Effective crisis management #4: Four steps to covering crisis communication in your continuity plan

Many small and medium-sized companies have great business plans that define their purpose, set out a strategy for achieving it and provide milestones to be met along the way. Some organizations also plan for business continuity in the event of a major disruption such as a fire that forces them out of their premises, or a flu epidemic that sidelines a significant part of their workforce. But a surprising number of business plans overlook an equally important part of the organization's roadmap to success: communication, and crisis communication in particular.

Many small and medium-sized companies have great business plans that define their purpose, set out a strategy for achieving it and provide milestones to be met along the way. Some organizations also plan for business continuity in the event of a major disruption such as a fire that forces them out of their premises, or a flu epidemic that sidelines a significant part of their workforce. But a surprising number of business plans overlook an equally important part of the organization's roadmap to success: communication, and crisis communication in particular.

Communication should be an integral part of any business plan because it provides the channel to keep the company's stakeholders aligned with its strategic objectives. But often it's an "as-needed" activity made up on the fly instead of a formal process built into the business plan. An ad-hoc approach can lead to mistakes and miscommunication that might not only undermine overall business objectives, but also seriously damage the organization's reputation, particularly in a crisis.

Scrambling to come up with an adequate response to stakeholders and the media once a crisis has happened and is unfolding can be very bad for business. Being prepared at least gives senior managers an opportunity to retain a degree of control over what may seem to be a chaotic situation.

At the International Association of Business Communicators' recent Canada West regional conference in Victoria, Greg Vanier, a director with Global Public Affairs, Canada's largest privately owned public affairs firm, conducted a crisis communications workshop that included an exercise that would be an eye-opener for every small business that does not yet have a crisis communications plan.

Using a simple worksheet, Greg asked participants to identify a risk to their organization and then map out a response. In essence, it was the sort of crisis scenario planning exercise that all businesses should go through before a crisis occurs. The following is an adaptation of Greg's four-step process, with additional comments added by me.