with your risk assessment.

After you have a list of potential crises, you should take that list and figure out who is going to be impacted by that crisis. These are your stakeholders. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a great list of potential stakeholders you should consider. The people include:

  • Customers
  • Survivors impacted by the incident and their families
  • Employees and their families
  • News media
  • Community—especially neighbors living near your business
  • Government elected officials, regulators and other authorities
  • Product suppliers

Sometimes, a crisis might require that you notify a government agency like OSHA. For guidance on when to report an accident, please refer to OSHA’s webpage on the subject.

After you create your list of affected stakeholders for each crisis, you need to figure out what you’re going to say to each stakeholder and how you’re going to say it. This is called your messaging plan. When you’re putting this all together, make sure your team is clear on who is going to be in charge of communicating with each stakeholder and how they’re going to do it. For example, the communications manager might be in charge of reaching out to customers via social media while your HR director or senior manager might be in charge of communicating with employees. If you have a really small business, you might be in charge of most of the communications yourself.

This step will take the most work, but it’s important that you’re thorough. The more work you do in this phase, the less thinking and work you’ll have to do when a crisis hits. The big goal here is to ensure everyone is clear on exactly what they’re going to do. The last thing you want during a crisis is a bunch of people asking you what they should be doing. For a great example of a communications plan that designates roles and responsibilities, check out this sample plan that was put together by the Washington State Department of Commerce.

While you’re creating your messaging plan, your team should also appoint a spokesperson for the company. This person will talk with the media and community leaders if they come knocking. In most cases, the business owner should be the spokesperson. The spokesperson should be knowledgeable about business operations and be comfortable talking with the media. We’ll talk more about working with the media in a later section.

The next step is to develop a set of holding statements that can go out to different stakeholders for different crises. A holding statement is a message that you prepare beforehand that can be sent out as soon as a crisis hits. They’re an important way of showing your stakeholders that you’re aware of a situation and are responding to it. If anything, a good holding statement will buy your business time while you figure out what is happening. For each of your crises, it’s good to prepare a general holding statement that can be updated as the crisis happens and more information becomes available.

Below is an example of a holding statement a business might create for customers and employees in the event the business experiences a flood. The statement for customers might be posted on your social media and website while the statement to employees might be sent over text message or a phone call.

Holding Statement for Customers: “We’re sad to report that our store experienced some flooding last night due to the heavy rainfall we got. We will be closed for all of today while we figure out the extent of the damage. Our goal is to be open as soon as possible and we appreciate your support during these times. We’ll keep you all updated as we get more information.”

Holding Statement for Employees: “Hey (insert name). Last night the store was flooded. We’re not sure how extensive the damage is but we are working to get someone in to check things out. Don’t come in today if you were scheduled. We’ll keep you updated as we figure things out. Let me know if you need anything.”

As you can see, a holding statement doesn’t need to be anything fancy but it should include a few things. PR Daily wrote an article with some great tips for creating a good holding message. The article also has some more examples of holding statements.

Once you have your messaging plan in place, your final step is to ensure that your crisis communications plan is easily accessible to all employees in your organization. Make sure it can be accessed if employees can’t get to your business. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page when a crisis hits.

The crisis

So things have hit the fan and now you need to respond. Thankfully, you’ve already done most of the hard work. The first matter of business is to assemble the crisis response team and get everyone together either in-person or over the Internet. Everyone on the team should be briefed on what information is known at that time.

From there, it’s just a matter of enacting your messaging plan for whatever is happening. At this time, your team members should release relevant holding statements and reach out to stakeholders as dictated in the plan. Your goal here is to get your message out as quickly as possible. Forbes put it best: “If you wait too long, the narrative will be written without you, and you will become even more reactive.”

At the same time, it’s essential that your team is honest and transparent with everyone you're speaking with. Lying during the crisis might help you in the short-run, but getting caught up in that lie can cost a business its credibility and might even land it in legal trouble -- just look at what happened when BP lied about how much oil was being released in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 gulf oil spill. There are hundreds of articles about how you should manage a crisis, but one of the best ones we came across was this checklist put together by Forbes of things you should and shouldn’t do during a crisis.

Don’t forget to update your holding statements as new information is uncovered. A generic statement can only hold for so long. If you get caught up in solving the problem and forget to keep people in the know, they will start to lose confidence.

