The Top Five Reasons Why Crisis Communication Plans Fail

Here’s the reality about crisis plans: Everyone knows they need one. Some have them, some don’t. Those who have them, are quite aware that they are mostly out of date. And, when they are finally needed they turn out to be little used and mostly ineffective.

The conclusion might be: why bother?

But we all know that’s not the right answer. The right answer is to have a plan that provides helpful guidance when you need it most, enables your team to make the best decisions, and proves to be invaluable in getting you through the toughest of times.

You can read a dozen of the latest books on crisis communications plans and still not know what you really need to create one that works. But, from my experience in working with and writing a number of plans over the past few years, here are the five most important reasons why plans fail when you really need them.

  1. They ignore policies.
  2. They aren’t practiced.
  3. They fight today’s battles with yesterday’s strategies.
  4. They don’t scale.
  5. They’re too complicated, and too simple.

1. They do not clearly express policies.

Policies have been the foundation of plans I’ve written for the past ten years. I am amazed to see that most plans do not include policies, at least not in a way that calls them out as policies. They may embed them in actions but don’t call them out to say “this is what our organization and its leaders stands for in an event, this is what is important to us, this is the basic guidance for how you are to think and act while representing this organization.” Simple, well-stated policies enable a team to make good decisions during an event. This provides senior management with assurance while enabling autonomous action. Excessively top-down management in a major event is a sure way to make a mess of things. Yet, amazingly this is what a great many plans envision. When the bad stuff happens, the bosses say: “Everyone out of the way, this is important so we are taking over.” This despite clear evidence that the best way to work through an event (see Amanda Ripley’s “The Unthinkable: Why Some Survive Disasters and Other’s Don’t—and Why”) is to be self-reliant. A plan should facilitate this self-reliance while providing clear guidance for the important decisions that need to be made. In other words, a good plan needs policies.

2. They are not practiced.

If you think of your plan as a big book to get out when it really hits the fan, you’ve got the wrong idea about a plan. Crisis plans are policy guides and training tools. If you have to become familiar with your plan while the stuff is flying, you are in big trouble. If your first step in welcoming a new member of your crisis communication team in the early hours of an event is to say: “Sit down and read this plan,” you are in trouble. A plan is only effective if the basic elements become deeply ingrained in the subconscious of your team—before an event occurs.

The best way to think about a crisis plan is like a football playbook—my apologies for those who dislike sports analogies. Coaches work long and hard on a team’s playbook. But they don’t hand it to the players as they run onto the field to play the game. The playbook is their scrimmage guide, it is a training tool, it prepares them to run the critical plays in the right situations. Yes, the quarterback often has a very miniature version of the playbook on his wrist. But is it merely a “cheat sheet,” a memory device, a way of remembering the names and codes of the plays that will immediately bring to mind for the entire team each move they must make to execute the play.

When the game is being played, it’s too late to refer to the playbook. The plays diagrammed, no matter how intricate, must be remembered. And that comes with practice. A crisis plan without drills, exercises and training sessions is as worthless as the playbook is to the team after it has taken the field.

3. They fight today’s battles with yesterday’s strategies.

Not sure why, but the Tennyson poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” comes to mind when I see a lot of today’s crisis plans. “Half a league, half a league, half a league, onward! Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” Why? Because storming a battery of cannon with a light brigade of brave horsemen makes as much sense as trying to manage today’s reputation crisis with traditional media-centric strategies. I am amazed at how many plans still consist of the PR chief or PIO preparing press releases to be approved by a gazillion corporate or government higher-ups and then hand this off to the waiting reporters. What do they think will happen next? They’ll type away at their manual typewriters and file their reports with homing pigeons?

The news media today get their news to report from digital communications (what most refer to as social media). The public gets most of their news from digital communications—and what they thing is coming from their TV sets, or maybe even a printed page, has come originally from the Internet. If your plan is not focused on meeting the expectations of today’s digital audience, there is really not much reason to have a plan in the first place. By the time you round up your usual suspects for a press conference, you will largely be out of the story.

This is only one significant way the crisis communication game has changed. What about video? Live video? What about your own social media channels? What about intensive direct engagement with those who wish to get involved? What about claims management? (What—that’s not your department? You better believe claims management is about reputation management.) For a plan to be effective it must be at least somewhat related to the real world that your team will have to operate in. And since that world changes every other day or so, every crisis plan needs to be evergreen. In fact, the green should be spring colored.

4. They don’t scale.

I swear after the BP spill happened, if you spent any time in Houston you saw a lot of senior executives and senior communication leaders walking around as if in a daze with a definite deer-in-the-headlights look. They were all thinking—what if that happened to us? How would we handle it? If the BP spill taught one thing (and it taught a great deal) it is that most crisis planning suffers from a failure of the imagination. Take your current worst-case scenario—and multiply by ten. It probably still isn’t big enough.

Planning has definitely taken on a larger dimension post gulf spill. That is a good thing, because as we all now know, really really bad things can and do happen. And when they do, you need a lot of people, a lot of resources, a lot of the right technology, and a plan that works at the biggest levels as well as the smallest levels. Too many plans I’ve seen recently don’t envision the number of people that will be needed, don’t incorporate the essential technologies to support efficient operation and controlled management and don’t have organization structures that can scale. You don’t want one type of structure and operation for one type of event and a different one for a large one—you need a plan that is functionally the same no matter how big or small the event.

5. Plans are too complicated, and too simple.

OK, I managed to get six items into a list of five. Plans are too complicated in that if they cannot be boiled down to a few easy to remember important elements then they will be of little value when you need them. Remember, people aren’t going to running around the JIC or a communication operation with a great big red binder looking for instructions. They will fall back on what they know, are familiar with and remember. That’s why breaking down what has to happen into a few intuitive building blocks is essential.  Even with that, those building blocks have to be drilled into their heads (see #2 above).

But, plans are often too simple as well. They don’t take into account the incredible complexity of today’s communication requirements. They don’t include all the audiences that have to be addressed, all the modes of communications used, all the technologies that have to be implemented, all the people who need to be involved. They don’t provide sufficient detail for those who are unfamiliar or inexperienced to come away from the practice with a clear understanding of their roles.

The playbook analogy comes into play here again. If a plan merely consisted of the quarterback’s cheat sheet, he would call out the plays during the game and the other ten players would run around in confusion. That big playbook that details out every move of every player in every situation is critically important. At the same time, an effective playbook is built on building blocks of common elements. You have your basic formations from which a wide variety of different plays are built upon.

A good playbook goes deep into detail when it comes to individual actions of individual players. But it is built on common, memorable elements—and condensed into a cheat sheet for easy reference during the game. When it works, the team coalesces, the eleven players operate as if they are part of the same organism, and the game is won.