Communications plans are essential to any crisis. You have to understand the incident, identify your audiences, select the principal messages, and determine the best ways to deliver and spread your information. Then you have to make sure a lot of other folks understand the plan. For a primary crisis communicator or PIO, you should always have a plan and it should constantly be evolving based on the reality of the incident. However, unlike public affairs people, we often don't have time to write it all down.
It's a matter of style and personal preference as to how lead communicators deal with comm plans during an emergency. Some feel they must make the time to write one down to get their heads around the incident--to make sure they understand the issues and don't miss anything. Others (like me) abhor the idea of writing a communications plan while things are still in crisis mode. I should be able to verbally brief you in great detail, but to take the time at the beginning of an incident to sit alone in a corner for an hour or two typing up a plan? Well, that will put me behind the curve on building the Info organization and acquiring situational awareness-- two things that will make my mental comm plan stronger. Later in the incident? Sure. Now? I'd prefer not.
Of course, the host organization almost always wants a communications plan. It is a part of everyday organizational life and one of the things every manager knows to ask for. Should they forget, their PAO will not. If you are like me and don't want to write one during the first few operational periods, the key is to never let them ask you for a communications plan in the first place.
The opening move after an in-brief on scene is to introduce myself to the manager and the PAO. We discuss the communications landscape and seek agreement on the messages and how we will cooperate with the distribution of information. I'll also bring up internal communications and how we will handle the quality control aspect. I then tell them I'll have a written comm plan in a few days. Remember though, it is not a one-way conversation. There is lots of listening going on. If you show them you understand the issues and anticipate their questions and concerns, it makes them feel more comfortable. The immediate ask for a written comm plan often comes when they are feeling insecure and uncertain. Slow things down for them, show your competence, and put them at ease right away.
Once the incident has settled into a routine and the battle rhythm has been established, I'll often assign a trainee to write up a comm plan so that we have a hard copy for distribution, transition, and documentation. The assignment forces the trainee to think through all the issues and provides an excellent opportunity for in-depth discussions as you work through the document together. It also gives you feedback on how well you've communicated the plan to others. You quickly realize the way you have communicated is never perfect, but at least for me, the process is better than relying on a written document.
Some organizations have a crisis communications plan already prepared, which can be a double-edged sword. The process of developing the plan is worthwhile as it forces the parent organization to think through many of the issues a crisis will bring. Any organization that takes the task seriously will benefit greatly. As Dwight Eisenhower said:
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
Ike later added: ...but if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.
Usually, the logistics of the prepared plan (media outlets, community gathering places, social media hot spots, etc.) are what is most useful during the real deal. The problem arises when the talking points ginned up before the crisis are forcibly applied. There may be some good stuff that the crisis communicator can riff off of, but it will be a rare incident where the approved message plan matches the issues. Organizations must be flexible and trust the communicators to adjust the existing plan or develop their own comm plan in the heat of the moment.
Again, different people will address comm plans differently. The approach I take will not work for everyone. You should figure out the best way that provides you with the means to quickly organize the crisis communications environment and make it known to other communicators, the host organizations, and your team. If it's all in your head or written in detail according to a comm plan format or just a few bullet points to trigger your thoughts, it's all good. Just be aware of the potential demands from others and know that events can change things dramatically. And no matter what you do, you will always have to make time to think it through and then communicate what you thought.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.