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11 Steps to Developing a Digital Crisis Communications Plan

What separates an elite military group such as the Navy Seals from others? They train non-stop. They train for every situation imaginable. They train for what happens when the plans fail. When they execute a mission they’re relying not just on their skills, they’re relying on their training. In business we need to think more like Navy Seals and train for situations that could endanger our community, our customers, our partners and our vendors.

Our ability to prepare and train for such situations is what will help us when everything hits the fan, the boss is calling, emails are flying in and you’re sitting there trying to figure out what to do. Darren Rowse tweeted out a quote from Bear Bryant that said: “It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.” It’s in the preparation that separates the good from the great.

With the 24/7 news cycle and the fire hose of information that is always coming at us, it is surprising the number of people that I speak with who don’t have a digital crisis communications plan. Over the past couple years as social media has continued it’s explosive growth, we have seen so many examples of companies who have experienced a crisis due to an accidental tweet, a campaign gone wrong, a misstatement by a spokesperson or the collapse of an industry. But for every major crisis that we hear about there are thousands of crises which will never bubble up to the surface that are the little situations that we deal with on a daily basis. If we’re able to mitigate or solve the issue then it doesn’t grow into a case-study level crisis.

These plans don’t have to be overly complex or difficult to understand. In fact, they need to be written in easy-to-understand language so that when it comes time to take the plan of the shelf and execute against it, everyone isn’t left scratching their heads at a weird acronym or section of legalese. Ever since last year when I read the Radian6 “Social Media Monitoring and Engagement Playbook” and since joining Citrix Online, I have been thinking about digital crisis communications and the basic steps to developing a plan.

Using bits from the Radian6 playbook and my own experiences, I have boiled it down into 11 steps to developing a digital crisis communications plan. Some of these steps may not apply for your company depending on the size of company, whether you have an international customer base and several other factors.


11 Steps to Developing a Digital Crisis Communications Plan

1. Choose and set up your monitoring platform(s)

Choose the platform that is right for your company. There are plenty of them out there and even if you’re not ready to move to a premium solution yet, you can still grow bigger ears for free.

2. Determine your monitoring schedule

After you have selected and set up your monitoring platform you need decide what your monitoring schedule will be. Who will be involved? What times will they be monitoring? Will it be active or passive monitoring? Do you need international support? All of these questions will need to be answered to determine what your monitoring schedule needs to be.

3. Ensure local language support teams

If you have an international customer, partner or vendor base then you need to ensure you have the capabilities to respond in local language to any crisis that may occur. In the U.S. we tend to be an ethnocentric society who believes that our way is the right way. That how and when we communicate is the same everywhere. However, that is far from the case. You need folks on your team that understand, can monitor and respond in local language.

4. Determine what constitutes a crisis

What constitutes a crisis for your company? Not everything will be a “run around the office with your hair on fire” type of crisis (well, hopefully not!) but you need to have an ability to rate or grade the situation to determine whether something is escalating to crisis-level. You may choose a numerical score or a letter grade. You can use a severity grid such as “xx number of comments in 24 hours” or make it situation-specific. Whatever it is, make sure you understand what a crisis is for YOUR company.

5. Determine what you WILL respond to

It is important to have listed what your company is willing to respond to. These may be general inquiries such as customer service/support issues, product inquiries or publicly available information.

6. Determine what you WILL NOT respond to

Equally, if not more important is having listed what your company WILL NOT respond to. These may be legal or financial inquiries that are not publicly available, potentially inflammatory comments or something that the company does not possess the ability to properly respond to.

7. Form your digital crisis communications team

You need to form a digital crisis communications team that is comprised of stakeholders from across the business. Depending on the severity of a crisis and who it involves, it will mean that different stakeholders will need to be activated. Therefore they need to be aware of and bought in to the plan because not only will you turn to them during the crisis for support, they’re the experts of their respective areas. For example, Legal may want to be involved in anything that involves an employee issue. HR may not want to be involved in customer support issues, even if escalated to a crisis-level. Another team may prefer to be notified after it has been resolved, just as a FYI. It is important to understand these dynamics and the level of involvement needed and wanted. Some members of your core digital crisis communications team should include:

  • Internal Communications
  • Marketing
  • PR
  • HR
  • International Teams
  • Customer Service
  • Agency Support

You may also have an extended team that could include: Creative, Web Development, Customer Insights, SEO, Sales and any other relevant teams, depending on the size of your company.

Be sure to include contact information for every member and proxy/backups for each person.

8. Escalation ladder and flow

Who needs to be notified and when. It’s as simple as that. Have a simple grid that lists who is notified, when, how fast and the method of communication. For example, an email will be sent to the VP of Corporate Communications. If no response is received within 30 minutes, it will be escalated to the SVP of Marketing.

9. Who will respond on the company’s behalf

It’s important to determine who will respond on the company’s behalf. Who will be the online spokesperson for your company. Remember that it may not be the same person every time. You probably don’t want your CEO responding to every inquiry during a crisis. But, you may want to call them in for a high profile response, an influential website or an interview. List who is authorized to respond and under what circumstances.

10. What to report on and how frequently

During and following a crisis the executives and managers will want to understand what happened, how it was handled and what affect it had on the company. Determine what that frequency is that they want and what they’re interested in having reported. During the crisis you may report every hour then move to once per day, once per week and then a final report. Agree to this so there is no confusion on when and what will be reported.

11. Build support beams

You can’t do this alone and you shouldn’t attempt to. Make partnerships, build a team and develop internal support for your plan. It will be important during a crisis and you will be thankful for developing these partnerships ahead of time.

Below is a slide deck that I put together that’s part of a speech I give on digital crisis communications. If you can view it below, you can find it over on Slideshare.

Does your company have a digital crisis communications plan? Has your company had to execute against this plan yet? What were your experiences?


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Photo Credit: Will Scullin

  • Dayngr


    Fantastic advice broken down into 11 steps any company can take action on. I’m so glad the Radian6 Playbook, in some part, was able to help you help your community here in developing a digital crisis communications plan. 

    All the best,
    Trish Forant (@Dayngr) 
    Community Manager | Radian6

  • David Baeza

    Really enjoyed the post.  I think getting agreement on what will be, and what will not be responded to is very important. 

    All the best,


  • Trung

    Dear Justin,

    Could you send me the preso mentioned above..I couldn’t find it and my company not allow me to access Slideshare website..

    Many thanks for valuable information,

    My email is: