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ICYMI: Building a Crisis Communications Team

By Jennifer March, Vanguard –

Warren Buffett once famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

A crisis communications team, as part of a robust business continuity program, is a company’s best tool to protect their reputation after a disaster strikes. While your operations groups are attempting to fix the problem or mitigate the impact, your communications team will be working to provide critical and up-to-date information to your employees, customers, vendors, the media, and other interested parties.

If your company does not currently have a crisis communications infrastructure, the first step is to determine who should be included on the team.

To start, you’ll need to identify who will lead your team during a crisis and coordinate preparedness efforts during peace time. Your team leads will be the first to be notified of an event through your existing business continuity processes. From there, they will assess the scope of the incident and develop a recommended response with public relations and legal, (more to come on that later). Then, the leads will activate the rest of the team to ensure a coordinated response across all applicable communication channels and audiences.

Your team’s objective will be to protect your company’s reputation by instilling confidence that you are responding appropriately, effectively, and in the best interest of your clients and employees through a coordinated response effort. Therefore, you will need to have representation from all of your internal and external communications groups throughout your company. You should carefully analyze your audiences and include leaders from the appropriate groups.

Some key groups include:

  • Managers representing employees that regularly communicate with clients over the phone, in person, etc.
  • Representation from your marketing groups who primarily produce content for your clients on the web, in advertisements, etc.
  • Key contacts from each of your social media channels. This is especially important because of the increased need to respond to social media inquiries and because social media will likely be the leading indicator that an event has occurred.
  • Management from public relations as they regularly communicate with media, have a keen eye for protecting your company’s reputation as part of their day jobs, and will be a critical partner in creating press releases and Q&As for media inquiries.
  • Management from human resources because they regularly communicate with your employees.

In addition to your communications groups, your team leads will also have to work very closely with the legal department to review communications with a focus on preventing further reputational risk and avoiding litigation. Legal will also be managing regulatory reporting requirements at the local, state, and federal levels and your communications need to be coordinated appropriately.

I mentioned that your operations groups will be trying to fix the problem or mitigate the impact. You’ll also need to work with them to get the relevant information about the situation and their efforts to make sure your communications accurately reflect the work being done. For that reason, you should also consider having subject matter experts from these groups that you can consult with.

For example:

  • For a cyber security incident, you’ll want to work with your security operations center or equivalent department.
  • For a significant facilities event which causes one or more of your company’s offices building or facilities to become unavailable, you’ll want to reach out to your corporate real estate group.
  • For events impacting employees, you’ll not only work with communications contacts within human resources but also management to determine the correct response.
  • For system or applications issues, you’ll work closely with information technology
  • For internal threat or active shooter incidents, you’ll consult with your global security groups.

In addition to these scenarios that will impact most, if not all companies, you’ll also want to consider the industry specific scenarios your company is at risk of experiencing. For example, those companies in the financial services industry will also have to plan for unexpected market events.

Improper communications during a crisis can make a bad situation worse. What you say could have as much impact as what your company is doing to make things right. If your organization does not have a crisis communications team, consider creating one today.

Jennifer March is a crisis communications analyst in Corporate Marketing and Communications at Vanguard, responsible for coordinating internal and external communications during a major crisis situation, working with communications contacts throughout the organization, as well as business continuity management, public relations, human resources, and legal and compliance.

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