Mitigating The Risks Associated With An Un-User-Friendly Crisis Plan

In the first blog I wrote here, we talked about being proactive with our crisis response protocols.  In this post, we’re addressing why its important to make that plan very user-friendly.

Many large universities and organizations have a crisis management plan, and some have taken the time to distribute them to their administrators and department heads. More often than not, however, they resemble the large university textbooks of old, are referenced rarely and carry a substantial amount of dust.

One of the measures of a great crisis protocol is its ease of use. Even the smartest of plans will not receive a lot of attention after they are introduced initially and when not in use. The best favor you can do for your university is to develop a thoughtfully-customized plan for your school that is communicated broadly, understood fully and referenced (particularly in the event of a crisis) easily. If your university’s crisis plan is of the textbook variety, take solace knowing you have the ability to remedy that problem. Invest the time necessary to identify the titles and names of those individuals who should compose your school’s crisis communications team. Then develop an easy-to-follow plan that can live in many places across your campus, clearly identifying who is responsible for what. Those without specific responsibilities play roles too – they are responsible for saying nothing at all to (or to share a specific statement with) their families, friends, grocery-store acquaintances, neighbors and, obviously, members of the media. Your crisis plan simply should describe who and how you respond to an event. The following steps may be useful as you think about how to structure your protocol should an issue arise:

  • Engage the crisis team and discuss the situation (wouldn’t it be nice if all team members have each other’s contact information and easy ways to communicate in advance?)
  • Communicate with your legal team (whenever necessary) to develop a partnership to balance response strategies
  • Gather the facts by deciding which members of the crisis team are responsible for fact-gathering; compare and confirm known facts about the crisis and carefully choose facts you can and should release in any written or verbal communications
  • Respond swiftly and in one voice by creating a list of questions that members of your target audiences (e.g., faculty, employees, students, parents, the community and the media) may use by developing one clear statement for all audiences; during a crisis, you should assume that any statements shared with your faculty and employees also will be shared externally, so consider all of your university’s various channels that could be used to communicate your response (e.g., news conferences, in-person meetings, social media channels, e-communications, website, direct mail, etc.)
  • Stay connected to the crisis by providing the university’s spokesperson’s contact information to key reporters and your stakeholders; the spokesperson should commit to being reachable and approachable while you continue engaging the crisis team, discussing progress and any new facts that have developed, and developing additional talking points, as needed.
  • Monitor coverage and gauge reaction by gathering all print clippings, video files and feedback from crisis team members and university advocates and partners; monitor students’, parents’ and community members’ comments, as well as the reactions of your faculty and staff (remain flexible to adjust your plans for next steps and post-crisis responses)

Remember, a simpler crisis plan is not easier to develop – it’s just much more effective and useful in advance of, during and after a crisis – when you actually need it. And once you have created your plan, share it with your administration, faculty and staff, and ask that they review it regularly. Make it accessible at a moment’s notice. And draft it in such a way that it easily can be read, understood and used by a college senior who made it to her 8am class after too little sleep and too much fun the night before. Danny Markstein is the Managing Director of MarkStein, a PR company located in Birmingham, AL.  DannyMarkStein