The worldwide coronavirus outbreak underscores the need for planners to have crisis management plans. But a plan that doesn’t include a way to formally reach attendees or, if needed, emergency personnel, is incomplete at best. At worst, a non-existent or incomplete crisis communication plan (CCP) can exacerbate a crisis.
“If you don’t have a formal crisis communication plan, it’s too often that either nobody will respond to the problem, or too many people will, and there will be a conflict in messaging,” says Cindy Y. Lo, DMCP, CEO, chief event strategist at Austin, Texas-based Red Velvet Events.
Says Darnette Holbert, senior conference manager at Atlanta-based Meeting Expectations, “It’s more important than ever to have a plan in place. The CCP is the guiding document for the best way to respond, whether the crisis is caused by an active shooter, Mother Nature, civil disorder, data breach or something as simple as food poisoning.” Holbert helped create crisis response plans for Meeting Expectations.
Don’t Damage the Brand
Planning experts say that lack of a CCP or a poorly executed one can damage a planner’s reputation and professional brand. It can delay resolution of a crisis, thus increasing attendee anxiety or anger, which could be directed at planners. It can also hurt the financial bottom line of planners and stakeholders.
A CCP is far from a crisis panacea, but it’s always better to have one than not. “It cannot protect against acts of God, but it can be proactive in response and preparedness,” says Lynnea Walsh, director of operations for Total Event Resources. “It can also be proactive when determining threats that could happen based on political unrest, etc.”
A comprehensive CCP can make a crisis more bearable for everyone involved. “A good CCP can mitigate the impact of a crisis and it can identify and share specific scenarios, identify actions to take and the people responsible for them,” says Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Global DMC Partners. “This exercise is critical to avoid panic and aggravating the crisis.”
Alan Kleinfeld, CMP, LEO, director at Arrive Conference Solutions, which specializes in meeting safety and emergency plans, agrees. “Even before the extent of a crisis like the coronavirus is known, a good CCP can begin to inform audiences,” Kleinfeld says. “A CCP can dissipate tension and help people prepare. Sometimes, saying something as simple as, ‘We know something is happening, we’re on top of it and will be in touch as info becomes available’ can be beneficial and relieve anxiety.”
Rapid and competent execution of a CCP is crucial to its success. “The faster the plan is put into action, the sooner questions can be answered versus leaving room for unnecessary and sometimes wrong interpretations,” says Nikole Fridenmaker, CMP, CMM, owner of Fridenmaker Consulting, LLC, an Oviedo, Florida-based meeting and event management and consulting firm. “Delaying or waiting to see if a threat is ‘real’ could absolutely cause irreparable damage.”
Adds Fridenmaker, a 20-year corporate planning veteran, “A solid plan, quickly executed, can help people feel more secure during a crisis just by letting them know there are plans in place and that professionals are executing them,” she says.
Without prompt, consistent communication, the CCP team will constantly be playing catch-up to bad information. “Misinformation spreads faster than truth, especially if the truth is less dramatic, so it is important to make sure the truth is communicated accurately and quickly,” says AJ Bownas, vice president of event management for CSI DMC.
Here’s Good Advice
Experienced planners offer the following advice regarding all aspects a good CCP and prompt execution:
• Identify a process for figuring out unknowns. Be transparent, even about what can’t be disclosed and why.
• Explain upfront the concerns and issues involved, and questions that must be answered. Kleinfeld advises planners get an early start on CCP planning. “In reality, a CCP needs to be executed before a crisis,” Kleinfeld says. “The foundation of the plan should be well developed ahead of time. Team members should have roles assigned and have pre-scripted comments, filling in details later, for social media ready to go.”
• Set a goal for the CCP. The plan should aim to keep attendees informed and safe. The objective should also be to provide quick, consistent and accurate release of information to various audiences, including attendees, stakeholders, vendors, DMOs, social media and corporate officers.
• Brainstorm to anticipate potential scenarios. According to Holbert, “The most important thing for any crisis communications plan is to consider potential impacts that could arise. Basically, ask yourself to imagine all possible crisis scenarios, prepare plans and compile all the key contacts who would be needed in those situations.” Holbert says key contacts should include the project planning lead, client account executive, lead client contact, hotel lead, venue lead and client security lead, if applicable.
• Consider the types of crises that can activate the CCP. Says Fridenmaker, “If there isn’t an immediate threat, know what hierarchy of decision-making needs to take place in various scenarios to activate the CCP.”
Adds Chaulet, “Every plan should have an Identification/Analysis of Crisis section providing details on how the crisis is to be identified. Also, rank potential crisis scenarios from most dramatic to most problematic.”
