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Be prepared for the worst day of your professional life

What is a crisis? My definition: Any scenario where people or animals are injured or killed, or where a financial breach has occurred that needs an immediate response. That's it. 

As I watch the tragedy unfold in Newtown, Connecticut, I'm keenly observing the clues to what sort of crisis communications plan was in place for the unlikely scenario that ultimately occurred.

So far, I've been impressed by what I've observed. Parents were informed quickly by text message via the "campus alert system" to come to pick up their children. The Sandy Hook Elementary School website - though somewhat overloaded now - functioned to give quick bios of the teachers and principal when there wasn't much information available for reporters.

What exactly is a crisis communications plan? It's not a disaster evacuation plan or a physical escape scenario. Every business and organization should have a plan on how to evacuate a building due to a disaster, or how to hide from an intruder. A crisis communications plan is different. It's how you respond to the outside world after the disaster happens.

The media is a voracious creature after a disaster happens. It serves many functions: to inform others of a pending threat, to report on the unfolding scenario, and to summarize the facts of the case to the public. Communications professionals should lead the effort within their organization to write and implement a crisis communications plan. 

The Connecticut State Police have been disciplined in their messaging and have obviously been trained to mete out messages in a particular, legalistic order. For example, the shooter's name was not officially released until he had been methodically identified, even though some media outlets had already released his name hours earlier. For communicators in the private sector, saying "no comment" is not advisable.

The essence of crisis communciations planning is thinking of the worst disaster scenario ahead of time, and getting as many communications vehicles in place as possible. In this situation, it appears that parents were informed by emergency robo-calls, giving directions to what had happened and where to pick up their children.

Communicators should lead a team of professionals in your organization to create a very simple plan to follow in case of an emergency. The basics are as follows:

  1. Preparation: Create key messages, web pages, calling trees, etc. ahead of time, to be used after the emergency occurs.
  2. Control: It should be decided in advance who is the spokesperson to the victims and the media. It doesn't help anyone if unauthorized spokespeople without the latest information are allowed to speak to the media.
  3. Access to the plan: Create the plan and give everyone a copy so that it may be accessed remotely. Better yet, hold emergency drills to assure that everyone knows their role. Include passwords to all website content management systems and social media passwords. 
  4. Backup plans: Think in terms of Plan A and Plan B. If you are thwarted in trying to execute Plan A, you will be prepared. For example, if you cannot gain access to your computers at work to make website updates, make sure people know how to access the site remotely.

To create a crisis communications plan, gather your most senior staff members together and get started. It should take a least a few weeks to write and refine a plan. When it's done, use every communications channel available to get the plan out to everyone involved. It's especially important to let everyone know that it exists and to practice using it regularly. If you need help getting started, or don't have time to coordinate the plan, hire a public relations professional to get you started. 

Claire Celsi is the Director of Public Relations at Lessing-Flynn in Des Moines, Iowa.

 

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