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Practice crisis communications before an emergency hits

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CHICAGO — Crisis communications plans can help organizations effectively manage and recover from a crisis, but they are more likely to be successful if members of the crisis team know their roles and have rehearsed together before a crisis occurs, experts say.

“The challenge tends to be that the plan hasn't been tested or practiced,” said Andrew Moyer, Chicago-based vice president of crisis and risk management at Daniel J. Edelman Holdings Inc., a communications and marketing company, “and people don't have a fine understanding of their role and responsibilities in a crisis. This is the whole point of front-end preparedness, which is part of crisis management; ensuring that when bad things happen you are prepared to communicate effectively.”

Any company, even the best-managed ones, can find themselves in a crisis situation such as a data breach where “it's not if it's going to happen but when it's going to happen,” said Rhonda Barnat, managing director of Abernathy MacGregor Group in New York and co-chair of the communications firm's crisis management practice.

Creating a team to react to a crisis is a key step in the preparation process, and building a crisis team where each member trusts the other members is critical, Ms. Barnat said, speaking along with Mr. Moyer at the Hines Symposium in Chicago earlier this month, an annual educational event sponsored by the Chicago Chapter of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.

One of the ways that trust can be developed within the team is to rehearse emergencies, Mr. Moyer said. He suggests developing table top exercises that create scenarios that can bring the core team together.

“Inject new pieces of information without them knowing what it will be and see how they interact with each other,” he said. This way you can find out how they communicate with each other and if they trust each other. This is also a way to see if there are too many people on the team or too few, he added.

A crisis communications team should at a minimum include a person from legal, a person from human resources and a person from communications, as nearly all crises would affect at least one of those departments, said Mr. Moyer.

There also needs to be a “quarterback,” a person who understands their job is to pull in the resources that are necessary, he added. “They pull in other subject matter experts as needed.”

During a confluence of events that pile on one another, a team can try to find the “common thread in various scenarios” to be better prepared for a crisis, Ms. Barnat said.

An important aspect of preparation is asking what keeps you up at night and finding out the likelihood of an occurrence and the impact of occurrence, Mr. Moyer said. “Decide which ones you are prepared for and work on spending time developing a muscle memory on how to respond to the ones not likely to happen,” he said.

While it's impossible to plan for every crisis, organizations should consult with peer organizations, when possible, said Brian Graves, director of communication and public relations for Community Unit School District 308 in Oswego, Illinois.

As the communications leader, he “compares notes” with colleagues at other school districts who have had crisis experience with gun violence or other incidents that his district has not, Mr. Graves said. This allows him to plan where vulnerabilities could be.

“Based on their experiences, we can prepare for providing the layer of protection we may need,” he said.

The panel was moderated by Business Insurance's editor, Gavin Souter.