Formulate Your Crisis Communications Plan Now

Mary Grady
Mary Grady

He looked like every other passenger, with a duffle bag and carry-on luggage. But on November 1, 2013, when 24-year old Paul Ciancia walked into Terminal 3 at LAX, he wasn’t traveling anywhere. Hidden inside his bag was an assault rifle, which he used to systematically shoot Transportation Security Administration officers, killing one and wounding others. The ‘Active Shooter’ incident, which made headlines for several days, did not shock the public.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers recently analyzed mass shooting data collected by Mother Jones. Rather than just counting the yearly number of mass shootings (between 1982 and 2014), researchers determined frequency by tracking the time between each incident. On average, mass shootings occurred in the U.S. every 200 days during that period. Since September 2011, however, there has been an incident every 64 days.

With this increased frequency, PR pros can no longer assume their company or organization is immune to trauma. As a crisis communicator, when something horrible happen are you prepared for an immediate response? Do you have a recovery plan for your brand? A crisis plan that you test, and update annually?

Here are a few tips about how to brace for severe and volatile crises:

ICS what? When police and fire respond to a crisis they use the Incident Command System, or ICS. A component of the Federal Government’s National Incident Management System (NIMS), ICS is a changeable, scalable system used to manage and coordinate emergency response.

Create a crisis ‘team,’ incorporate the ICS framework into your crisis management plan, establish reasonable goals and action-oriented objectives, define roles and responsibilities and incorporate business continuity into the plan.

Speed is everything. Thanks to social channels and mobile devices, a crisis will emerge in seconds and so, too, will information.

Victims and witnesses immediately share experiences via Twitter and Instagram users tell your story visually, providing situational awareness. In 2015, every crisis communication plan should include a social media strategy that integrates ICS principals, realizes social media is a conversation and has a measured approach to neutralizing critics and misinformation.

Start with factual, personalized pre-scripted and pre-approved emergency tweets that can be used immediately for multiple types of emergencies.

A pound of prevention. A company’s reputation is built on trust, honesty and transparency. Identify the types of emergencies—such as violence in the workplace, a cyber-security breach—which could damage your brand’s reputation.

While social media dictates readiness and speed, risk management requires that you respond with care—quickly but factually, proportional to the crisis at hand, situational and with empathy when appropriate.

Open for business; recovery. You plan for, train and manage the crisis. Now comes the cleanup. Recovery is an important part of overall incident management and begins the transition to business continuity and brand repair. Successful recovery depends on all stakeholders having a clear understanding of pre-and post-crisis roles and responsibilities.

NIMS uses a ‘hot wash,’ an informal conversation where those who managed the crisis assess key strengths, identify areas for improvement and lessons learned.

What’s old is new again. Social media has become a game changer by allowing communication with a target audience on a daily basis, and in a crisis. Identify, engage and build relationships with key influencers. They can be advocates as you rebuild your reputation and brand. But don’t rely on social media; be more social.

Step away from Twitter and Facebook and get face-to-face with the people who will be in the trenches with you. Do you know who your local police and fire Public Information Officers are? First responders will be your lifeline during a crisis.

Don’t strategize how you will handle a crisis while in the middle of one. Get it right; effectively communicate using speed and accuracy. Have a plan in place to restore trust and get back to business.


Mary Grady is managing director of media and public relations for Los Angeles World Airports. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.