Picture a scenario where organisations possess an unwavering ability to respond to unprecedented crises seamlessly, and your corporate communication team is able to become the guiding light which effortlessly responds to any allegations thrown your way without breaking a sweat.
Of course, this is just a pipe dream, and some levels of stress are to be expected in the face of a crisis, but what if there’s a way to mitigate the confusion faced by many corporate communication practitioners during a crisis?
In this article, we delve into the four essential steps of effective crisis communication planning, peeling back the layers to uncover the tools used by corporate communication practitioners throughout the years in the face of a crisis, and how to actually write a crisis communication plan.
How To Write A Crisis Communication Plan In Malaysia: Understanding Crisis Communications
Crisis communication is an important aspect of any business. The ability to manage and communicate effectively during a crisis is critical to the survival of your company. The types of crises usually covered by an effective crisis communication plan range from natural disasters and cybersecurity breaches to plane crashes.
It is essential for your business to possess a robust crisis communication plan in place with the sole purpose of maintaining your reputation among members of the public, your stakeholders, and investors during a crisis.
The ultimate goal of crisis communication is to provide accurate, timely, and transparent information to help mitigate the impact of a crisis and to protect your company’s reputation. Whatever the triggers of a crisis situation may be, effective crisis communication planning prevents getting caught off guard when the situation arises, allowing you to craft proper responses within a limited time frame.
In this article, we will explore the concept of crisis communication, the importance of having a crisis communication plan, and how to write a crisis communication plan in Malaysia. We’ll also provide an in-depth guide for creating a crisis communication handbook and the best practices for a crisis situation.
How To Write A Crisis Communication Plan In Malaysia: Understanding The Importance Of Crisis Communication Planning
A crisis communication plan is a document that outlines how a company will communicate during a crisis situation. The plan should identify key stakeholders, establish communication protocols, and provide guidance to relevant internal stakeholders on how to respond appropriately to different types of crises.
Having a crisis communication plan in place is crucial for several reasons:
1) It Allows You To Respond Quickly And Effectively
In a crisis, time is of the essence. A well-prepared crisis communication plan can help you respond quickly and efficiently, minimising the impact of the crisis.
2) It Ensures Consistency
A crisis communication plan helps to ensure that all communication is consistent across different channels and stakeholders, reducing the risk of confusion or misinformation.
3) It Protects Your Reputation
By providing accurate and timely information, a crisis communication plan can help to protect your company’s reputation, maintain customer trust, and minimise the risk of long-term damage.
How To Write A Crisis Communication Plan In Malaysia: Creating A Framework For Your Crisis Communication Plan
Now, before you begin typing down your 10-thousand-word crisis communication plan with an unmatched fervour, drafting up a framework of what should be contained in your crisis communication plan is a crucial part of getting a more accurate representation of the potential crises you’ll face down the road. This is also to ensure that your crisis communication plan is as accurate as possible which is strictly based on your industry with no wiggle room for misinterpretation.
1) Assign Roles And Responsibilities
It’s important to assign specific roles and responsibilities to individuals within your organisation to ensure a coordinated response. The core team behind crisis communications is usually the corporate communications, corporate affairs, or strategic communications team.
The difference between these departments are usually only limited to the naming scheme and their roles and responsibilities should remain the same. But for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to teams with the discussed roles and responsibilities as the corporate communications department.
Above is an illustration of the usual core team behind crisis communication practices in times of crisis:
CEO: CEOs function as the company’s spokesperson during a crisis, and will function as the company’s face at all points of contact
Corporate Communications Team: The corporate communications department will be in charge of crafting messages and becoming the middlemen between the company and stakeholders
Risk Management/ Compliance Team: This is the team who is in charge of assessing any risks, and providing advice on the feasibility of all forms of communication from the company
Legal Team: The legal department is in charge of providing legal advice to all stakeholders within the core team, and dealing with the crisis at hand should there be any legal implications
Subject Matter Expert: Usually, the department head in charge of the source of the crisis. E.g. the Head of Department for the manufacturing of milk products which were the cause of food poisoning in your dairy company
Once you’re done assigning the roles and responsibilities for crisis communications, you should begin with appointing committee members. To do this, arrange for meetings with the core team PICs, ensure that you are on the same page, and begin laying down the foundation of your crisis communications plan for your company.
