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Posted on 10.17.2014

Business Continuity and Crisis Communications: Why “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail”

Recent news stories about the threat of Ebola and the confirmed first cases of enterovirus in Tennessee have caused me to reflect on my time as a state public health communications and media relations director. Those days were some of the most rewarding (and yes, challenging) of my professional career.

My work contributed in ways large and small to protecting, promoting and improving the health of state residents. My former colleagues and I spent significant time planning and practicing for public health emergencies. Such preparation came in handy when I worked in joint information centers and responded to media calls about disasters and outbreaks. For a while there, it felt like Tennessee was experiencing a run of bad luck wbusiness-continuity-crisis-communicationsith the coal ash spill in 2008, H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 and the Nashville flood of 2010.

As the Alan Lakein quote goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” I’m convinced state first responders are as prepared as possible to address public health emergencies because of the considerable time they dedicate to preparing for crises before they happen.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all businesses and organizations. Too often, companies procrastinate or don’t plan at all for business continuity, much less consider their crisis communications needs. This is a wise investment of time and resources, and integral to the successful response during natural and man-made disasters.

Sure, there are some things we cannot anticipate about emergencies. However, there are several precautionary steps businesses can take to prepare for the impact of hazards: from tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, to widespread illnesses. Among the many aspects of developing a business continuity plan is crisis communications.

It is essential for businesses to communicate quickly, accurately and credibly when a disaster strikes and as the situation evolves over time. How organizations respond to and handle crises can have lasting implications for their public perception and image, positive or negative.

In the information gathering phase of this process, start with the following questions:

    • Who are my audiences? Company management, customers, employees, and stakeholders may immediately come to mind, but don’t forget suppliers, elected officials, the community at large and the media.

 

    • How will I reach them? Planning to contact your audiences quickly and efficiently is paramount. However, if cell towers or phone lines are damaged, unavailable or overwhelmed, phone or cell calls may not be possible. Sending emails or text messages, and using a dark website or social media may be options. Contact information for your audiences also needs to be up-to-date and easily accessible.

 

    • What will they want to know? Customers will wonder when to expect their orders. Employees need to be notified about reporting to work. Suppliers will want to know if their payments will be delayed. Members of the community near your location may be concerned about implications for their neighborhood. All of this information is critical to the continuity of your business.

 

    • What are my messages? Immediate communications should be pertinent information that is simple and easy to understand. As hours turn into days and weeks, messages will be more complex and specific. Communication vehicles can include web content, emails, text messages, memos and letters, to name a few. Message pre-planning helps eliminate the challenge and stress crisis situations tend to bring, and more importantly, and helps avoid delays in response.

 

  • What are my resources? You may be communicating to a dozen different audiences with potentially twice as many communication tools. Think about telephone call centers for incoming and outgoing calls; phone, email and text message notification systems; website and webmaster access; social media accounts and access; and telecommuting capabilities, to name a few.

Later as your crisis communications plan comes together, seek input from your audiences. Once it is written, get their feedback and remember to test the plan through crisis communications tabletop exercises and simulation drills. Review and re-evaluate your crisis communications plan afterward to address gaps and examine opportunity for further enhancement. Lastly, repeat this process regularly, at least a few times a year, to ensure you stay prepared.

 

*Note: Last week, Amanda Anderson blogged about “6 Crisis communications considerations as U.S. hospitals prepare for Ebola” and it is well worth a read, particularly for those in healthcare organizations.

 

Andrea Ewin Turner is a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. You can view more of Andrea’s blogs here. Connect with Andrea at Andrea@lovell.com  or @aewinturner

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