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The Ultimate Crisis Communications Checklist

August 24, 2023 (8 min read)
A crisis communications plan is an essential part of your overall PR strategy.

It’s a fact of doing business that your organization will face communications crises--no matter the size, type, or mission of your organization. From natural disasters to public opinion on social media, there are factors that you simply cannot control or even fully anticipate.

And, while we’d all like to think we react appropriately and quickly when fielding these moments, the only way to ensure it is to have a crisis plan in place before an event occurs. It’s the same reason we have a spare tire and rescue service to call for when we will, inevitably in our lifetime, get a flat tire.

In this article we will discuss why you need a crisis communications strategy and how to create the strongest strategy possible. We’ll go over everything you need to gain greater insight into possible crisis situations, potential audience, and how to audit your monitoring systems to stay ahead of emerging crisis to minimize damage to your business and your stakeholders, employees, and audience, possibly saving the business altogether.

Why you need a crisis communications checklist

A crisis communications checklist is a necessary part of a strong communications plan because it gives you a road map when things get chaotic. It is easy for an important step to fall through the cracks during a crisis, and missing even one step can leave your company open to greater damage to your reputation.

This is where a pre-determined crisis communications plan comes in handy. It anticipates the most likely crisis that might occur while providing the best active responses for them. It provides clear and personal business response outlines that illustrate the chain of command and how communications will be disseminated internally and externally. This strategic plan allows you to be on message for the strongest recovery and to do it as quickly and effectively as possible. 

#1: Understand possible crisis situations

Through a combination of research and industry analysis, you can identify the most likely scenarios your company will face. Then evaluate the crisis situations similar organizations and competitors have faced to set a baseline for your strategy.

For example, perhaps you’re having supply chain shortage issues like KFC experienced back in 2018. The company switched UK suppliers and had to close several restaurants due to not having any chicken. To address what could have been a major problem, they used the combined social media power and humor to explain the issue and let customers know when it would be fixed.

Once you recognize your possible challenges, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did each crisis occur?
  • How did the impacted organizations respond?
  • What was the resulting pushback or reception from the media and consumers?
  • Did they handle it well or did they nudge things in the wrong direction?

To start this research, consult company/legal records, news archives, broadcast transcripts, social media, etc. and use filters to include only information that is relevant while providing yourself with a wide ranging and comprehensive dataset. This will allow you to focus on what matters without missing any information that could be pertinent to your strategy.

With the right research, you can identify future problems you might face, how to respond should they occur, and possibly prevent them from happening in the first place.

MORE: How to combat negative publicity after a donor scandal

#2: Align your crisis plan with your overall communications strategy

Ideally, your crisis plan should answer the same question as your general communications plan: What is the problem we’re trying to solve for the short and long-term health of the organization?

Get feedback from stakeholders--including clients, consumers, sales teams, investors, executives, etc.--to better understand where the plan might have shortcomings. Surveying these groups can help you create thoughtful, comprehensive, and authentic responses that can stop further harm and increase buy-in throughout your organization.

Then, think through the communications tactics you would deploy and how to best prioritize them in your response. For example, if your brand is active on social media, a social media post may be a good starting point. In other cases, you may want to tailor your strategy to press releases, executive interviews, or other more formal options. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to ensure that your tactics are in line with your general mode of operating to remain consistent with your brand and message.  

MORE: Best practices for a modern PR campaign: Develop the strategy

#3: Evaluate your audiences

Part of your overall communications strategy requires a deep knowledge of your audiences, their needs, and their behaviors. This extends to your crisis communications strategy because it prepares you for the responses you might get.

Keep in mind, however, it’s easy to become too narrowly focused on a corporate strategy and bottom line and neglect the needs of your audience. Wrong move. Audiences care more about their issues than they do will your profit margins and business problems. They’ll know when your communications efforts are self-serving, and it is likely to make your problems worse.

For example, earlier in 2023, the social media popular clothing brand Shein paid for a group of influencers to tour their Innovation Center in China, then report back to their followers that they were ethical and sustainable. When consumers and followers saw through this, a Shein rep made it worse by implying their transparency would continue, despite not being transparent at all.

