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Communicate Effectively in a Crisis

Communicating during an emergency or crisis is one of the most important elements of a workplace disaster preparedness plan, according to experts.

“Not having a strategy for how you’re going to communicate during a disaster event is a fundamental weakness,” said Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Agility Recovery, a provider of business continuity and disaster recovery solutions to small and midsized businesses.

During an emergency, it is critical that those within your organization know how to communicate effectively. “This means managing communications to internal staff, but also to clients, vendors, customers, suppliers and the media,” said Boyd.

“When a disaster occurs, it’s often the misleading bit of information shared by an outsider that gins up rumors about a damaged business shutting down,” said Carol Chastang, a spokesperson for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance. “Obviously, this situation undermines the company’s ability to recover. That’s one big reason why precise, effective communication—within the organization, and out to the public—is vital during an emergency.”

You want to develop a plan to make sure everyone you do business with is aware of the progress you’re making as you recover in the aftermath of a disaster, she added.

Since 2009, the Small Business Administration has partnered with Agility Recovery to offer business continuity strategies through its PrepareMyBusiness website.

Getting Started

To start developing and executing a well-rounded communications strategy, Boyd recommended starting with a general risk assessment, including:

  • Identifying the top threats and vulnerabilities to your organization.
  • Analyzing what business functions are critical to your operations.
  • Identifying the resources needed to protect those critical business functions.
  • Establishing a crisis management team, and designating certain people within that group to be responsible for communications.

“You want to make sure that you have an established process in place to get your message out to the people that matter in forms and deliverables that they can make use of,” Boyd said.

“Traditional, routine communication networks are likely to be compromised. Cellphone networks go down, towers get impacted, you lose power and computer systems fail. You need to set up alternative methods and redundancies.”

Keeping Your Staff Informed

Boyd advised starting simple with an emergency contact list, to include employees’ home phone and alternate mobile numbers, personal e-mail addresses, and family emergency contact info, including names and places of work, as well as emergency evacuation plans. He advised storing this list remotely for easy, secure access. Do not include sensitive information such as Social Security numbers on this list, he said. “After you set up a call tree, you need to set up a process in which it gets updated regularly when employees’ information changes,” he added.

Another recommended step is setting up an alert notification system capable of multiple means of communication using text, e-mail or local broadcast stations.

“Once this is set up, you’ll need to explain what it is and ensure that employees are familiar with it and know how to access it. You’ll need to test it, update it regularly and train new hires on it.”

Boyd advised utilizing multiple carriers and prearranging with your phone provider to redirect your calls, if necessary, to a cellphone, voice mail or a second office. “Every phone carrier has an emergency redirection process. You need to find out about that and train all critical personnel on how it’s going to work.”

Boyd also advised employers to consider an online social networking platform for Webbased crisis communications. “Set up a password-protected Web page or Facebook page, where employees can check to get information. Now you have two-way interactive communication,” he said.

Employers should also consider establishing remote hosting for the company website, ensure proper bandwidth capability for spikes in traffic during and after crises, and ensure remote access to the website. You’ll need to designate the people who will manage the site during a disaster event, he said. “Your site is your window to the world. If it goes down, customers will go someplace else. You need to be able to control the flow of communications in a disaster.”

Whatever disaster coping methods you put in place, you want to practice, Boyd said. “You want to train on your plan. Done right, a good communications plan shows that you care about your employees and are thinking through crisis scenarios to be there for your customers.”

Dealing with the Media

Knowing how to communicate with local media is also essential. With a good strategy in place, the media can become a supportive function as you rebuild after a disaster, said Chastang.

“You don’t want to be making stuff up as the crisis occurs,” said Boyd.

Both experts advised designating primary and secondary spokespersons, training them in dealing with the media, and making sure all employees know who they are and how to direct the media to them. “Train [the spokepersons] on what they should say and how they should interact both onsite and offsite,” said Boyd. “You want them to project confidence, relate what happened, what you’re doing about it, what impact the event will have or not, and when you’ll speak to them again to provide updates,” he said. Chastang advised that employers create a key message and talking points to ensure consistency. Boyd recommended using prepared statements.

“Continuously monitor what’s being said and written about your company both online and offline, so you can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your strategy and messaging,” added Chastang.

“Don’t ever guess or make stuff up, or answer hypotheticals, or discuss anything ‘off the record,’” said Boyd.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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