Five Simple Steps to Build a Crisis Plan in the Digital Age


Every week we bring you new insights into crisis planning – new issues to consider, emerging best practices, great (and terrible case studies) and new technology.

However, the most frequent question remains that from anyone writing a crisis plan for the first time: “What’s the template for a best practice plan?”

Therefore, let’s go back to basics – the five simple steps to building a digital age crisis plan.

STEP #1: Ensure that the plan differentiates between an issue and a crisis

When I am asked to evaluate plans, the most badly prepared are those that do acknowledge that not every adverse incident is a crisis.

In most organizations, full blown crises are rare.

What the team finds itself handling day-to-day are issues of varying degrees of threat and seriousness.

Treating every issue like a crisis leads to an over-reaction that draws more attention and more adverse comment onto your organization.

Therefore, good practice in crisis planning is to manage threats against three levels of seriousness, ranging from minor threats through to crises.

You can number them, color code or give them fancy names. Whatever labels you give the three-level approach, it offers a framework to evaluate the seriousness of the threat and the most appropriate level of response.

STEP #2: Ensure there is an easy-to-implement escalation protocol

We now know the difference between an issue and a crisis.

No matter how well you handle the initial emergence of an issue, occasionally the threat will grow in visibility and become a much larger problem.

A court decision will unexpectedly go against you; more examples of product failure come to light; a social media firestorm erupts; the forecasted bad weather becomes a hurricane warning; or 60-Minutes takes an interest in you.

At crucial moments, there must be a clear process for the team to evaluate the growing risk and alert more senior resources in your organization.

How to make that evaluation and who to contact (and with what information) is a foundation stone of a crisis plan.

STEP #3: Your plan must reflect that crises play out in digital & social media

Loyal readers of this blog will know that we examine modern crises to gather the learning points. In so many examples, we draw a similar conclusion – the organization did not react quickly enough and by the time it did, the story had been set by coverage and commentary on social media.

Your crisis plan must reflect the fact that so many threats now play out in social media.

That means having the resources to track and analyze what is being reported and said on social media.

It means have the expertise and tools to instantly rebut facts that are reported incorrectly.

It means having the channels and platforms to get your own story to the right people.

It means having a team that is trained, experienced and confident in social media.

STEP #4: The team should be prepared and well drilled

Every crisis plan has a list of names in it.

Sometimes, when I ask, it is revealed that several people on the list no longer work for the organization and no-one is sure whether the contact details are current.

Start as you mean to go on.

Each member of the team should have a clear role in the response to a crisis. There should be alternates clearly identified for each of the most crucial roles.

The way the team will gather to plan a response will be identified – a well-equipped war room in HQ used to be the way, but in the age of distributed teams it is likely to be a conference call number instigated by the crisis leader.

The team will go through a drill once a year, a workshop in which they tackle a simulated crisis.

And every quarter, it’s someone’s job to update that list of crisis team members!

STEP #5: Have specific plans for the most damaging scenarios

I have been in more than my fair share of full-blown crises.

In that moment when the worst has happened and you search in the plan for how to respond in those first few crucial hours, you want the information to be as specific as possible.

What you need in those first intense moments are details, prompts, information and resources for the scenario you are facing.

The steps and resources for managing an extreme weather threat could not be more different than when you are managing a product recall.

Dealing with a social media firestorm requires approaches very different than a regulatory or legal threat.

Scenario planning offers a higher level of preparedness.

In our next blog we’ll take a look at how you can ensure that all the great content in your crisis plan does not go to waste when that moment of crisis does arrive.