Preparing for crisis communications scenarios

Creating a complex communications strategy utilized in response to a crisis or controversial event

Be ready for a crisis

In the face of emerging or existing crises, crafting and delivering authentic messaging is critical to resolving and preventing further issues. Catastrophic events, whether they be financial, physical or reputational, will only be exacerbated through poorly-executed communications strategies. Preparing for and controlling the flow of communication, considering all stakeholders, and executing on messaging in an audience-centric manner can ensure crises events do not cripple an organization.

In the following example, I crafted an action plan to handle a variety of crisis events in my role as an executive officer at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

ABC Crisis Communications Protocol

Having a proactive and nimble crisis communications plan is critical to ensuring success when an issue arises. As part of my role as Executive Director of Communications & Marketing at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, I initiated and developed our “ABC Crisis Communications Protocol.” This chart was developed in response to an increase in controversial issues happening around the world and on campus in 2017, following the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States.

As communications channels increased, the mechanism by which students and other stakeholders could be impacted by world events, and express their displeasure, has magnified. As such, events happening across the country or around the globe could have a tremendous effect on the psyche of our community in Ann Arbor. Students in particular were becoming more demanding about their educational institutions taking a stance on world events, and delivering messages that articulated where the institution’s values lie.

The usual crisis plans, developed for physical or safety issues, were no longer sufficient to handle this new need. Leadership at the College did not intend to respond to every controversial event, and needed a policy to help decide when an event required a response.

I developed the “ABC Crisis Communications Protocol” to classify incidents on three levels – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie – that could be used as a shorthand by administrative leaders around the severity of an event. Each level included a communications flowchart, roles and responsibilities, and a recommended mass communication pathway.

The ABC plan has become a critical tool in our issues management and crisis planning, and is provided to all College leadership and communicators as their primary resources for notifying the College of issues and understanding our process for communicating. In 2022, the process was updated to include two new levels – Emerging and Future – to more proactively inform those local leaders of issues on our radar where communications are not yet planned.