The main function of the crisis plan is to assure that an optimal report and communication structure is in place. It is a work document that enables functionaries to carry out their task in connection with other functionaries. Short descriptions of responsibilities, tasks and procedures are the first requirements. The reason for this is when a crisis is really developing there is not enough time to read through a thick document. It is common sense that all factual data (telephone numbers and such) need to be correct and thus need to be updated regularly, but in reality this proves to be a real problem.
The crisis plan is something different than a disaster plan that are drawn up by regional and local governments and companies that are required to do this by law. Crisis planning and crisis communication are based on threats and not just on disasters. Of course it’s useful to get acquainted with disaster plans while drawing up a crisis plan. In any case it is necessary to let the crisis plan link up with the structures and communication procedures as given in the disaster plans.
Examples of policy statements
Given the relation between fighting and resolving a crisis on the one hand and the communication on this on the other hand it is absolutely necessary to give one person the responsibility for both aspects of the crisis. This crisis co-ordinator has a team to his disposal in which the most essential disciplines are represented: at least the legal department, public relations, security and a representative of that part of the organisation where the crisis happens. In case of a problem with a product those representatives will be sales and quality control, in case of a fire the plant manager of the plant concerned.
In line with the earlier described goal of a crisis plan (among other things to able to work on fighting the crisis with the least possible disturbance) it is needed of the crisis co-ordinator and the members of his team that they:
- Are exempted from operational tasks in relation to the actual fighting of a crisis, especially when it is a disaster;
- Have the authority to take decisions;
- Have to contribute to fighting the crisis without unnecessary burdening on those parts of the organisation that are not affected by the crisis;
- Must be able to handle high stress levels.
Given the vital requirement of the crisis team to be able to work with the authorities, the team leader (crisis co-ordinator) must be a member of the management of the organisation. In this way the channels with other parts of the organisation that are responsible for the actual handling of the crisis is assured in a way that guarantees the required co-ordination.
2.3 Relations with external authorities
Tuning in to and co-ordination with authorities become more important when a crisis exceeds the boundaries of ones own organisation. In case of a fire or an explosion several external authorities get in the picture: fire department, police, labour inspection and several municipal services. When there is trouble with a product you need to contact the commodity inspection department and given the nature of the product several other supervising authorities and departments.
Therefore the crisis plan needs to contain an exact list of public bodies and emergency services which, in line with laws and regulations need to be informed. In addition to this – and at least as important – there need to be made clear agreements on informing civilians and consumers. Partly these agreements will result from the earlier mentioned disaster plans. When responsibilities and co-ordination in communication between the public services and the organisation itself are not laid down in advance, there is a good chance that the communication, most certainly in the early stages of the crisis, won’t run smoothly. After the disaster with Cindu in Uithoorn in June 1992 the ministry of Foreign Affairs had to conclude that among other things the information of the public had been inadequate. Even the in many respects positive evaluation of the Bijlmer disaster points out several problems in the area of information, due to - among others things - the speedy dissemination of gossip.
Even with less dramatic disaster like the Bijlmer communication in the early stages is influenced by several factors. This is the result of various kinds of feelings and reactions, for example:
- concern for and uncertainty about the direct consequences;
- concern for the possible effects in the long run;
- fear for a possible worsening of the situation;
- anger as a result of the question how this could have happened;
- curiosity of less directly concerned people (and resulting from the right on information).
Without exception these feelings have a strong emotional basis. Therefore an extra dimension is added to the emotions to which persons in the stricken organisation and emergency personnel already have.
Quick, honest and careful information is the most important basic assumption of crisis communication. However, the necessity for speedy disclosure of the state of affairs may never result in a lack of precision and carefulness. Co-ordination between the persons involved in giving information from the organisation and the external authorities is therefore the fourth indispensable basic assumption.
Realising the necessity of being precise and the required co-ordination rings through in the words of a representative of the Ministry of welfare, Health and Sports. He concluded – looking back on a few product calamities – that one of the problems is ‘that a response has to be given right away in a situation that asks for some fact finding first’. He then pointed out ‘that the first response set the tune and determines the course of things’.
2.4 Training and preparation
Experience with disasters and exercises tells that especially the information given to the general public isn’t up to par. This is only one reason to stress the importance of training the persons who will be involved in resolving a crisis. The use of a crisis plan decreases quickly when the tasks and procedures described are not tested form time to time for their operational value. The test basically concerns two things:
- establishing that laid down procedures are being followed, that everybody carries out the assigned tasks correctly, and that the technical and communication facilities work properly.
- Establishing that the persons involved in internal and external communication perform their duty properly, both with regards to the procedures and regulations as with the content of their work.
Many organisations that recognise the importance of training in this area train periodically on the basis of scenarios in which a crisis is mimicked. Large oil companies have a fixed system of training. They have short exercises periodically and big ones that have a duration of several days every other year.
In the first model – that focuses on crisis communication – several functionaries are ‘surprised’ with a telephone call informing them a certain crisis is happening. After this it will be tested for a hour or two if they use the reporting procedure are being used in the right way and if the approach of the press is correct and sound with respect to content.
In case of the second king of training a possible crisis is acted out as complete as possible with all functionaries that have a task in the crisis plan. By adding new elements during the training all aspects of the crisis plan and the actions of the participants in several – often emotional – situations can be assessed and evaluated. It’s obvious that such training has to be held in the crisis centre, so that the facilities and technical resources can be tested.
A media training should be organised separately from this training. This kind of training is aimed at the contacts with the media (newspaper, radio and television). In this training only those persons participate who will be in contact with the press in case of a crisis. In the first place this will be the spokesperson and public relations officer. Also the leadership of an experts in the crisis that may meet with the media should be trained. For this kind of training it is true that it will only be effective when it uses a concrete scenario. Real life crises or disasters in a similar organisation can be of great use.
2.5 Public relations- tasks
In the rest of this book all parts of the communication are developed further. It is important to both management and the public relations officers to have an overview of the specific public relations tasks. These are:
- contributing to the quality awareness, promote crisis awareness and stimulating the right (open) frame of mind in case of a crisis;
- making an inventory of risk factors, crisis sensitivity and possible internal and external effects of an crisis (in the framework of issues management in a broad perspective);
- drawing up a crisis plan (together with others) and those parts dealing with the structuring of the internal and external communication in particular;
- preparing for a possible crisis (collect relevant data and documentation, training and so on);
- as a member of the crisis team, advising and assist the management of the organisation, the crisis co-ordinator and the spokespersons;
- keeping oneself informed about the situation and further developments;
- co-ordinating and looking after internal communication;
- co-ordinating and looking after external communication;
- arranging the press room and accompagning the representatives of the press;
- looking after the information to the press;
- keeping up to date and recording all information released to the press during the crisis;
- evaluating on a daily basis the reporting in the media and if need be correcting incorrect publications;
- co-ordinating and looking after the communication in the aftermath of the crisis;
- evaluating the communication policy in case of a crisis and giving recommendations for changes in the crisis plan.
Main points of a crisis plan