Public safety and other critical-infrastructure agencies responsible for providing mission-critical and lifesaving services to their communities must be able to do so under any circumstances. To ensure that they are able to maintain operations, agencies develop continuity-of-operations (COOP) and disaster-recovery (DR) plans to help mitigate the impact of a crisis. What these plans often forget, however, is how an agency will communicate with its stakeholders, both internal and external, during a crisis.
During a crisis, communication is critical. It helps stakeholders feel safe and reassures them of an agency’s ability to continue delivering mission-critical services despite the circumstances. As part of the COOP and DR planning process, agencies should consider including communications elements within those plans. They also should consider developing a standalone crisis communications plan that works alongside COOP and DR plans but can also be activated on its own to support the agency’s overarching mission and operations.
Whichever route an agency chooses, there are some key elements to keep in mind during the plan development process:
It starts with the team. One of the most critical elements of a crisis communications plan is identifying the team. This group will support the development and delivery of outgoing messages to stakeholders and manage incoming messages and the appropriate responses accordingly.
To do so effectively, the crisis communications team should consist of staff members from different levels and departments within the agency including, but not limited to, agency directors and managers, public information officers (PIOs), human resources personnel, and frontline staff such as telecommunicators and field responders. As part of the planning process, each team member should be assigned a role that leverages his or her skillsets and has clear, defined responsibilities on which to execute.
Identify the stakeholders. The stakeholder group that needs to be communicated with will vary by crisis. It is important to have a clear understanding of who makes up each stakeholder group and where they fit within the communications hierarchy.
For example, a single employee testing positive for COVID-19 affects mainly internal stakeholder groups. Communications can be limited to staff members, specifically those who have encountered the positive employee. On the other hand, an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among staff members would expand communications to include external stakeholders, such as community members, members of local government, and the media, to inform them of the situation and relay any messages regarding operational changes.
Develop messages. Message development should be a substantial element of the crisis communications planning process. A set of prepared, aka “canned” messages for different crises helps expedite the message development process during an active crisis by providing a messages template that can be customized to the specific scenario.
During this process is it important to remember that it is nearly impossible to plan for every single scenario. Consequently, the crisis communications team should establish a message review and approval process for all outgoing messages. This helps to ensure that messages are accurate, concise, appropriate for the audience, fit the agency’s values and mission, and are error free.
Communicate. This is the goal of a crisis communications plan. However, it is not as simple as just developing outgoing messages. A crisis communication plan also should detail how messages are delivered, which often is based on the stakeholder group. For example, messages for internal stakeholders can be delivered via email or an internal intranet, if available, while messages for external stakeholder groups may be delivered by more diverse means, including social media, press conferences, press releases, and website postings.
Crisis communications plans also should outline responsibilities and protocols for responding to incoming messages. This includes the following:
- Identifying who will receive incoming messages
- Sharing contact information, such as email addresses, phone numbers and social channels
- Encouraging stakeholders to reach out with questions or concerns
Communication is a two-way street, so encouraging stakeholders to communicate openly and through a variety of channels ultimately can help support crisis mitigation. Without incoming information, an agency only sees one side of a crisis and could miss a critical detail affecting stakeholders outside of the organization.
Evaluate and improve. The final element to include in a crisis communications plan is a mechanism for plan evaluation and improvement. This take a variety of forms, including the following:
- Developing a crisis response scoring system
- Leveraging tools to gather data, e.g., social media reach, traditional readership and/or viewership, audience sentiment
- Conducting a hot wash or post-crisis review with the crisis communications team
- Conducting stakeholder interviews
Once an agency has returned to normal operations following a crisis, the response to that crisis should be evaluated using any of the methods identified above. The results of that review and analysis then should be used to adjust the crisis communications plan to improve response during the next crisis.
As 2020 has taught us, planning is critical to successfully maintaining ongoing operations during a crisis. This does not simply mean developing a COOP or DR plan. It also means developing a plan for communicating with internal and external stakeholders to help them better understand the situation and to inform them of any changes to agency operations.
At MCP, we support agencies in all of their planning efforts—from strategic and organizational planning to the development of COOP, DR and crisis communications plans. To learn more about how we can help your agency develop a new plan or update an existing one, contact us today.