2) Identify Potential Crises
A crisis can be defined as an unexpected and potentially harmful event or situation that threatens the integrity, reputation, and viability of a company. Crises can arise from various sources, and the nature of the crisis will dictate the type of response required to manage it effectively.
While a guideline is certainly helpful in helping you with your crisis communication plan, do take note that crises faced by companies vastly differ from company to company, and will require special consideration by your respective corporate communication teams to draft up a crisis communication plan that is only relevant to your industry.
To better illustrate this, below are some real-life crises faced by various industries:
Airline Companies: Plane crashes, missing planes, flight delays, emergency landings, hijacking, etc.
FMCG Companies: Food poisoning, poisoning (death), contaminated products, expired products, skin allergies, etc.
Auto Companies: Faulty component, mass recall, warranty breach, miscommunication with customers, etc.
F&B Companies: Employee strikes, fights between employees and customers, food contamination, food poisoning, etc.
Electronic Companies: Faulty device recall, battery combustion, spyware allegations, etc.
3) Define Key Stakeholders
The next step in crisis communication planning is to identify your stakeholders. While stakeholders for your crisis communication plan differ depending on the nature of your business, from the aspect of corporate communication practices, a majority of the stakeholders you communicate with are similar across all industries. They are the bread and butter for all crisis communication plans and unless you’re in a niche industry, they are the main stakeholders you will communicate with in times of crisis.
The common stakeholders during a crisis situation include:
a) Internal Stakeholders
- Board/ IP Members
b) External Stakeholders
- Ministries/ Government Agencies
- Family of Employees – If Relevant
- General Public
If you’ve noticed in the list above, internal and external stakeholders are interchangeable depending on the perspective of your sector. If you’re a part of the government sector, ministries and their ministers are considered a part of your internal stakeholders, whereas if you’re a part of the private sector, they are considered to be a part of your external stakeholders.
While there is a clear distinction between internal and external stakeholders, good external communication always stems from having a robust internal communication channel. In the case of crisis communication planning, internal stakeholders will always take precedence over any consideration as you would want to stem any rumours and misinformation from spreading to your external stakeholders from your internal stakeholders. Internal stakeholders will also be the ones who will be around after the crisis.
4) Establish Communication Protocols
Once you’re done with identifying your possible stakeholders, you need to develop communication protocols for each group. The communication protocols mentioned here refer to:
- Internal Protocols
- External Protocols
- Communication Channels
- Templated Holding Statements
a) Internal Protocols
As we’ve mentioned above, internal stakeholders take precedence in all forms of communication to prevent the spread of rumours and misinformation to external stakeholders. To do that, you will need to ensure that there are clear protocols for internal communication processes to ensure that your internal stakeholders do not receive their information on the crisis from external sources or rumours, as these are usually distorted to fit the narrative of its creators.
b) External Protocols
External protocols define the levels of approval for the communication channels you will utilise, ensuring that there are no approval bottlenecks with a smooth flow of information to external stakeholders. External communication protocols also ensure that there is no room for misinformation, providing concise and consistent messaging across the board.
c) Communication Channel Protocols
Communication channel protocols define the communication tools at your disposal in times of crisis. While there are many different communication tools available for specific scenarios, your templated responses based on your identified potential crises should be able to help you navigate the different types of scenarios and to identify the right communication tools for them.
It is important to clearly state in your crisis communication handbook the types of communication tools for each and every scenario, be specific instead of using open-ended terms which will be open for subjective interpretation. Some of the common tools available to corporate communication practitioners include:
Internal Communication Tools
- Internal app
External Communication Tools
- Social media
- Social media live stream
- Press conference
- Press release
- Media pitch
5) Establish Best Practices For Crisis Situations
Once you have established the framework for a crisis communication plan, it’s important to ensure that everyone within your crisis communication core team is communicated with on the best practices for crisis communications. In every crisis situation, you should:
a) Respond Quickly And Transparently
When a crisis hits, it’s important to respond quickly and transparently. Delayed or unclear responses can create more uncertainty and delays, potentially damaging the organisation’s reputation. Be open and honest about what happened, what you’re doing to address the situation, and what you’re doing to prevent it from happening again.
