7 Steps in Crisis Communications Planning: Preparing for Hurricane Florence



As Hurricane Florence fast approaches the Carolinas, transportation companies are scrambling to reroute cargo and set up alternate supply lines. The storm's impact on supply chains will depend on a few factors: where it strikes, how far inland it travels, and where flooding events occur, according to Supply Chain Dive

"If there is extensive flooding in the area, as there was during Hurricane Harvey, the disruption could cause rates to remain elevated for weeks. If the damage is confined to the coastal areas, the supply chain impact of Florence will likely be less severe than Harvey, because while Houston is an important regional hub, the major Southeast regional hubs — Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis — are not in Florence's path," said Peggy Dorf, an analyst at DAT.

Are You Ready for a Crisis?

Every transportation or logistics company is vulnerable to a crisis - especially when key stakeholders like employees, suppliers/partners, customers and prospects are impacted. And if you aren't prepared, more damage is sure to occur. Most companies that fail in the time of crisis do so because they fail to address the many communications issues related to crisis or disaster response. Many companies on the Atlantic Coast are now learning this the hard way. Experience demonstrates that organizational leadership often doesn't understand that with the absence of solid internal and external communications, operational response will break down, key stakeholders won't know what's happening, and the organization will be viewed as inept (at best) or criminally negligent (at worst).

Here are 7 tips to ensure you have a strong Crisis Communications Plan in place:

1. Anticipate the Crisis

Establish your Crisis Communications Team. Ideally this will include your CEO and other executives who are in authority and decision-making roles, along with key operations, legal counsel, and marketing/communications executives with proactive planning and communication skills. 

Every member of your Crisis Communications Team should have been pre-screened and trained to be the lead and/or back-up spokespersons for different channels of communication. Then identify and train your key spokespersons - people who are authorized to speak on behalf of your organization. Make sure they have the right skills, the right position, and the appropriate training. Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, and to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the response of all stakeholders. 

Then, gather your Crisis Communications Team to brainstorm all possible crises that could occur at your company. By doing this, you may find that some situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation. Equally important, this will force you to begin thinking about possible responses and consider best and worst-case scenarios. It's better to go through this now rather than when the pressure is on during an actual crisis. 

2. Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems

Before any crisis even occurs, make sure to establish notification systems that will allow you to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities. Some of your executives, associates or team members may constantly be on email, but others not so. Some rely on cell phones quickly, some not. If you use more than one modality to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much greater that the message will go through.

Those involved in crisis management in years gone by used to rely heavily on the old-fashioned “phone tree” and teams of callers to track down people. No longer. Today, there is technology that can be established to automatically start reaching out to all stakeholders in your pre-established database and keep trying to reach them until they confirm that the message has been received. Through technology, you can trigger with a single call or email.

In addition, gathering and maintaining intelligence and company information is essential to successful crisis prevention and crisis response. Knowing what’s being said about you on social media, within traditional media channels, by your employees, customers, and other stakeholders enables you to catch a negative trend that, if unchecked, turns into a crisis. Monitoring feedback from all stakeholders during a crisis allows you to accurately adapt your strategy and tactics.

Both require monitoring systems be established in advance. For traditional and social media, Google Alerts are the no-cost favorite. However, there also are free or low-cost social media tracking apps such as Hootsuite. Various paid monitoring services not only provide monitoring but also the ability to report results in numerous formats. Monitoring other stakeholders means training personnel who have front-line contact with stakeholders to report what they’re hearing or seeing to decision-makers on your Crisis Communications Team.

3. Identify and Know Your Stakeholders 

Who are both internal and external stakeholders who matter most to your organization? Remember that employees are a critical audience, since every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization - whether you want them to be or not! Ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others not on your contact list, so make sure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.

4. Develop Holding Statements

While comprehensive message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements,” messages designed for use immediately after a crisis happens should be proactively developed in advance for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 1 of this process. An example of holding statements by a transportation or logistics company hit by a natural disaster, before the organization’s headquarters has any hard factual information, might be:

  • “We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce and drivers.”
  • “We will be providing more information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
  • “Our thoughts are with those who were in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”

The organization’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.

5. Assess the Crisis Situation

Reacting without adequate information is a common mistake. Don't make it. However, if you’ve followed all of the above steps, it’s a simple matter of having the Crisis Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your team members - ensuring the right type of information is being provided so you can proceed with determining the appropriate response. (OK, admittedly nothing in a crisis situation is "simple.")

Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you just cannot take before it all hits the fan. But if you haven’t prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your executive team and staff (or hired consultants) to run through Steps 1 to 4. In addition, when you quickly put together a crisis communications strategy and team after you're actually in the situation, it's never going to be as efficient as if you had proactively prepared and rehearsed in advance.

6. Finalize and Adapt Key Messages

When a crisis situation occurs, and with holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team needs to develop crisis-specific messages required for their specific situation. The team already knows, categorically, the type of information its stakeholders are looking for. Ask yourselves the questions: What do our stakeholders need to know about this crisis? Three key tips:

  • Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders, and develop any audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders as needed.
  • Keep your messages simple (it's as simple as that).
  • Adapt your messaging to different channels and forms of media. For example, crisis messaging on Twitter often relies on sharing links to an outside page where a longer message is displayed given the platform’s character limit.

7. Post-Crisis Analysis

When the dust settles after the crisis, make sure to go through the process of assessing “What did we learn from this?” Go through a formal analysis with your Crisis Communications Team and executive staff of what was done right, mistakes that happened along the way, and what could be improved for next crisis. 

More and more, transportation and logistics companies are becoming "crisis prepared" - whether it involves crisis communications, disaster response or business continuity. Yet, most still remain either completely unprepared or significantly under-prepared for crises. Be proactive and choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your company deserves it and your stakeholders will appreciate it.

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