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Communicating a Crisis: Creating a Disaster Response Marketing Communications Plan

By Jesse Butts | September 19, 2012

When natural or IT disasters strike, entrepreneurs scramble to restore service and get their businesses running normally. A good small business owner won’t need a disaster to transpire before creating a disaster recovery plan. And a great small business owner will include a marketing communications disaster recovery plan as well.

That sounds like a mouthful, but, in reality, a marketing communications (or “marcom”) disaster recovery plan is a blueprint for providing pertinent information to employees and their families, customers, the media, the community, and partners and suppliers in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, many small business owners think they can wing it when a disaster strikes because they have relatively few employees, customers and media members who need communication. Or they’re intimidated by lengthy guidelines in FEMA’s Crisis Communications Plan.

The fact is, though, creating a marcom disaster response plan isn’t overwhelming. As you start drafting a plan, keep these points top of mind and commit to spending a few hours a week to preparing your plan.

“Disaster” Encompasses Many Events

Your plan should be put into action in the event of any disruption that can’t be resolved quickly and triggers your normal disaster recovery plan, including:

  • natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, etc.
  • IT disasters comprising computer or network failures
  • health disasters ranging from epidemics to environmental catastrophe
  • crime disasters including assault, hostage situations, bomb threats, and cybercrimes
  • personal disasters like the sudden illness or death of a key staff member—or the small business owner

Create a Chain of Command and Emergency Contact List

When disaster strikes, people tend to scramble. You can help to maintain order and ensure consistency in communications by creating a chain of command.

For many small business owners with small staffs, you can serve as the point of contact for everything. If your business has a fair number of employees (perhaps more than 10), designate some of your most reliable employees as points of contact. Try to cover the bases so you have points of contact for customers, employees, media and partners. Provide each of these employees with all vendor, media and other high-level contact information in case one of your points of contact is unavailable during the emergency. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches by working with these contacts who disseminate the company message rather than trying to bear the entire burden yourself.

Ensuring employees know the correct contacts is vital. Create and distribute print and electronic emergency contact lists to all employees, and be sure to include it in new hires’ paperwork packets. The emergency contact list should include a telephone tree and a wallet-sized laminated version. Try to include as many contact methods as possible, including:

  • home phone
  • office phone
  • mobile phone
  • work email
  • personal email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Ensure Important Contact Records and Documents Are Available Off-Site

Say your office will be out of power for a few days due to a local disaster. If all of your business’s vital documents and records are stored on your office computers, what are you going to do? If that’s the case, not much can be done.

Backing up your business data is imperative. And several burned CDs in your office won’t cut it if you’re cut off from your physical headquarters. If you do rely on manual back-ups, make sure multiple copies are stored in safe locations other than your office. Back up information regularly, preferably once a week. Your best bet is to use an automatic online back-up service that allows you and your employees to access business data from any computer with an Internet connection.

While digital back-ups are your best bet, physical documents remain king when power isn’t available. Print copies of client rosters, banking information, contact numbers for vendors and similar documents and store them at the office, at your house, and ask a few employees to keep them somewhere secure and accessible. Plan on updating these at least monthly.

Prioritize Audiences According to Need

Who receives information first depends upon the situation. The golden rule, though, of marcom disaster response plans is that victims and their families always come first. Ensure they receive the most current, verified information before informing other audiences.

When your disaster has taken no victims, first, be thankful, and second, analyze which audience will feel the biggest impact from the disaster. For example, if your office computers crash but the disaster  doesn’t, at least in the short-term, affect customers, keep your employees abreast of the situation first and foremost. On the other hand, when both are affected, your employees must know what they should convey to customers. In PR disasters, focus on the media but be sure key employees know what you’re communicating to the press.

Develop Messages for Your Audiences Proactively

Once your employees know the chain of command, there’s just one big piece of the puzzle left: What are they supposed to communicate? The message to convey during a disaster is different every time. But that’s no reason not to develop templates and scripts now that you can tweak in a few minutes rather than wasting hours writing them in the midst of all the chaos.

Ideally, you will craft messages based upon the most likely disasters discovered during the risk assessment you conducted when preparing your normal disaster recovery plan. Of course, this can be a rather large time investment for most entrepreneurs considering the size of their companies, physical presence and staff. Rather than focusing on creating communiques for every foreseeable event, create a few that can be used for different audiences and at different times.

Employee Communications. These don’t need to be particularly formal, but they should include:

  • whether employees still have jobs
  • when and where they should report for work
  • how their duties will change during the disaster
  • what precautions they should take while working during a disaster
  • where they can access disaster-recovery plans
  • what they should relay to customers (in most cases, advise them to not talk to the media)
  • if they’ll be paid in the same manner, and if not, when and how they can expect payment

Partner and Vendor Communications. In this scenario, assume you’re experiencing the disaster, not your partners or vendors. Partners will be most concerned about any interruption of service to their customers. Vendors will need to know if their products or services should be delivered to a different location in a time of emergency.

Media Communications. There’s a reason so many business owners answer reporters’ questions with “no comment” or are unwilling to confirm developments. Your number-one priority with the media should be to squelch any chance of a rumor mill beginning. Beyond that, focus on explaining the situation as calmly and accurately as possible. Putting a cheerful, positive spin on a situation may result in a write-up that portrays you as out of touch or unconcerned about the well-being of your employees and community.

Customer Communications. In many disasters, your customers constitute your most important group. They’ll require accurate, timely and apologetic communications, usually via email. Be sure to include:

  • What products or services you won’t be able to provide at the usual times
  • What alternate accommodations they can make
  • Any compensation you plan to make

Always present communications that demonstrate your business’s empathy for the disruption of service. Explain the situation briefly (without pointing blame at any third parties at fault) and how this will affect their accounts.

You may be tempted to include an estimated time of repair and when service will be restored. This can result in a sticky situation. The last thing you want to do is extend a promise to customers you can’t fulfill. Although a timeline of “very soon” may sound indifferent, sometimes it’s simply the best you can provide.

Tools to Use

Business Owner’s Toolkit offers free disaster response customer email templates you can customize for your business.

Take Advantage of Multiple Communications Methods

The disaster you’re experiencing will likely dictate which communications methods you rely on. When the power is out and you’re unable to travel anywhere with electricity, your options are limited. Keep a few non-digital landline phones, walkie-talkies and battery-powered radios on-hand. Consider purchasing a generator, or see what your property manager has available during an emergency.

If you do have power during a disaster, use each communication method to its full advantage.

  • Phone. Who will answer the phones? Many businesses set up an automated system with recorded updates to reduce the number of calls you or your employees will take. It may behoove you to set up a special number for disasters only.
  • Email. In addition to the emails mentioned earlier, consider setting up a special disasters-only email address.
  • Website. Post relevant, timely updates about your disaster-recovery progress without promising a resolution in an unrealistic timeframe.
  • Social Media. Use Twitter and Facebook to provide status updates about the emergency. Be sure to present just the facts—and only facts relevant to your audience. In a disaster response, many organizations begin status updates with “UPDATE:” and stick to disaster-only tweets.

With a solid plan and informed staff, your business can spend more time recovering from the disaster, not worrying about the communications.

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