In the ten years I’ve worked in public relations, I’ve EXECUTED only one crisis communications plan. I’ve written plenty, but I only had to actually work on one crisis, and for that, I am profoundly grateful. It was pretty bad too. A client’s facility caught fire and there were injuries, from what I remember.

Unless you work on a team at an agency that specializes in this type of work, you aren’t likely to see many of these in your career. But they happen. We see it on the news all the time, from Toyota and its accelerator problems, to last year’s crisis involving a plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which produced salmonella-tainted peanut butter that sickened 700 people and killed nine. It happens all the time. Yet time and time again, we see companies making the same frustrating mistakes over and over – refusing to talk to the media, providing spotty information, if any is provided at all, executing and bungling sketchy cover-ups.  And finally when they do talk to the media, it comes out all wrong – usually at the height of the problem.

What good has ever come of not coming clean and giving people the facts? When has it ever helped a crisis to cover up the fact that one is taking place? Has the media ever stopped hounding executives when they refuse to speak to them?

Here are some best practices for developing a crisis communications plan. Having a plan in place before something bad happens and being knowledgeable and prepared is key to staying ahead of problems, keeping shareholders and customers happy and not allowing the media to tell your story, or worse yet, some anonymous hack online. In essence, when things are out of control, you are in the driver’s seat and remain there.

  1. Respond promptly: Once alerted to a problem, take control of it by letting your audiences know there is a problem and that you are working on a solution. Don’t allow someone to come to you with the problem, such as a Wall Street Journal editor calling you about it as you are walking in the door one morning. If they are asking questions you don’t know the answers to, it is okay to tell them what you do know and that you are gathering information and will provide it to your audiences as soon as possible. But once you know, call them back!
  2. Establish your “go-to” emergency team: This starts within the company or organization. This includes alerting the powers-that-be of any situation that may arise, and alerting other stakeholders such as employees and vendors. This should be done quickly and efficiently. A single point person should also be established to convey this information. It may or may not be the same person who communicates to external audiences, such as the media.
  3. Ensure a written plan is in place and that everyone is aware of it and the protocol established. Make sure it has complete buy-in from executive management and the legal department. If there are issues that frequently arise in your particular industry, it is very helpful to have established, standard messaging points on file to edit as necessary and that the spokesperson and others who may be called by the media or other external audiences know what they are.
  4. Work with, not against the public. If there is a situation that is potentially harmful and life-threatening, tell the public as soon as possible. If it is a situation is low-risk, but you know people are going to be angry, you will need to establish talking points and convey information that acknowledges that.
  5. Be open and honest.
  6. Talk to the media. Don’t dodge their calls. Don’t hide in your office if they are outside the building. It’s best to communicate with editors and news outlets that you are comfortable with proactively before the less friendly outlets reach you.
  7. Social media can be your best ally or your worst foe. Just like some uninformed “expert” can tweet information that can damage your reputation and stock price in an instant, in that same instant you can tweet factual information to your constituents that keeps you in control. Embrace social media. If you haven’t “gotten on board” yet, think of the implications of what anonymous message board posts and less than factual bloggers and tweeters can have on your company in the case of an emergency.
  8. Continue to keep the lines of communication open. Alert the public immediately to all changes in the situation, good and bad. Once it’s under control, there may be some who will question how you handled the situation. Concede mistakes, apologize, but highlight successes too, as well as plans in place to prevent future situations. And once completed, announce those too.
  9. Always re-evaluate crisis communication plans. As your business changes, as your constituents change and evolve, as new forms of media crop up (social media!), always have a plan for addressing all of them in the case of an emergency.
  10. Ensure your plan addresses cultural differences and language barriers. Establish and maintain relationships with media outlets, community leaders and other thought-leaders and experts on how to reach audiences that may not use mainstream media outlets, have Internet access, etc.

It’s simple enough, and works effectively for situations that are less serious and those that are life-threatening. For more information and examples, see case studies on how to do it right (Tylenol) and how to completely screw it up (Peanut Corp. of America).