5 steps to building a digital-age crisis plan

Innovation is often associated with technological advancements that impact us in a positive way.

When it comes to communication in the digital era, however, you may be asking, “Is high-tech friend or foe?”

There is no doubt new technologies have ushered in new ways to stay connected and informed. And the benefits are clear when there is a need to respond to a natural or man-made disaster, or even “get the word out” about the latest and greatest news about your company. Yet, the challenges are equally clear when a company is suddenly faced with a crisis.

Look no further than Southwest Airlines. During the busy 2016 summer travel season, Southwest suffered a wide-reaching technology failure that shut down its website and key systems for over 12 hours and forced thousands of flight cancellations. Over the next several days, the company responded to customer complaints quickly and effectively, in large part by leveraging social media.

Although Southwest did several things right—it apologized profusely for the inconvenience, admitted fault, and continually posted updates as the crisis unfolded—the onslaught of customer service requests and complaints overwhelmed the company’s social media team. Not long after the IT outage began, complaints on Twitter began going unanswered for hours—and, in the case of Facebook, days and Instagram, not at all. The result was hundreds of angry comments that were unanswered and a tarnished reputation.

Heightened awareness from incidents like Southwest, and the seemingly endless list of other companies that have grappled with communications issues—think Citibank, Equifax, KFC, Volkswagen—demonstrates how quickly a crisis can escalate and how unbiased they are toward industries. Financial, healthcare, technology, consumer goods, retail—they are all at risk.

Many corporate executives living and working in D.C. will tell you that a crisis has either happened on their watch or can happen any time of the day or night.

In fact, a recent Deloitte survey shows a majority of executives believe they are likely to be impacted within the next two years. Yet, surprisingly, 66% of corporations said they don’t have up-to-date crisis plans. Further astounding is that the crisis plan they do have is likely in a binder on their shelf, complex, and generally unavailable to all who need it in a hurry.

How to reconcile this disparity? Fear not. Innovation can help. It starts with building a digital age crisis plan, in five valuable steps:

1. Start with the question, “Are we actually in crisis?”

Every adverse incident is not a crisis. Treating every issue like a crisis can lead to over-reaction and result in drawing more attention and adverse reaction than is warranted.  A good practice is to manage threats against three levels of seriousness, ranging from minor threats to legitimate crises.

2. Ensure you’ve got an easy-to-implement escalation protocol.

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.

At these 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) also should be a cornerstone of a crisis plan.

3. Plan how a crisis will play out in digital and social media.

Often times, organizations do not react quickly enough, leaving their narrative to news coverage and commentary on social media.

You want to act respectfully and with authenticity and absolutely must track and analyze what is being reported and said on social media, and have the expertise and tools to instantly rebut facts that are reported incorrectly.

You also will need to activate the channels and platforms to get your story to the right people (internally and externally) and put in place a team that is trained, experienced and confident in social media.

4. Prepare your staff.

Each member of the team should have a clear role in 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 should 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, video conference instigated by the crisis team leader, or even an app designed for this exact scenario.

The team should go through a drill annually, a workshop in which they tackle a simulated crisis. And every quarter, it’s someone’s job to update your list of crisis team members.

5. Create specific plans for the most damaging scenarios.

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 intense moments are details, prompts, information and resources for the scenario you are facing. Scenario planning offers a higher level of preparedness.


Many organizations today are shifting away from traditional paper crisis plans to digital monitoring and activation – fighting virtual fire, virtually. Any way you choose to prepare, be sure to have actionable steps that: guide the team’s response to any issue; are easy to read and use; include checklists and decision-making guidelines; have crisp, clear policies for assessing quickly the level of risk; and include step-by-step escalation procedures, depending on the level of risk.

The key is to balance technology and innovation with the human touch in crisis management—that is a winning combination.


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