The secret to effective crisis communications planning

Marine landing, by Stephen Benson, USMC

Crisis communications plans are abundant. Crisis communications strategies can be Googled and put together by nearly anyone from an intern to a 40 year industry veteran, and they mostly look the same – identify stakeholders, identify a spokesperson, triage the issues, etc. So what’s the secret sauce that 99% of crisis communications plans don’t have that let crises spiral out of control and cause PR disasters?

The answer is simple (remembering, of course, that simple is not easy) and comes to us from the United States Armed Forces:

Full Mission Profile.

This is an expression that means a full dress rehearsal, an execution of a plan as if it were real. If you were an energy company, for example, you’d want to simulate a massive power grid failure and treat it as though it were happening for real. If you were a fast food company, you’d want to look at past cases of massive crises and run your crisis plan as though it were happening to you, today, such as an employee posting incredibly inappropriate, brand-damaging videos online. If you were a pharmaceutical company, you’d want to run through something like the 1982 Tylenol scare.

Most crisis communications plan rehearsals, if they occur at all, are executed haphazardly and half-heartedly. Teams sleepwalk through the plan book, executives absent-mindedly nod their approvals while checking their phones, and a whole bunch of people tend to say, “I don’t have time for this. I have real work to do” – actions and reactions that would never happen in an actual crisis.

When teams in the Armed Forces execute a Full Mission Profile, they behave from beginning to end as though it’s the real deal. In some situations, the soldiers on the ground doing the work may not even be aware that the mission is an exercise only. After the exercise is done, the teams regroup for an after-action report that looks at lessons learned to be applied to the next Full Mission Profile so that the team is fully prepared and experienced in what can go wrong in an actual situation requiring their participation.

Why go through with this? Unlike a discussion-based crisis communications plan, a Full Mission Profile reveals the small (or not-so-small) operational hitches that naturally occur in any situation. These unforeseen errors and mistakes can accumulate and eventually cause a crisis response to be counterproductive. For example, an account manager might find during the exercise that they’re missing some contact information for one of the clients that normally wouldn’t be an issue, but during a crisis would be essential. A team might be given a scenario in which key resources they’re accustomed to, such as Internet access, are unavailable. Only a full rehearsal would give them the chance to truly get creative and work around a major obstacle like that.

When you next approach your crisis communications planning, try out a Full Mission Profile and see how well it reveals the problems in your PR and communications setup – before an actual crisis happens.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Stephen C. Benson

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Posted on April 8, 2013 in Crisis Communications, Public Relations

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn is an authority on digital marketing and marketing technology. A recognized thought leader, author, and speaker, he has shaped three key fields in the marketing industry: Google Analytics adoption, data-driven marketing and PR, and email marketing. Known for his high-octane, here’s how to get it done approach, his expertise benefits companies such as Citrix Systems, McDonald’s, GoDaddy, McKesson, and many others. His latest work, Leading Innovation, teaches organizations how to implement and scale innovative practices to direct change.

Christopher is a highly-sought keynote speaker thanks to his energetic, informative talks. In 2015, he delivered insightful, innovative talks on all aspects of marketing and analytics at over 30 events to critical acclaim.

He is a founding member of IBM’s Watson Analytics Predictioneers, co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast.

Christopher is a Google Analytics Certified Professional and a Google AdWords Certified Professional. He is the author of over two dozen marketing books including bestsellers such as Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer, Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, and Marketing Blue Belt: From Data Zero to Marketing Hero.

  • Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich
    are gone. You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding
    or forgiving because they’ve watched what happened with Fukishima, Penn
    State/Sandusky, BP/Deepwater and Wikileaks.

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