How to Build an Effective Crisis Communication Plan

Communicating an ongoing crisis is a mammoth task for any business. Even more so in the time of a pandemic like the novel coronavirus. Unless you have a detailed crisis communication plan in place, the lack of clarity and information might put your frontline support reps in a tight spot when they are trying to reassure your customers. 

To help you build one, we’ve invited Parker Trewin, the VP of corporate communication at Freshworks, to share some guidelines and rules on drafting an effective crisis communication plan.


Hi, Parker, how’s it going?

It’s going as well as it can be expected. But it’s good to be here. 

It’s good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. To start off, could you walk us through the different kinds of crises that a business can face?

Yeah, sure. A business crisis is anything that threatens the company’s long term ability to conduct business. Outside of this pandemic that we’re facing, there are lots of types of crises that can come up – including network outages when your system goes down, or security and data breaches like the Yahoo data breach, or the security hack of the DNC, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina that we saw here in the United States. 

Sometimes, employees behave badly, and there are HR crises that come up around sexual harassment or discrimination. Sometimes, there’s an unexpected transition that can impact the business. Last year a major medical center lost their CEO of seven years quite unexpectedly and they had to react to the transition of that and provide communications around that too. Understandably, in all these situations, it’s important to describe the impact on the business and what it means to customers.

Customer service is one of those teams that is constantly in touch with customers during a crisis. So, as a corporate communications expert, do you have any general rules or guidelines that you would suggest that they follow?

Absolutely. I look at five things when you’re personally communicating, since service and support reps are on the frontlines. 

#1 Do no harm

The first rule that I always say is – do no harm. So if you are at the frontlines, when a crisis happens, you need to take a breath, and understand that you are supported by a team. And that the team will have a communications plan for you. What you don’t want to do is have a knee jerk reaction, or inadvertently throw more fuel onto the fire. So often the best course is holding back, and making sure that you’re supporting the plan. 

#2 Have a common voice

The second rule, rolling right into that, is having a communications plan and ensuring that your employees stick to it. Treat your crisis communication strategy as the source of truth to make sure that your entire organization has a common voice. Also, just as a rule of thumb, the first thing you need to do when there’s an issue or an event that warrants an apology is state what happened, state the implications (if any), and what you’re going to do to fix it. 

#3 Don’t improvise

Thirdly, don’t improvise – always stick to the communications plan. Right now, for example, things are evolving all the time. We often don’t know what the next course will be. So it’s best to stick to the communications plan and stick to known resources as well. 

#4 Coordinate closely with your employees

The fourth thing I would say is – coordinate closely. Make sure that everybody’s connected, and that they’re involved, so that everybody understands what the plan is. It’s important that you have buy-in from all your employees, and reduce the inconsistencies. 

#5 Be empathetic

Lastly, and probably most importantly, is be empathetic and be human. We are communicating at a time when not only now, but all these situations have real impact on people’s abilities to do their jobs, and their ability to conduct their lives. If we look at the person on the other end of the line, the other end of the text or chat message, and we spend just a second and think about what it’s like in their shoes – that is a great starting point.

Can you give us some tips on what else organizations should communicate in order to ensure that a crisis is taken care of effectively and efficiently?

There are a few things that go beyond the personal communications that you have, and beyond the crisis plan that’s already been set up. These things are included in the plan and follow-ups, for whenever it’s necessary for the company to make a public statement. That might be on one or many of the channels that you have. It might be on Twitter. It might be a landing page or a status page. It might be via your health center. 

The other thing that is really helpful and popular among the energy companies here, but you can see it in a similar vein with software companies, is providing an update. So, for instance, when you have an outage, often you’ll have a website where you can go to get an immediate update that says – here’s when the outage occurred and here’s what the current status is. Along with the update, you have to make sure that you communicate when the problem occured, and by what time the problem is likely to be resolved. 

Then finally, I think it’s really important that you link to the appropriate resources. There is a lot of information that is going out – some of it is good, and some, not so good. I’m sure it’s all very well intended. But, I would recommend that everybody stick to the most reliable resources in all situations. So make sure that you know what those resources are and point people to them whenever needed. So for instance, with the Covid-19 pandemic, you could look to the World Health Organization, you could look to your local government entity. Here in the United States, we often refer to the CDC. 

So, if you follow those rules for frontline professionals, I think you’re going to provide an appropriate and informative response to any crisis that might come up.

Key Takeaways

#1 Build a crisis communication plan and ensure that your entire organization has a common voice by sticking to the plan.

#2 Make sure your plan has the details of the issue, event or situation, and the solution to it. It’s also important to point your customers to relevant and useful resources whenever possible.

#3 Be empathetic and be human, especially if you are on the frontline. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine what they might be going through, before you respond to them.


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