Testing Your Cross-Channel Crisis Communications System

A number of high-profile crises communications stories made headlines in the weeks since we discussed the need for marketers to have plans in place for an immediate cross-channel response to any breaking controversy involving the company or its brands — or anyone associated with them.

Subway first expressed “shock,” then hours later suspended longtime spokesperson Jared Fogle after federal investigators raided his home as part of a child pornography investigation. (Fogle has not been charged with any crimes as of this writing.) Meanwhile, just about anything Donald Trump says goads his rivals’ communications teams into coming up with a rapid rejoinder that makes news worldwide or, in an equally calculated way, to ignore him.



Responses to breaking stories cannot happen willy-nilly. News cycles have evolved from feeding the voracious appetite of cable news channels to the speed it takes for someone with a juicy tidbit to create a social media hashtag. You need to be able to respond to charges — true or false — rapidly and consistently across all media.

It’s critical to make sure your entire team has a clear understanding of their roles during times of crisis or enterprise-wide issues through both advance training and testing.

It’s one thing to put together a theoretical crisis communications framework but you should also pressure test your systems by having employees work through realistic crisis scenarios in real-time. These simulations will assist you in not only identifying gaps in communications but also in operations.

These crisis communications trainings should:

  1. Factor the increased number of channels that can shape a crisis. Channels include any way a message can be received or shared with stakeholders, including government officials, employees, media, regulators, board members, the public, customers and others. Channels could be phone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings, press and social media.
  2. Introduce a scenario and then pressure-test new wrinkles in real time that affect key stakeholders through various channels.
  3. Add pressure. Scenario updates in the drill should overlap or compete to force participants to think about how they need to prioritize and address everything going on. 

In the past, these trainings would happen via a tabletop drill and facilitators would distribute handouts to introduce updates in the scenario. With technology, you can take trainings one step further, making them more realistic while keeping them focused in a conference room setting. To do this, consider:

  1. Having executives practice communicating with remote employees or offices and customers by placing mock phone calls or conducting mock Skype meetings.
  2. Making it come to life by playing faux broadcast announcements or sending social media notifications directly to participants.
  3. Making the drill interactive by including time for participants to develop key messages and have them practice delivering those messages on-camera during a mock press conference.

A crisis communications drill is also an excellent time to think about the proliferation of channels today and how you should be prepared with your own internal and external channels when the time comes. Indeed, crisis drills may be the first time you’re consciously thinking about how conversations online can amplify an issue and what your response should be. These meetings can create fruitful discussions that will ultimately enhance your overall strategy.

Be Prepared
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it; if you think about that you'll do things differently,” Warren Buffet said. With today’s evolving media landscape, it’s imperative that companies stop, think and plan well ahead for crisis and issues before they happen. Plans should be immediately accessible to employees. And make sure you take the time to test the system before you see thunderclouds on the horizon. 

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