b) Using Multiple Channels To Communicate
List down a variety of communication channels allowable within your organisation to communicate with your stakeholders. This includes social media, e-mail, press releases, etc. Also, ensure that your messaging is consistent across all channels.
c) Provide Updates Regularly
Keep stakeholders informed throughout the crisis, providing regular updates on what’s happening and what you’re doing to address the situation. This can help build trust and credibility and keep stakeholders from spreading misinformation.
d) Monitor Social Media/ Media
Social media can be a powerful tool for communication during a crisis, but it can also be used to spread rumours and false information quickly. It’s also important to monitor all traditional media channels pre and post-press releases to ensure that you are able to respond quickly to negative sentiments.
e) Evaluate And Learn
Post-crisis, it is important to evaluate the crisis communication plan and learn from any mistakes that were made. This will help improve the plan and better prepare your company for potential future crises.
How To Write A Crisis Communication Plan In Malaysia: Writing Your Crisis Communication Handbook
As we’ve mentioned before, crisis communication handbooks differ from industry to industry, but the gold standard of any effective crisis communication handbook is based on years of experience by industry experts and can be used as a guideline.
For this exercise, you will need the input of all your crisis communication committee members. Remember, you do not want to leave out anyone from this Teams meeting. In crisis communications, you cannot afford to have any weak links within your team as timing is crucial when it comes to crisis communications.
The table of contents for your crisis communication handbook should possess a summary of all guidelines, instructions, procedures and SOPs. It is mandatory for any decent crisis communication handbook because it gives you a macro-level perspective on the types of content you’ll want to include and makes it easier for you to identify any weaknesses in your handbook.
Due to time constraints and to reduce the lengthiness of this article, we have identified a few crucial elements any corporate communication practitioner should focus on. For the following sections, we will mainly discuss items which are considered industry knowledge.
Section 1: The Overview Of A Crisis
The overview of a crisis can be broken down into 3 main sections and 10 sub-sections. The 3 main sections are:
If you’ve heard a thing or two about Murphy’s Law, it’s that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time. Any form of crisis is sudden and difficult to predict, but depending on your industry, any crises which have been faced by other companies within your industry in the past can serve as a pretty accurate guideline for things to come.
The “pre-crisis” stage defined here refers to the level of preparedness for your company in the face of a crisis. They are the corporate communication SOPs and systems in place which allow you to detect the onset of a potential crisis which allows you to scan for, assess, and monitor any media or social media mentions.
The pre-crisis stage also involves the level of preparedness for any potential crises, including the preparation of templated holding statements, and the communication tools which should be utilised for each specific scenario. In fact, a majority of the information contained within the pre-crisis stage regarding processes isn’t uniquely a part of your crisis communication handbook as most of the practices outlined here should already be a part of your daily operations.
Crisis refers to a plan for the detection of any negative sentiments throughout all media channels during a crisis, containing them, and recovering from the crisis. This ensures that you’re constantly aware of all media or social media mentions, preventing being blindsided by media backlash. This allows you to respond quickly and accurately to any negative sentiments and possibly fake news.
As corporate communication practitioners, being on top of all forms of communication during a crisis is of the utmost importance to ensure the success of your crisis communication manoeuvres. With that being said, being aware at all times of what is being said about you could mean the success or failure of your crisis communication plan.
After many all-nighters and endless phone calls, the attention on the crisis by the media and members of the public is finally dying down. Your boss stopped breathing down your neck, and your phone finally stopped ringing. You take a deep breath, collapsed on your recliner and sighed a breath of relief. So, what happens now?
In terms of crisis communication planning, your work never really ends. Nobody plans for crises, but they happen anyway. The best we can do is to prevent being taken by surprise and respond accordingly. A crisis tests the robustness of your crisis communication SOPs, but you should never take this for granted even when the crisis at hand is over.
First and foremost, you should continue monitoring all media channels for any chatter on the crisis to prevent it from resurfacing again in the near future. While most crises blow over after a certain period of time, they can resurface again many years down the road (I’m looking at you Netflix). You can then plan for the right course of action to tackle the issue.
Secondly, post-crisis work helps you identify any weaknesses in your crisis communication plan, giving you some breathing room to improve your procedures and to identify any other core team members you would like to include in your crisis communication committee.