• Form a crisis communication team to create messages, and determine the medium and timing for delivery. Kleinfeld advises that the CCP team should include a range of professionals involved with the meeting. He says, “It’s going to vary, but it could easily include people from the executive office, human resources, legal, communications/PR, IT and, of course, meeting planning. Subject matter experts may also be required, depending on the situation.”
When navigating the CCP, team planners should consider the management styles of stakeholders and corporate executives. “Some companies delegate authority better than others,” Fridenmaker says. “Sometimes, the person at the very top wants to be involved in all of it, so I think that your plan has to be created and put in place with the organization’s structure and culture in mind. But clear roles and everyone understanding those roles is critical.”
Fridenmaker also suggests that CCP team members have the qualifications and experience for the vulnerabilities you are most likely to face, and says it’s also important to know who the possible external partners will be and secure them well before a crisis. “Outside legal counsel and public relations are two areas that should be identified in your plan,” she says.
• Assign a team member to communicate with each audience. Having one person communicate with all audiences slows response and can create confusion among attendees and the public. Also, media statements should be shared with the entire CCP team to enforce one message and avoid conflicting information, Chaulet says. “In all major crises, the trap is to let the wrong people communicate, especially those who will let their emotions — which will be heightened from the crisis — get in the way,” she says. “A good communication plan will allow for real and accurate information to be shared by the right knowledgeable people even if it means sharing that they are not able to answer right away.”
• Determine which communication channels are best for reaching each audience and ensure that whoever handles live media can calmly respond to tough questions under pressure and is trained for the task. “A spokesperson needs to be assigned and that could be an executive, a PR person, a subject matter expert or any other staff who’s done some spokesperson training. Another important role is the person who coordinates team roles and the flow of information, and tracks what’s communicated to provide feedback on how messaging is received,” Kleinfeld says.
After It’s Initiated
Once a planner initiates a CCP, it must run as smoothly as possible to have the most impact. That’s why it’s crucial for the CCP to include a communications flow document. “It’s imperative for all size groups, “ says Walsh, who helped develop crisis plans for Total Event Resources. “Depending on the size of the group, and the reason for the meeting, communication flows can be complex.”
According to Chaulet, “A communications flow document is extremely critical as it helps all parties have a common document to work from, and anticipates questions that may not be thought of at the time of the crisis.” The flow document should give clear guidelines on who is, and is not, in charge of communication to specific audiences and stakeholders. The document should also include which crisis communication team members should reach out to various audiences and through which mediums. “A flow chart shows who the main contacts and alternative contacts are — always have at least two — when the crisis should be escalated to the main contacts and who can communicate key details,” Chaulet says. The flow chart should include each person’s title as well as all their contact information, she adds.
It’s also important to work closely with hotel and venue partners regarding their crisis plans. “The CCP should include the hotel’s security information and basic information about the hotel itself, such as whether the facility has a public address system,” Holbert says. The most effective CCPs are tailored to each meeting and don’t adapt a one-size-fits-all generic plan.
“A template might be a possibility but, as with emergency response plans, a CCP needs to be reviewed, rewritten and revised based on location, date, size of event, number of attendees, staff skills, etc.,” Kleinfeld says. “Get in the habit of reviewing and revising the CCP with each event or meeting you plan. ”
Fridenmaker says, in her experience, tailoring CCPs to specific meetings is paramount. “Destination is usually a secondary consideration, unless those destinations are in areas that are high-risk for terror events, social unrest or corporate ransoms. For example, “Are you holding a board meeting with key principals in your organization that need to be treated differently due to risks? Are you hosting a conference in the U.S. with a high-percentage of non-U.S. attendees?” Fridenmaker asks.
She once initiated a CCP at a meeting in Budapest with 800 U.S. corporate attendees. They were scheduled to return home via connections in Munich and Frankfurt. “At the midpoint of the conference, we learned of terrorist threats in Germany and that the U.S. State Department was recommending not to travel through the country,” Fridenmaker says. “We activated our crisis communications plan. The plan had our staff and leadership contact information, and emergency contacts, at-the-ready so we could move quickly. The CCP called for staff and leadership onsite to work with our human resources and our travel department.”
Finally, Fridenmaker presented a plan to the leadership team that would allow for all flights to be rerouted through other airports. “It was critical to the success of our program that we did not cause alarm amongst our internal team while we worked to resolve the issue,” she says. The CCP allowed her to avoid making several small decisions onsite that could have stalled response to the situation. “Thanks to having a plan, we were able to successfully overcome a significant challenge with little to no impact on our attendees and organization,” Fridenmaker says.
Holbert says it’s important for the CCP to anticipate worst-case scenarios when meeting in the U.S. and especially abroad. “The most important thing for any crisis communications plan is to consider all potential impacts that could arise for your meeting,” Holbert says.
While creating a CCP is time consuming, if it’s ever needed, it will likely turn out to be one of the best time investments a planner can make. C&IT