Ann Marie van den Hurk

Crisis Communications: Preparation is Key

By: Ann Marie van den Hurk | February 6, 2014 | 

Crisis Communications: Preparation is KeyBy Ann Marie van den Hurk

I have some questions for you:

Do you feel your organization is prepared for a communications crisis?

Do you have a crisis communications plan in place?

Does the plan include social media?

When was the last time the plan was reviewed or updated?

Have staff been trained and drilled on the crisis communications plan?

It’s Time to Plan

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, it is time to pull out that crisis communications plan and review it.

If you don’t already have one, it’s time to build one.

The likelihood of an organization experiencing some sort of public relations crisis, such as an attack on reputation or an event that disrupts business operations is always there.

Add in social media and the risk goes up.

A crisis communications plan is part of an organization’s risk management plan. During a crisis, an organization will not have time to figure out how to communicate with staff and the public while conveying important information.

Crisis Communications Triage

Within crisis communications, there are four levels.

For example, a Level one crisis is usually short-lived and has minor affect, such as perceived “drunk” tweeting during the Super Bowl.

In comparison, Level four is considered a catastrophic event (such as the West Virginia chemical spill) and requires immediate action.

It is during a crisis where communications is most essential.

The Building Blocks of a Crisis Communications Plan

So what are the essential building blocks for the foundation of a strong crisis communications plan, one where you can minimize the effect?

People: You need to have a well-trained crisis response team made up of business-critical people. The team shouldn’t be just made-up of executives. You need people who understand the situation at hand. They need to be media trained, and able to speak on behalf of the organization.

Monitoring: An organization has to be listening at all times. Because of the speed of social media and how quickly a crisis could evolve, it’s mandatory monitoring systems be in place. The “golden” hour has been cut in half. There are some solid platforms available for monitoring social channels.

Scenarios: To be fully prepared for a crisis, you need to be aware of all possible scenarios facing your organization. Anticipate scenarios using a SWOT analysis. You need to understand your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the threats to it. No scenario should be discredited. Any crisis moments are within the realm of possibility, regardless of how far-fetched they really are.

This is a time to be really honest as an organization.

Statements: Having holding statements developed around scenarios will buy you the time you need when a crisis is breaking. Holding statements bridge the gap between when the initial crisis breaks and when you get more concrete information on the situation. Statements should be prepared for all channels, including social media platforms, and be pre-approved by executives and legal before a crisis strikes.

Notification: Getting information out during a crisis is important, and notification systems are critical to getting information out quickly. Websites, phone calls, text messages, emails, Twitter, Facebook, and traditional media are all acceptable channels — and a multichannel effort works best.

While many public relations professionals will never encounter a crisis, it is important to understand the need for a fully functional crisis communications plan.

Preparation is key.

Image courtesy of Brighton on Flickr.

About Ann Marie van den Hurk

Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR, is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations, LLC. She is the author of Social Media Crisis Communications: Preparing for, Preventing, and Surviving a Public Relations #Fail (Que 2013.) You can email her at

  • Great post Ann Marie!
    I think the glaring item for the big crises is the media will be monitoring everything (never mind the population) So a front line social media employee might handle an early inquiry and the media might take that as company official response. 

    I could just see the Chemical Spill folks what if the social media person didn’t believe it an joked ‘Don’t worry no extra charge for adding to the water’.

  • I love this post, and I especially love how brilliantly it ties in with Gini’s morning post. Trust me – we don’t plan it this way – not having the benefit of knowing what’s going to come out of GIni’s brain each morning! LOL Thanks again Ann Marie! 🙂

  • amvandenhurk

    ginidietrich Gini, thanks so much for having me write for SpinSucks. Loved it!

  • ginidietrich

    amvandenhurk Of course! You are always welcome!

  • I really like the holding statements, I’ve seen companies that have a solid plan in place but when they get to an unknown scenario they freeze up and aren’t ready to say what they don’t know but are looking into.

  • Very interesting. This article sounds like my life every day lol. 
    But your thoughts on holding statements was something new to me. I actually think that’s a very good tactic. It’s one of those things that helps buy you time until you get more concrete information.
    Thanks for sharing that!

  • amvandenhurk

    coledouglas7 Thanks, Cole. Appreciate it.

  • coledouglas7

    amvandenhurk anytime! Thanks for the good read.

  • caseytookaleek

    I am currently a student at Southeast Missouri State University studying Public Relations. This post brought me back to one of my first courses in the program where we briefly touched on crisis communications. With no time to prepare a communications plan in advance we were given a scenario about a shooting on campus and had to come up with a plan to handle communications. I am quite the optimist and not one to believe if something can go wrong that it will. As the professor gave us updates on the hypothetical situation, making it seem as though nothing was going right, I became flustered at best. That was my first glimpse of crisis communication and understanding how important planning ahead truly is. This post really solidified that idea.

  • jonnylaws1

    MHWenham amvandenhurk Surely if you’ve prepared, it’s not by definition a crisis? #pedantry

  • MHWenham

    jonnylaws1 amvandenhurk ……ok, define a crisis!

  • MHWenham

    jonnylaws1 A situation that is/could threaten to damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line. adapted from bernsteincrisis

  • jonnylaws1

    MHWenham bernsteincrisis Back in box…

  • MHWenham

    jonnylaws1 too heavy for saturday morning – hope all well.

  • amvandenhurk

    MHWenham jonnylaws1 Crisis: event that disrupts ops. Some crisis can’t be prevented ie weather; being prepared helps manage effectively.

  • ginidietrich

    naturalpetscare I like your avatar.

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