Margaret McGann

Crisis Communications: 10 tips to write a practical actionable plan

In communications and marketing, crisis communications, crisis communications plan, planning, public relations, strategy, writing on July 12, 2010 at 8:46 am

Every organization no matter how large or small needs a crisis communications plan. If yours doesn’t have one yet you should start writing one now.

But before you do, keep in mind that you are writing a plan that’ll be implemented while your organization is in crisis and under stress. Although every plan should be clear, concise, easy to follow and easy to execute it’s especially important for a crisis communications plan.    

And if you’ve already written your crisis plan you might want to review it against this list to see if you need to refine it or strip it down to the basics.

Here are ten tips to make sure you have a practical actionable crisis communications plan:  

  1. Avoid minutiae keep it high-level strategic and tactical
  2. Use bullets and action directives
  3. Break your plan into three phases – preparation, response, recovery
  4. Avoid writing long-winded explanations of what to do in each phase
  5. Create a one page bulleted checklist for each phase (i.e., set-up, activate etc.)
  6. Don’t try to predict every possible scenario. Look at the most likely scenarios and degree of response required
  7. Use appendices for lists (i.e., contacts, resources, templates, Qs & As, etc.)
  8. Avoid printing binders for everyone have your plan available electronically and password encrypted 
  9. Have staff from other areas test your plan to see if it is easy to understand and execute
  10. Constantly update your plan

If there’s anything you would add to this list please let me know.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Margaret McGann. Margaret McGann said: Crisis Communications: 10 tips to write a practical actionable plan @ […]

  2. I was in the Navy and occasionally led emergency-response teams handling fires, medical emergencies, radiation hazards and battle damage repair. I totally disagree that you shouldn’t try to predict and plan for every possible scenario–that’s exactly what you *do* want in a crisis-response plan. Why anyone would not want a *comprehensive* plan is beyond me.

    Also vehemently disagree with not printing the plan. Having it as an electronic file is all well and good–until you suffer an Internet or electrical-power disruption. How do you expect anyone to find the plan and follow it if computers and Internet are all down–from, say, a terrorist explosion? You need printed copies for everyone expected to follow the plan, as well as additional copies in central locations.

    And “avoid minutiae”? As I pointed out before, comprehensive is better than bare-bones. Even if everyone who is tasked with participating in the plan is drilled on it, humans are susceptible to shock and may lose their ability to reason logically and think things through in an emergency. And do you really think a person in shock is going to be able to remember a password to open an encrypted crisis-response plan’s electronic file?
    Any plaintiff’s lawyer who discovers a major corporation’s skimpy, minutiae-avoiding plan is going to have a field day in court when suing for damages.

    Good for you for having staff from other departments and areas drill the plan to see if it is actionable, and for recommending constant updates. But updating it is not enough. Frequent disaster drills are required to enable staff to rehearse the plan. Don’t just drill the principals; declare some or all of them “dead” and have their designated replacements (you DO have designated second-, third- and fourth-tier substitutes, don’t you?) take over and try to run the drill. The company in the World Trade Center that drilled going down the stairs multiple times a year suffered very few casualties in the 9-11 bombings, because people knew what to do and had practiced it enough for it to be an automatic response.

    • Hi Steven, Thank you for taking the time to read my post and respond with some good points.

      To clarify, I believe there’s a need for comprehensive plans for your crisis response team and practical actionable plans for staff that might have to take immediate action if a crisis hits on their watch before the crisis team can respond. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the dead of night is an example of this kind of scenario.

      In an earlier post, I cover the need for a rock solid comprehensive crisis communications plan and the need to test, test and then test again — Crisis Communications: preparation is key (

      I agree with printing the plan for your crisis response team and your communications department but not for each and every department head otherwise you end up with binderitis (people trying to fumble through a heavy binder full of dense prose and minutiae when they just need to know what to do right now in response to what’s happening).

      To me, an actionable tactical plan doesn’t need to be skimpy or bare bones it just needs have clear directions of what to do and when should a crisis hit.

  3. Margaret, the only “binders” that need to be distributed are to the personnel who will be involved in managing the implementation of various portions of the plan. Not every department is going to need their own copies of the plan–only those with roles to play in crises should get a copy. Obviously, the receptionist won’t need a copy of the plan, but her supervisor might.

    The most important part of every crisis plan is establishing clear and reliable communication: from the crisis management team to department managers, from managers to supervisors, and from supervisors to individual staffers.

    As for fumbling through a binder just to find out “what they need to know…to do right now in response to what’s happening,” well, that’s why crisis drills need to happen frequently. Managers need to learn how to deal with the shock and panic of a crisis so that their reactions are guided, measured and automatic. (Of course, they also need to be trained to recognize what constitutes a crisis.)

    Some companies might skimp on printing costs by only distributing portions of the plan to the departments involved, so that they won’t have to concern themselves with the parts they won’t be expected to implement. That can easily backfire when individuals don’t have the information, or training, to know how to respond to various crises that haven’t yet been reported up the chain of command. Every potential flash point needs posted details of how to report an emergency, and to whom. Keeping such info in a dusty binder or locked in a file drawer does no one any good.

    I’m not sure why you seem to think that a manager referencing a crisis plan will need to fumble through it at all. Any effectively organized crisis chain of command should be able to alert the various department managers to implement their specific, individual responses contained in the plan, identifying chapter and verse that the manager is supposed to look up and follow. Crisis response is not supposed to happen in a vacuum of command authority (altho it sometimes happens), and it shouldn’t involve an overwhelming multitude of potential responses for individual managers to wonder whether they should implement. Any manager who can’t decide how to respond to a crisis she has been trained to recognize and deal with should be replaced, because she will get people killed.

  4. […] Crisis Communications: 10 tips to write a practical actionable plan « 2M Communications Ink Now this is a good one! Being that I'm rewriting a crisis comms plan right now, I find it very helpful. Do you have any other tips for writing these plans? (tags: crisiscommunication planning) […]

    • Hi There,
      I’m glad you like this post and thanks for the compliments. I posted an article today called “Crisis Communications: social media needs a starring role” and in June I wrote a series with tips for the three phases of a crisis – preparation, response and recovery.

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