Crisis Communications Support Teams – What are they and do I need one?

Oct 2, 2020

Charlie discusses allocating crisis communications roles ahead of dealing with an incident within your organisation.

This week I taught our ‘Crisis Communications’ course for the first time. It covered the crisis management landscape, stakeholder identification, a process for developing communications and a core message and writing a crisis communications plan. I think crisis communications is always portrayed as a dark art and unless you have been a BBC journalist or newsreader then you can never master it. The aim of the course was to teach people, who haven’t got a journalist background, the basics in understanding crisis communications. One of my personal aims in the business continuity and crisis management world, through writing blogs, offering webinars, mentoring and training, is to democratise the disciplines and make the ideas and techniques available to all.

One of the subjects we talk about in the course is developing crisis communications plans and we discussed crisis support teams. In most workplaces the headcount is lean and there are very few people who do not have a clearly defined role and so administration support staff are usually the first to be cut in any downsize. I don’t remember the typing pool but even PAs are a rare person to find and only the most senior managers have one and often they may be shared among a number of them. The same is reflected in organisations’ incident or crisis teams. There is a small group of people representing the different operational parts of the organisation, plus a number of support function representatives. Rarely do the people in these roles turn up with any additional staff or support and even the team may not have assigned administration support.

In a number of exercises, I have seen the personnel allocated the communications role struggle. They are trying to carry out multiple roles at the same time. They are simultaneously trying the do the following:

  1. Take a full part in incident team meetings and advise the team on communications
  2. Write media statements
  3. Monitor the media/social media and feedback to the team the attitudes and interest in the incident
  4. Update social media and the website

All these tasks take time and I have seen the poor coms person really struggling to fulfil these roles, at the same time the incident team leader needs them to focus on the response as they know the importance of communications to the success of the management of the incident.

This is where the communications ‘staff’ or a support team comes in. The communications person allocated to the incident team should take a number of people with them who can help implement communications tasks and provide situational awareness. The following are the tasks I think should be allocated to the support:

  1. Incident Team Liaison – this role is to be the liaison between the communications team and the communication person on the incident team. They can bring in draft communications for the incident team to review and they can also be tasked by the incident team to go and carry out tasks and bring information back.
  2. Writer – The role is to write press statements, tweets, questions and answers and develop information to be sent to internal staff.
  3. Social media – Their role is to engage with the those on social media. Depending on the volume of posts it could be answering questions, providing updates and answering individual queries. They could have a role in situational awareness and feeding back to the incident team the response on social media. If the organisation is well known and the incident is large there may need to be a team of people doing this. You may use social media monitoring software such as Hootsuite or Radian 6 which can be used to monitor sentiment on your brand or products.
  4. Press liaison – Providing information to the press and answering any questions they have.
  5. Website updater – Your website is a key way to provide detailed information on the incident and perhaps is necessary to tell your side of the story. It should be updated and questions and answers should be regularly updated.
  6. Internal communication lead – Staff are one of your key stakeholders and keeping them up-to-date with pertinent information and advice on the incident is key.
  7. Monitoring lead – This person could have a wider role in monitoring news websites which could be public news, industry news, local news, single issue websites and industry technical news. They could also monitor the print news and blogs or articles.

In a larger organisation if you are experiencing a sizeable incident, then you may need individuals or even a team allocated to each role but in a small organisation you many still need 2-3 people carrying out all of these roles between them. What I think is important is that all these roles are carried out and one person is not trying to do all the roles, badly!

As I say on all incident management courses, communications both externally and internally is one of the most important tasks in incident response and will make or break the successful management of the incident. Having a sufficient number of staff to carry out all the media tasks should be built into your incident plans and it is better to initially have too many people rather than too few. People allocated to these tasks need to be trained and exercised in their role so that precious time is not spent at the beginning of the incident explaining what they have to do. Review your crisis communications, perhaps even come on the course, and make sure you have sufficient people allocated to your communications response.

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