As a way of introducing the tasks and skills involved in creating business communication products, we interviewed professionals in the field regarding a project they helped lead. This case study explores the creation of a crisis communication plan and how it is used during a crisis.
Crisis communication planning has become a necessary part of almost every business toolbox. A crisis can be understood as any unexpected situation that interferes with daily business operations, ranging from a natural disaster or major financial loss to a rogue employee on social media. Whether you work for yourself, a small nonprofit, or a large corporation, a crisis communication plan will give you the foundation needed to respond to any emergency situation. Proper planning will help people recognize a crisis immediately and bring it to the attention of appropriate parties. It can also help reduce vulnerabilities when a crisis occurs. With an effective plan in place, everyone involved can act quickly with the best possible tools to deal with the situation.
State agencies are the administrative branch of state government and responsible for the day-to-day business functions of the state. While private business or nonprofits have their agendas set by their Board for long term goals, state agencies can have their business changed frequently by the legislative branch. At the beginning of each legislative session, the Agency Director must be prepared to be aware of any legislation that might impact the Agency and its mission to serve the public.
While it is impossible to anticipate every possible crisis that might occur, it is necessary to create and regularly review a process to deal with potential crises. In a state agency, the Director, along with the management team and legal counsel, has the duty to develop and then review the plan annually. Each person on the team is responsible for reviewing and submitting any necessary updates to their part of the plan (e.g. the IT director will review the potential impacts to the computer systems and prepare for ways to address any crises). The review process includes:
- Crisis Management Plan
- Crisis Management Team
- Pre-Draft Messages
- Communication Channels
In a recent legislative session, there were a number of bills proposed that would impact the mission of the public employee retirement system (PERS), with a change from pension to a government form of the individual retirement fund (IRA). This would greatly impact the financial status of the fund for public employees’ retirement and was creating a great deal of anxiety for the employees.
The Director called together the crisis team to review the crisis management plan in light of this particular situation. They defined the stakeholders in the situation (public employees, public employees union, general public, legislators, governor and staff, and the media) and considered the point of view of each of these groups. Since they were in the pre-crisis stage (i.e. no new laws had been passed), the primary response would be through channels of communication. If the laws were passed, the team would be called together to refine the crisis management plan to focus on how to implement the new laws.
Rather than have the Communications Officer be the public spokesperson, the team decided that the Director would take on that role; she had been in her position many years and was trusted. The Communications Officer and the agency’s legal counsel were assigned the duties of creating a series of messages based on the possible outcomes from the various bills. The Communications Officer also contacted the local media outlets, particularly those reporters who covered the legislative sessions, to be prepared for press releases and public statements as the legislative session developed.
Some crises are short-term and abrupt situations; however, the crisis in this situation was a months-long process of following the bills as they moved through the state legislative committees and were discussed in the state House and Senate. The crisis management team had to balance their release of information so the stakeholders didn’t feel overwhelmed by too much rapidly changing information, but also didn’t feel that they were being left in the dark. The Crisis Response process included:
- Initial Response
- Ongoing Responses
- Reputation Repair
The agency’s initial response was to produce a series of fact sheets about each of the bills that were likely to move through session. The Communications Officer posted that information on the agency website and sent them to their political allies, which included the employee union and certain legislators. The Communications Officer also arranged for a press conference at the beginning of the legislative session for the Director to give a prepared statement and answer questions from the media.
During the crisis (which lasted five months), a weekly email was sent out with updates on the various bills and likelihood of them being passed. This information was also posted on the agency’s website. The Director worked with the Communications Officer and the legal counsel to draft appropriate statements for times when she was requested to attend legislative hearings.
The Communications Officer also drafted statements for the agency staff to use when they were asked questions about the situation. The crisis management team agreed that it was important to have a consistent message for everyone and that the Director would be available to speak with people who were not satisfied with more general information.
Once a crisis has been navigated, whether successful or not, the final stage is as significant as the previous stages. The review process included:
- Delivering promised information to stakeholders
- Analyzing crisis management and lessons learned
While messages had been drafted for either outcome, at the end of the legislative session the attempt to change pensions to IRA accounts was not successful. The Director held a press conference to announce that there were minimal changes to the pension fund. The Communications Manager sent out press releases, a final email update, and posted information on the agency’s website.
The crisis management team had been meeting every other week to review the situation and make adjustments to the crisis management plan, if necessary. The final meeting was a discussion on lessons learned from the situation and some permanent changes were made to the plan for future situations.
Crisis management is a team effort; the communication aspect is the most public face and often the critical piece that makes or breaks public opinion on how the crisis was handled and resolved. This form of business communication requires strong knowledge by all stakeholders involved in the situation, as well as the ability to make adjustments quickly and effectively with confidence.
In this case study, the Communications Manager used their skills of:
- Content Creation
- Public Relations
- Research (Legal)
A crisis can arrive in many different forms. In this agency, some of the crisis communication plans they maintained included how to deal with an earthquake (backup computer systems in different part of the state); what to do in case of the illness or death of the Director with a succession plan; and how to address stakeholders in case of a severe financial downturn (this occurred in both 2007 and 2008 and many lessons were learned from that experience). While it is common to think of public relations crises in terms of wrong doing by a company or its employees, it is not uncommon for organizations to have crisis communication plans for many different types of situations, including the one described in this case study.
Additional Business Communication Case Studies:
This case study examines a company HR strategy that created deep divisions throughout the organization and was ultimately unsuccessful. It deals with the creation and implementation of an Integrity Pledge meant to address issues plaguing a small business.
In this case study, a communication specialist helps spearhead a strategic communication project for a non-profit conservation collective. Their work entails collaborative project planning and evaluation, content creation, event management, and public relations.