You can mitigate the potential of negative publicity by going one step further and conducting an informal survey or focus group to ensure your messages still resonate with your audience’s views and values while making your plan. This creates a critical feedback loop that informs you on which of your efforts are working and which ones should be shelved.

#4: Audit your monitoring systems

Conduct a thorough audit of your social and traditional media monitoring and measurement systems, look for bias, then adjust accordingly. For example, if you are prioritizing your media list in your efforts, you’re likely to get a skewed vision of public sentiment and miss the beginnings of a potential crisis. 

Your monitoring platforms should include any news stories, social media mentions, or other publicity in a wide range of publications or media. It’s a good idea to use a specialized database, like Nexis Newsdesk™, to get access to behind-the-paywall articles to give you a complete picture of your coverage. Then, set up automated, targeted alerts and visualizations to analyze massive amounts of data quickly, identify vulnerabilities, and stay on top of all mentions.

Go further by providing data insights and guidance to manage your organization’s reputation, then highlight what your audiences want and need. Media monitoring tools rapidly sift through massive amounts of data, allowing you to see a more comprehensive picture, faster.

MORE: Five steps to can’t miss media monitoring

#5: Unify your message with your C-suite

Internal communication is just as important as your external communications efforts. Far too often, an organization’s PR team will put out one message only to have an executive or other brand representative release a statement that contradicts it.

Remember when Lululemon was faced with the continuing PR nightmare for its see-through yoga pants? The CEO went against the company message and attempted to blame the issue on the bodies of the women wearing the pants rather than fabric quality, creating an even bigger PR crisis. Unified messaging and media training could have prevented this debacle.

To avoid this type of publicity, set up an agreement with your executive team and internal stakeholders on one unified set of messages related to the current crisis/crises impacting the organization.

#6 Consider how you’ll leverage your data

Access to quality, unbiased data is one of your most powerful tools in your toolkit for informed PR decision-making. The more informed you are, the more capable you are at minimizing damage during a crisis.

As you think through your strategic responses for crises that haven’t even occurred yet, remember that you’ll need an efficient and all-encompassing way to analyze the results of your efforts in real-time—and in a meaningful, contextual way—should one of them happen.

Having the right measurement and monitoring tools in place allows you to quickly access the right information to inform your crisis response. It can help you create advantageous PR articles, social media posts that speak to your audience and even create relevant content that helps employees, stakeholders and customers understand why the issue arose in the first place.

MORE: Using visualizations of negative news to monitor your ESG efforts

#7: Listen and adapt

Public relations crises move fast, so give yourself a leg up with real-time feedback. Engage in active listening on social channels and apply what you learn to deliver meaningful, actionable insights to your stakeholders–and to inform future iterations of your crisis plan.

In the KFC example mentioned above, we saw how KFC quickly found out about the lack of chicken in its UK stores, then made a quick and genuine apology for the situation while explaining why it was happening.  After the initial response, they followed up with a clever social media post that poked fun at themselves and gave a timeline for when the issue would be fixed. Through their media monitoring they were able to maintain customers and move through the crisis rather unscathed.

This strategy may not work for you, but by listening to your audience and adapting to meet the situation—based on data and insights—you can better address any issue. After all, you’re not going to get it perfect the first time, and the best thing you can do is show that you are constantly striving to be better.

Set yourself up for crisis management success

While you hope to never have to use it, a well-informed crisis communications checklist is worth the initial investment. The time and money spent on upfront planning will alleviate any pressure or rush you would face if a crisis were to hit and you didn’t have a plan. Of course, you can’t cover every eventuality in your checklist, but a baseline plan will save you headache in the long run.

With Newsdesk taking the hard work out of ongoing monitoring and sending alerts, it is a no-brainer. You will have the insight you need to prepare for unforeseen circumstances, develop your response strategy, and craft a message that mitigates damage to your business or reputation. So, you’ll be prepared to weather any crisis and come out on top.