David Stewart says he has seen a number of posts on various online sites recently about the importance of having a crisis communication strategy and plan. However, as with any element of the resilience cycle, treating communication in isolation is of no value.
Don't panic! Good communication at all stages will give any resilience plan the best chance of success (123rf)
If you have a risk register, but then don’t develop mitigation plans, then it’s a futile exercise. Similarly, having response plans in place is only of benefit if they are tested and exercised – and so it goes on.
At Crisis Management Ltd (CML), the parent company of CRJ, we recommend the use of the CML Resilience Cycle (below) to ensure that silo working is eliminated when it comes to crisis communications.
The first element of a resilience strategy and plan is the identification of risks. Whatever methodology is used to do this, once the risks have been identified, they must be assessed properly to allow prioritisation. This will allow an understanding of the risk appetite and acceptance levels.
Once an organisation has identified and prioritised its risks, consideration must be given at that time to communication:
- Does the organisation need to tell anyone about the risks it has identified and analysed? This could be internal or external stakeholders and every organisation should undertake a stakeholder identification/management process.
- Once a decision has been taken on that point, the next aspect is when should the communication take place – whether immediately or at a predetermined later time.
- Finally how should this communication take place? It could be by email, face-to-face, or through workshops etc.
Once the key risks have been identified, the next stage is to develop plans to mitigate the risk (ie aiming to prevent it from occurring). However, every organisation should plan for the worst so, while it is hoped that mitigation plans will be successful, additional plans need to be developed to deal with that worst-case scenario. These plans should incorporate:
- Immediate response to an incident
- Business continuity plan while the incident is being managed
- Longer term recovery plan (may only be notional at this time but should highlight the key principles of what is to be achieved, depending on the severity/type of event)
Once again, communication surrounding these plans will be required. The same points outlined above will need to be followed, ie: Who does the organisation need to tell about the plans; when the communication should take place; and how it should take place. With regard to the third point, this should include training on the plans so that individuals in the organisation not only know that the plans exist, but clearly understand their own roles and responsibilities. Testing and exercising activities to ensure that the plans are actually fit for purpose can also support this.
Most people tend to think about crisis communications at this point. If an incident has occurred, the timeline for communications is crucial. People within the organisation need to know what has happened but, at this stage is the element of external communication is as important. There may be media interest and, for some organisations, the way in which external communications are handled will have a lasting impact on the recovery phase, with organisational reputation being paramount. It is therefore crucial at this stage that the earlier stakeholder engagement process has been completed to identify key stakeholders and decisions can be taken on the best method of communication with them. In this occasion, the question of ‘does’ the organisation need to tell anyone is redundant – there is now a ‘must’.
- Who does the organisation need to tell about the incident that has occurred.?This could be internal or external stakeholders previously identified at the stakeholder identification/management process. For many organisations, there may be a legally mandated requirement to report certain types of incident.
- Once a decision has been taken on that point, the next aspect is when the communication should take place – in the response scenario, the reality is that information must be circulated as quickly as possible.
- Finally how should this communication take place – at this point, the use of a trained media/communications team is hugely beneficial.
Business continuity and recovery
For all organisations, the ability to continue to operate is crucial and, in fact, the entire process outlined above is critical to the eventual ‘recovery’ to normal operations. Depending on the scale of the incident that has occurred, normal operations may not be significantly affected and recovery can be almost instantaneous. However, in more severe cases, recovery can take weeks or months and business continuity may be reliant on significant investment in alternative premises or equipment.
In terms of reassuring both internal and external stakeholders about the short, medium and long-term impact of the event, communication is, not surprisingly crucial.
Communication is a crucial element of organisational resilience. As with the other elements highlighted above, it is not a standalone element, but must be fully integrated into any organisational resilience plan. Failure to properly do any of the elements of the resilience plan introduces the risk of failure – both of the plan and the organisation, and communication is at the centre of that. The term ‘crisis communication’ is misleading if people think that the importance is only after an event has happened. Good communication at all stages will give any resilience plan the best chance of success.