6 guidelines for drafting a crisis communications plan

Penn State University is learning the hard way about the difference between issues management and crisis communication.

When a grand jury convened to investigate child sex abuse allegations against an employee, the university needed to start putting together an issues management plan that included numerous scenarios of possible outcomes, a crisis communication plan, and a media plan.

As with many issues management scenarios, they can become a full-blown crisis or mitigated with a thoughtful and immediate response. Undoubtedly, how they are handled can define your future.

Given news that the Penn State’s Board of Trustees only this week hired a crisis PR firm, it seems that there was no real plan in place despite the signs that this scandal was going to be uncovered.

As further evidence there was no plan—or it wasn’t used—it took several days before the university took any action or addressed the issue, even if was in a neutral manner.

A quick Web search did find a weak 627-word Penn State University crisis plan dating back to 2006. It describes several scenarios and listed numerous audiences for communication, including students, alumni, legislators, faculty, and media.

Only one scenario, described as “Personnel issues—criminal activities” seems to fit the issue the university is dealing with now, but the current matter seems much, much bigger than simply a personnel issue.

In the university’s defense, even the most creative minds could not have come up with a scenario that would come even close to this situation. It is precedent setting and will surely be studied at schools around the country, including Penn State’s Arthur W. Page’s Center for Integrity in Public Communications.

For the rest of us, we can use this opportunity to dust off our clients’ crisis plans to make sure they are up to date. If you don’t have a plan, here are some crisis communication and issues management tips:

1. Create a crisis communication plan that includes scenarios, messaging, and a response plan. Revisit it annually, and update scenarios and members of the crisis communication team.
2. Create a social media policy, and share it regularly with your employees. All too often what an employee believes to be an innocuous remark on social media can come back to harm a company’s reputation.
3. Train staff on how to respond to a crisis or issue at hand, including conducting media and messaging training.
4. For issues management work, take the time to develop a plan or, if time is more limited, outline your strategic approach in a one-page memo.
5. Be proactive and hire an agency or outside consultant—even if they don’t execute, their strategic counsel and outside perspective on the issue can be invaluable.
6. Learn from your mistakes, and understand that trying to cover up the truth instead of making real reforms will continue to harm a company’s reputation for the long term.

(This post also appears on PRDaily.com)

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