If the crisis is significant, there’s a chance your team might be contacted by a member of the media. In the event that a reporter asks your business for an interview, it’s important that you respond to that reporter as quickly as you can manage. It can be tempting to shrug off the media, especially if you don’t have everything under control, but you should resist that temptation. The U.S. Center for Disease Control said it best in a guide they wrote about speaking with the media: “One way to destroy effective professional relationships with the media is to ignore their needs.” If your crisis is big enough, you might have multiple reporters trying to reach you at once. In these instances, you might consider sending out a press release with the basic facts of the incident. A good crisis press release will follow these guidelines:

  • Include the date and time of the incident.
  • Include the location of the incident.
  • Give examples of actions your organisation is taking to address the crisis.
  • Show compassion and empathy, but do not take blame. This can put you in legal trouble down the line.
  • Do include some sort of contact information for your spokesperson.
  • Do not include the name or personal information of any victims involved in the crisis.
  • Do not release any information that is uncertain.

Sending out a release isn’t a replacement for speaking with the media in person, but it will help ensure that all reporters have the same information available. Only your spokesperson should speak with the media. When they are doing so, there’s a few things they should keep in mind:

  • Never say “no comment” or a similar response. This almost never goes over well. Respond to every question in some way.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, let the reporter know that you will find out later and get back to them. Make sure to actually get back to them.
  • You are always on record. Assume that anything you say to a reporter can be used in their article. Never ask to be taken off record.
  • It is considered inappropriate to ask the reporter to view the article prior to publication or to use particular quotes. These kinds of requests will almost never be granted and can leave a bad impression.
  • If, after the article is published, you find an error of some kind, it is appropriate to reach out to that reporter and respectfully correct any error. This should solve the problem, but if it doesn’t, it is appropriate to reach out to the publications editor if you can.

The aftermath

So the crisis is over. You’ve put out the fire -- either literally or metaphorically -- and you’re trying to figure out where to go next. While the specifics of that are going to depend on what kind of crisis you had, it’s always a good idea to meet with your crisis communications team one more time and evaluate the crisis response while it’s still fresh on people’s minds. During this meeting, look to understand what went well and what could’ve gone better. Maybe people weren’t sure on what to do, or maybe there was trouble accessing holding messages. This is the time to figure those things out.

Afterwards, take that feedback and adjust your crisis communications plan. Make sure everyone is on the same page about those changes.

In conclusion

During a crisis, things can get scary and stressful. But a well crafted and executed crisis communications plan will make things easier for everyone. As this guide has shown, putting together a solid plan isn’t hard if you take a methodical approach to it. We’ve prepared a short checklist below and provided links to a number of resources you can use to support your planning efforts. Craggy Peak Research wishes you the best of luck in your emergency planning. Stay safe and healthy!

Your checklist for crisis planning success

Before a Crisis

  1. Before a crisis even hits, establish a crisis response team consisting of important members of your businesses. Make sure the contact information for each of these people is easily accessible to everyone.
  2. Meet with your team to brainstorm a list of all the crises your business might face. Figure out who will be affected.
  3. Work with your team to develop a messaging plan. This plan should include:
    • What groups of people are going to be affected by each crisis.
    • Who will reach out to each of these different people
    • What will you say to each one of these people? This part should include holding messages for each type of crisis and for each group of people.
    • Who will be your company spokesperson in the event that a member of the media reaches out to you.
  4. Share your crisis messaging plan with all members of your company and ensure they understand what to expect in case of a crisis.

When a Crisis Hits

  1. Stay calm. Assemble your crisis response team.
  2. Release relevant holding statements as soon as possible and start to reach out to relevant stakeholders as dictated by the messaging plan.
  3. Update your holding statements as new information is discovered.

After the Crisis

  1. Meet with your crisis response team and evaluate your response. Try to figure out what went well and what could’ve gone better.
  2. Update parts of your crisis response plan as deemed relevant by the crisis response team.
  3. Have a drink and celebrate. You’ve earned it!

Resources

https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/ppt/CERC_Working_with_the_Media.pdf - A comprehensive guide written by the U.S. Center for Disease Control on working with the media during a crisis. While it’s written for public health officials, most of the information can be applied to a business as well.

http://startup.choosewashingtonstate.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Crisis-Plan-Sample1.pdf - An example of a crisis communucations guide put together by the Washington State Department of Commerce. It’s a great example of a super in-depth plan that covers all its bases. The plan looks slightly different from what yours will look like if you follow this guide, but it is still a great guide nonetheless.

https://www.craggypeak.com/resources/Emergency-Press-Release-Template.docx - We’ve put together a press release template for you to use in the event that you need to reach out to the public.