Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Creating a Company Crisis Communication Plan; What You Need to Know

Robyn Braley Speaks at BUILDEX Calgary

Questions that must be answered before the unthinkable happens. 

Written by Robyn T. Braley

Updated May, 2016

I speak at business conferences about various aspects of communications and branding. My presentation, 'Crisis Communication; Managing the Risk' always draws an overflow crowd. 

Why? Having a plan is usually ... shall we say ... in the big picture plan ... but is often put aside due to more pressing issues. However, a well written plan is the one thing that could save property and, most important, lives when disasters strike. 

Canmore, Alberta floods of 2013
In my seminar, I show images of recent Canadian disasters that forever changed thousands of lives in a few short hours. 

The photos are sobering. The audience becomes very, very quiet.

After showing photos of the 2013 flood in Canmore, Alberta, a man raised his hand. He pointed out his house in one of the images. Due to the rapid erosion of the river bank, it had been on the brink of collapsing into the raging waters.

Disaster Knows no Boundary

A crisis can strike at any time to anyone in anyplace. Disaster knows no boundaries. 

Once touched by a disaster, you are touched for life. Most disasters happen in the twinkling of an eye with little warning. 

All we can do is take as many precautions as possible to be as ready as possible should the unthinkable happen. If it does happen, having a crisis plan will help reduce the impact on ...  

  • Employees
  • Families
  • Company
  • Suppliers
  • Customers
  • The community
  • Leadership
  • Company value

Fort McMurray Wild Fire.

As I update this post, the Province of Alberta is recovering from a mammoth wildfire that engulfed the City of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and nearby communities. 

It destroyed thousands of hectares of surrounding forest. Billions were lost due to the necessary shutdown or nearby oil sands recovery operations.

Close to 90,000 people were evacuated. Twenty per cent of the city was destroyed. It will take billions of dollars and many years to recover and rebuild. 

It happened suddenly. In the morning, what seemed to be a minor forest fire was burning near the edge of the city. Within minutes, the wind shifted and the fire became a raging inferno headed right for the city. 

Mandatory Evacuation

Within hours a mandatory evacuation order was given forcing thousands to flee. Compounding the crisis was the remoteness of the urban centre located deep within the forested wilderness. There is only one highway leading south to civilization and north to industrial sites for recovering oil from bitumen.   

Crisis response teams quickly mobilized and became a model of how to manage a crisis. The entire country responded to send fire crews, crisis management professionals, water bombers and other resources. 

More than $80 million was raised within days for the survivors who had left Fort McMurray with only the cloths on their backs. Private individuals opened their homes to evacuees who were complete strangers. Amazingly, there were only two indirect loses of life attributed to the disaster.

Southern Alberta floods, 2013

Tsunami of Decisions

Having a crisis communications plan provides a handle to hold onto. Why? 

In a time of crisis the brain must process thousands of pieces of information under extreme duress. A plan instills a sense of calm and hope in the midst of chaos.

"As the person in charge, there are waves of “stuff” coming at you from many directions." 
The most immediate questions that must be answered are;
  1. How do we quickly evacuate our employees to safety?
  2. Which emergency services do we need to contact?
  3. What records can we save and where are they?
  4. What inventory and equipment can we save?
  5. Who do I need to call when I am in a safe place?
  6. What do I do next?

Crisis Definition

A crisis is any event that can seriously harm the people, reputation, or financial stability of an organization. 
  • It can begin as a small problem that slowly escalates into a major situation. 
  • It can be an unexpected event that comes from nowhere and brings utter destruction within minutes.

It's a Small World

The types of disasters can be broken into two categories; natural and man-made. Under the natural list, I include fire, hail or snow storms, tornado, droughts, floods, tsunamis and others.

In a global economy, a key supplier hit by a tsunami in a far away country can have the same negative impact on your business as an explosion in a facility across the road will have. Neither is your fault, but both can be equally devastating.

Man made disasters include explosions, building collapse, rail derailments, arson, pipeline leaks, toxic spills, political policy reversals, employee fraud, financial collapse or the death of an owner. 

Crisis Plans Include

  1. Crisis policy
  2. Crisis response team members; who is in control
  3. Decision making heiarchy; who reports to whom
  4. Detailed evacuation route maps highlighting muster points
  5. Segmented notification lists of key publics
  6. Location information about where key company documents are
  7. ‘What if’ support service contact info
  8. Situation analysis and reporting process
  9. Key messages, corporate descriptives and relevant background information for communicating with media
  10. Traditional media, online and social media response strateg
  11. Media performance tips
  12. Record keeping mechanism for duration of the crisis

The Plan, The Plan

A plan provides an immediate place to start managing the crisis. It provides an orderly structure to guide you through a step by step process for moving forward.

Where do you start? When our firm develops a plan, I ask my clients to identify ten ‘what if’ scenarios. I challenge them to think the unthinkable. It is always a sobering process.  Contact us for help with your plan.

  • A crisis plan guides you in answering key questions.
  • Exactly what happened?
  • Who and what has been affected?
  • Are there casualties? 
  • Is the event contained or is there present danger?
  • What is the response/go forward plan?
  • What resources are required to enable a quick response?
  • Who needs to be informed – do we have their contact info?
  • When should messages be distributed?
  • What is the next step?

A Resource of Contacts

After the Alberta floods of 2013, I interviewed Suzanne LeValley, who owned Longley Condominium Servicesa property management company. The company operates various rental properties that were flooded in High River. Evacuees were out of their buildings for three months or more.

Suzanne attributed her companies recovery success to having ‘what if’ relationships in place before the disaster. Being able to mobilize critical support with a couple of phone calls saved her company thousands of dollars and reduced stress for her and her tenants.

“The bottom line,” she stated, “Is that we got
our people back into their homes 
as quickly as possible.”      

It is unlikely you will find the specialized resources needed to speed your recovery by googling them in the midst of crisis. If you find them, they will undoubtedly be already committed to helping others.  

"And that," as they say, "Is why you need a Crisis Communications Plan."

Robyn T. Braley is a writer, speaker and occasional media guest. He is the President of UniMark Creative which does website design, video production, media services (editorial and advertising), and graphic design. He speaks at business conferences and also blogs about branding. 


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