Most of the time, we cannot predict a crisis. But we can prepare for one. Every business should have not only an operational crisis management plan but also a crisis communication plan. This is especially important for businesses that plan events because events are time-bound. Timely communications to stakeholders are critical. Events are usually held to spotlight a brand but during a crisis, that spotlight may not be positive unless you are ready for it.
A very current example is the Arnold Sports Festival held in Columbus, Ohio every March. Thousands of athletes and sports enthusiasts attend this event every year. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the state of Ohio and the city of Columbus asked festival organizers to close the competitions to spectators. The organizers originally agreed and held a joint press conference to announce the change. Then the organizers changed their minds and announced that some spectators were welcome. The state and city disagreed and threatened to sue. It was a confusing week of dueling press conferences and conflicting messages. If the event organizers used a detailed crisis communication plan that included the right people and a consistent strategy, it may have helped the situation.
The Difference Between a Crisis Communication Plan and a Crisis Operational Plan
A complete crisis operational plan should include a communication plan. An operational plan is a detailed overview of the actual steps taken to end, mitigate, or avert a crisis. It’s an extension of your risk management plan.
A crisis communication plan outlines the steps to be taken to create and deliver the messages that need to be communicated to stakeholders affected by a crisis. For an event, stakeholders could include attendees, vendors, sponsors, employees, volunteers, government officials, and the media. It also includes who should craft, approve and communicate these messages.
What’s in a Crisis Communication Plan?
The plan should be simple and short. In a crisis, no one has time to read hundreds of pages. A basic crisis communication plan should include these clear steps your company will take during a crisis:
- Define a crisis – make a list of potential crises that could occur both before and during an event. If you have an identified risk management plan, you probably already have this list done. This list could include weather events, venue fires, terrorist attacks, pandemics, controversial speakers or violence at your event, or “acts of God”. Also, try to define what is not a crisis. This will give you guardrails to work with.
- Create a communication timeline – sketch out a loose timeline for your communication response to a crisis. This may depend on the crisis, so don’t be too detailed. But think through who needs to be notified first, how you will pull the crisis communication team together, who will write each message, the cadence of messaging, etc.
- Identify crisis communication team – this should be a cross-functional team that includes the lead event planner, members of the PR team, members of the marketing team, members of the leadership team, members of the operational team, planning partners such as venue leaders or association leaders, and outside consultants or government leaders, if applicable.
- Identify the audience – make a list of the people your team will need to communicate to and in what order. As mentioned above, this could be attendees, vendors, sponsors, employees, volunteers, government officials, media, or the general public. Again, the list may depend on the type of crisis you are dealing with.
- Identify spokespeople – it is critical to identify the right spokesperson to represent your brand in a crisis. This person should be credible, authentic, and completely comfortable speaking to large groups of people or the media intense situations. Do not just choose the most senior member of your team. Think through who would make the best impression and deliver your messages effectively. You may need more than one spokesperson, depending on the intended audience. Media training would be a great idea for these representatives.
- Identify channels – make a plan for the best method to communicate with each audience. This could be email for attendees, a press release or press conference for the general public, social media for volunteers or a combination of all of the above.
- Set up tracking and listening channels – think through how the team will track online and offline stories, conversations, and sentiment for the crisis and your brand. Establish a point person to monitor these before and during the event. React when it makes sense to do so.
Do’s and Don’ts for Crisis Communication
Regardless of the crisis and your communication plan, there are certain things you should always remember when dealing with a crisis. They are:
- Do widely distribute this plan to all event-related employees and partners so they have it when they need it.
- Do not ignore the crisis. It will most likely not go away.
- Do not place blame for the crisis. That will just make your brand look small.
- Do take accountability if the crisis was created by a mistake your brand made.
- Do be as transparent as possible. Tell as much of the story as you can.
- Do respond as quickly as you can. Your stakeholders are waiting for you to tell them how to feel and what to do.
- Do not respond without complete information. If you don’t know the what, why, who, when, and how, buy time with a “we are gathering more information and will give a more detailed statement soon” message.
- Do be as consistent as possible with messaging. Use the same language for all audiences when possible.
- Do try to view the crisis from your audiences’ point of view and write messaging that addresses those issues.
- Do not speculate on the next steps, ramifications, or impact. If you don’t know, say so and promise to provide the answer at a later date.
As I edit this blog, the news that the city of Austin canceled the 2020 SXSW event due to the coronavirus. It’s unclear at this point if the event organizers were even consulted about the decision. Talk about a crisis communication nightmare! I can just imagine what the event planning team is dealing with right now. I hope they have a good plan in place. When hosting or participating in an event, don’t just hope for the best. Plan for the worst. You’ll sleep better.
Check our recent blog post – A Help Guide for Event Organizers amidst Coronavirus Pandemic