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How to Create a Crisis Communication Plan for Your Small Business

posted by Michael Epps Utley Michael Epps Utley
How to Create a Crisis Communication Plan for Your Small Business

No small business owner ever starts the day imagining it could end in a crisis.

However, serious issues happen to companies daily, and it’s best to be prepared. A single data hack, theft, employee mistake, or extreme weather event could be enough to put an organization out of business if it’s not ready to deal with it promptly and correctly.

To do that, every company must develop a crisis communication plan long before an unexpected event occurs. Every business needs a plan, but far too few take the time to create one.

Isn’t it worth the long-term survival and success of your organization to build an emergency plan?

This guide explains how to create a sound crisis strategy that could help your organization through anything it faces.

What to Know About Crisis Communication Plans

What Is a Crisis Communication Plan?

A crisis plan is a guide for companies to follow that outlines how to respond to a business-related threat. A thorough plan includes information about the following:

  • The crisis response team members and the actions they need to take

  • Key stakeholders and how they should respond to different crises

  • Things everyone involved in various emergencies must do

  • Detailed policies to guide everyone’s activities

  • Key internal contacts and people to reach out to for outside support

  • Communication approval flows

  • Strategies for preventing emergencies and how to stop crises from turning into catastrophes

In short, your plan helps you prepare, respond, and navigate through unexpected—and potentially costly—situations.

What Kinds of Emergencies Should a Plan Address?

Common business crises include:

  • Personnel issues. Employees or external business partners become involved in unethical or illegal conduct or engage in behavior that harms the reputation of an organization. These actions can happen in the real or virtual world.

  • Financial issues. A financial crisis occurs when a company experiences a loss in asset value, can’t pay employees or creditors, or files for bankruptcy.

  • Cyber crimes. The most common cyber threats occur when cybercriminals breach a company’s IT security infrastructure, software, or online records. This results in data loss, personal or confidential information theft by a third-party hacker, financial losses, or a ransomware threat. Beyond the economic issues that can result from cybercrime, the harm to the reputation of a business can be nearly impossible to overcome. Most people won’t trust a company after a cyber attack unless it handles the clean-up promptly and perfectly.

  • Technology problems. Organizations today depend on their tech for success. If a website, payment system, inventory software, or bookkeeping app fails, it can seriously impact the ability to conduct business.

  • Organizational challenges. In this case, a company has done something damaging to its employees, investors, consumers, or other key stakeholders. The harm could result from deception, management misconduct, or poor or misguided values—often a combination of the three.

  • An unexpected event. This broad category includes unforeseen things like a fire, flood, hurricane, or pandemic. To ensure you protect your business against anything that could happen, work with your team to brainstorm worst-case scenarios.

  • Workplace issues. This category includes workers committing acts of violence against other employees or customers. It can also cover verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. These issues can tarnish the workplace culture and result in costly lawsuits and serious harm to a company's reputation.

Take time to consider the nature of your business and the unique risks it faces to ensure you account for all possible crises in your emergency plan.

Do Small Businesses Really Need to Plan for Emergencies?

Larger companies often make the news because of scandals, missteps, and bad behavior. Some examples include the Wells Fargo fake bank accounts debacle, racist comments made by CrossFit’s chief executive officer, Tyson Foods executives forcing poultry plant employees to work excessive hours during the pandemic, and the recent lawsuit against Fox News over alleged slander against a voting machine company.

These crises all happened to major companies. However, the information-spreading power of the internet and social media has made it possible for every company to be a victim of a business crisis, especially on the local level. Everyone is on social media, and one slip-up can go viral in minutes. It is why it’s necessary for every organization, no matter the size, to be proactive and have a crisis communication plan in place.

Moreover, larger companies have more resources to combat bad press and lawsuits, whereas even a minor crisis by comparison could send a smaller business packing. In other words, small businesses must fortify themselves against these potential problems just as much as larger companies, if not more.

What Should a Crisis Communication Plan Include?

Here are some standard components of most plans:

  • Select your core team. Identify the people required to respond to a crisis and establish a response protocol, including how to contact people and begin to respond to an emergency. Your team members could include a leader, spokesperson, technology expert, website lead, social media director, cybersecurity expert, and legal counsel. Consider whether you should assign backups to crucial roles if someone is sick or traveling.

  • Document staff responsibilities. Once you identify your core team members, assign specific duties to each. Put their emergency responsibilities in writing. Ensure each member knows exactly what they’re responsible for. It’s too late to explain it when dealing with an emergency.

  • Train your spokespeople. Many small business owners believe they—or their communication person—can interact with the media. That’s typically not true. Hire a communication professional to train you and your spokespeople in dealing with the press during an emergency. You will be in an adversarial position during a time of crisis. You could make a bad situation worse if you don’t handle the press correctly.

  • Come up with an internal communication plan. Determine how employees and key stakeholders will receive critical messages during a crisis. Options could include voicemail, company intranet, text messages, email, or in-person meetings. Different phases of the situation may require communicating with different combinations of media types. Also, figure out who will relay information internally.

  • Develop a contact list. You don’t have time to search for phone numbers, email addresses, and other contact information during a crisis. Everyone in your company may need to contact vendors, suppliers, employees, local government and emergency resources, public health officials, the Board of Directors, and others. Ensure everyone uploads the list to their smartphone and another device so it’s always accessible. Make sure someone on your core team updates the list regularly. Also, come up with a second after-hours or weekend/holiday list if your company needs one.

  • Create a media list. Compile contact information for local, national, and trade press. Don’t forget to include influential industry bloggers, online reporters, and others that your consumers and stakeholders regularly monitor. Ensure people who will need it upload it to their phones and another accessible device and update the list often because media people move around a lot.

  • Set an information verification and approval process. Develop and document the processes and procedures for what must happen before any information is released to employees or the public. It should include steps for ensuring that it’s accurate and complete and communicates the proper messages. Outline how it will get reviewed and verified by all necessary team members before releasing it to employees, the public, or the media.

  • Monitor your brand online. Knowing what’s being said about your brand in real-time can help you and your team respond quickly to a crisis. Leverage Google Alerts, Mention, Brandwatch, and other similar tools to monitor your brand mentions online.

Emergency Communication Plan: The Final Word

Use the tips in this guide to create a plan that will make it more likely your small business can survive a crisis situation.

If the worst ever happens, remember to communicate clearly, accurately, and often. Share updates internally and externally. Keep the narrative clear by introducing the problem, the current status, and the proposed solution. When you don’t communicate, the world will assume the worst. When you do, your business will control the narrative, presenting a more positive picture than most people in your consumer base, the press, and your stakeholders will imagine if left to their own devices.

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