Thirdly, according to a study titled Crisis Collective Memory Making on Social Media: A Case Study of Three Chinese Crises on Weibo (Xing Zhang et al, 2020), users on social media actively engage in making meanings, seeking information, and sharing opinions when a crisis unfolds.
Hence, even when crisis situations have ended, the stories carry on. These stories gradually become crisis collective memories among users. Essentially, the way an organisation responds during a crisis can shape the memories of stakeholders, and keeping track of this chatter can mitigate the chances of these crises being brought to the limelight again.
Section 2: The First Course Of Action
As a part of a corporate communications team, it is natural to feel panicked when you receive news of a crisis or an impending crisis. A proper crisis communication plan can help mitigate this and give you an exact overview of your next steps during a crisis. Remember, speed and accuracy are of the essence when it comes to crises. Here are some of the steps which should be included in your crisis communication handbook:
Step 1 – Activate your crisis communications committee (Team members and PICs should have already been determined from the planning stage above).
Step 2 – Confirm the situation with your subject matter expert and multiple internal sources. Most importantly, ensure that all the information you’ve received is accurate and up to date.
Step 3 – Prepare a holding statement based on the templated responses you prepared earlier. “Say nothing if you have nothing nice to say” does not apply here, and being completely silent on the issue will open doors to unnecessary speculation.
Step 4 – Discuss with your crisis communication committee members on the next courses of action post-initial response.
Step 5 – Follow up on actions to ensure that they’re implemented and implemented correctly.
Step 6 – Escalate or de-escalate the issue based on necessity.
Section 3: Methodology
Methodology refers to the different ways you can respond during a crisis. While they differ drastically depending on the nature of the crisis and the type of industry you may be in, some of the standard courses of action are:
- Full apology
To explain further:
Justification – Justification of a crisis is typically only done when there are no serious or long-term impacts from a crisis, e.g., a false allegation made against your company which could potentially damage your reputation.
Attack – A lawsuit against the source of the allegation. E.g., if a crisis arose from defamatory statements with no adequate justification or evidence.
Ingratiation – The act of ingratiation in PR is to show your appreciation as an organisation to sources of the information. E.g., thanking the general public for highlighting shortcomings in your organisation, or compensating the accusing party.
Denial – This strategy should only be utilised when you are certain that the accusations directed at your company are completely unrelated. E.g., Protests on a sewage backflow problem which was directed at Indah Water Konsortium from an ineffective sewerage system installed by a developer in 2015.
Full Apology – A full apology is an admittance to claims made by external parties and is a step that should be taken if the crisis at hand is undeniably a part of your organisation’s fault. E.g. KFC issues a public apology to Danny Ng Chee Fei, who was assaulted by a kitchen crew member at its i-City branch in Shah Alam in 2012.
Of course, the strategies above can be used interchangeably. In some situations, a combination of 2 or more strategies is required to effectively mitigate a crisis. Always remember that a handbook is just a guideline for your organisation, and some flexibility is allowable in the face of a crisis.
Section 4: Content Flow
The content flow for your crisis communication plan refers to reporting channels within your organisation. Being caught in an approval bottleneck during a crisis situation can delay responses and damage your reputation as an organisation. This is an essential step in your crisis communication plan as it hastens up your response time, leaving little to no room for doubt and confusion when a crisis strikes.
Crisis communication content flow is similar to your usual organisational chart, but with an emphasis on the speed of transmission of information, and ensuring the accuracy of transmitted information between the relevant internal stakeholders.
It also streamlines processes between your crisis communication committee and the relevant sections, ensuring that other relevant departments like human resources, legal, and risk management are in the loop as well.
Section 5: Response Timeline
As we’ve mentioned time and again, time is of the essence when it comes to responding to a crisis. A delayed response equals more speculation from the media and the public, exposing your organisation to further reputational risks.
A response timeline is crucial in helping you keep track of every action within your organisation, ensuring that the implementation of your crisis communication strategies is on track. Without a clear response timeline when a crisis strikes, you risk being mired in widespread internal confusion.
In conclusion, crisis communication is an essential component of any organisation’s overall crisis management plan. By developing a comprehensive crisis communication plan, you can ensure that your organisation is prepared to effectively manage any crisis that may arise. Remember to assess your vulnerabilities, establish your crisis communication team, develop your plan, implement it effectively, review and improve it regularly, and most importantly, DON’T PANIC.