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The Sky Isn’t Falling: How to Communicate in a Crisis

I don’t mean to sound like Chicken Little here, but the sky’s going to fall, eventually. Not in the “the earth is going to fall into the sun” sort of way, but in a “the insurance companies are right” sort of way. No matter how many plans you put together or how much bubble wrap you roll yourself up in every morning, eventually nature’s going to pack a wallop, and you’ll be on the receiving end. So how do you plan for the eventual flash flood, hurricane, tornado, blizzard, or plague of frogs?

Companies can ease some of the pain of a natural or man-made disaster by acknowledging that bad things do happen sometimes and then making a plan to offset some of the mental strain the eventual disaster will cause. Just knowing that a plan exists can calm employees, even in the midst of a crisis.

Make a plan

Sit down with your major stakeholders and decide the particulars of your crisis response. Consider:

Who’s in charge of communicating with your team? This person should have access to the appropriate communication tools and enough authority or visibility within the company to reach every employee.

What message will be sent out? Most companies carefully craft both their internal and external messaging to ensure that the message contains the proper balance of urgency, information, and calm assurances. Include a couple examples of acceptable messages within the plan for reference.

When will the message be sent? Act quickly but not rashly. A good crisis communication will inform, not cause panic. If the pipes freeze in the office on Friday night, don’t wait until Monday at 5am to provide a plan. Get your message out early enough that your team can change their plans to compensate or communicate their own issues.

Where will you communicate? Where you communicate is just as important as what or when you communicate the plan. Not everyone checks their work email over the weekend, and if the power’s out they may not have access. Gather essential emergency contact information in your HR software and keep it up to date, and make sure to send your message over several media: voicemail, text message, email, and instant message should cover your bases.

Check on your people

Depending on the size of your corporation, you may be able to call each employee individually to assess damage and understand when the company will run at full steam again. But even small to medium sized businesses should have a plan for an ongoing crisis. When the icenado shuts down the city for a week, how will you know that all your employees have heat, water, and electricity?

You have an org chart for a reason. Include the organizational chart in your crisis plan, and remind all employees that communication goes both ways. While managers should check on their teams, employees should check in with their direct reports. Using the existing organizational layout will ensure that no one gets lost in the chaos.

Practice makes perfect

Once you’ve got your plan on paper, make sure that you communicate the plan with the team. A plan that lives in the employee handbook alone doesn’t help anyone (and has probably long been shredded with the rest of the recycling). Just like your company’s yearly fire drill that you consistently practice, a quarterly or yearly review of the communication plan will help everyone remain calm in the panic of a crisis.

In the course of writing your crisis communication plan, brainstorm ways to keep the entire team informed of the plan. Here are some to start you off:

  • Include the plan in your onboarding program. If you make it a priority, it will be one.
  • Post the plan in a visible spot where people can absorb the information when they’re hanging out: near the coffee machine, over the water cooler, beside the copy machine, on the back side of the bathroom stall doors.
  • Make the plan available in several electronic locations: load it onto each work laptop, include it in your payroll/online scheduling/HR software, include it in the company-wide wiki.
  • Be creative: Can you translate your plan into an easy to remember acronym? Maybe turn it into a song or include it on stickers and other company swag. Think of printing the plan on a business card for employees to carry in their wallets.

The world is a dangerous place, but having a plan can keep your team calm and avoid a lot of unnecessary chaos in a crisis.

Tamara Scott is Research and Content Manager for TechnologyAdvice.com. She writes about the intersection of technology, business, and education in Nashville, TN.

Tamara Scott

Tamara Scott