Collaborative Crisis Communications: The Steps


This post should really be titled “If You’re Not Collaborating With Others During a Crisis Situation, You Need to Rewrite Your Crisis Plan.” Of course, if that particularly wordy title appeared in the editorial queue, I’d get one of those calls from Paul.

Here’s the thing about being at the center of a crisis – whether you look at it from the standpoint of your organization, or from the standpoint of you, as your organization’s communicator – you’re almost never alone.

I could make a list of types of crises, ask a rhetorical question about whether each is a joint agency affair, and the sentence after each fragmentary question would always be the same – if an incident or accident reaches crisis mode (or, as Paul put it recently, Spider Monkey Time) – there are almost always multiple response organizations. Working together with other communicators is almost always a good idea – being on the “same page” with information dissemination helps to better inform the public and stakeholders, your organizations’ can lend each other credibility and the communications work that needs to get done is accomplished more efficiently.

As of this writing, the ultimate example of collaborative crisis communications is happening in Ukraine, in order to “amplify the voice” of the government during its current crisis.

Paul pointed toward some of what I’m about to lay down when he gave tips about preparing for the inevitable crises that organizations face. Here are the steps you need to take, before crisis strikes, to be ready to collaborate with other communicators:

Step 1: Identification

Surprisingly, people often skip the first step to preparing for crises – identifying every possible contingency their organization could face. The list of contingencies grows with the size of your organization and complexity of operations. After brainstorming contingencies, the next steps are to identify your communications role during each crisis and identifying who you’ll be working with from other organizations to mitigate them. 

Step 2: Planning and Education

After you’ve identified the possible crisis situations you may face, your role in each and who you’ll need to connect with during these situations, it’s time to have a crisis communications plan that covers everything. You’ll need to know your potential partners’ crisis plans, too. In that is the nexus for developing plans to collaborate during shared crises. If you can exercise a shared plan – or just the combination of plans – do it! If your potential partners are bound by operational emergency response doctrine, such as the Incident Command System in the U.S., get familiar with it before crisis strikes. The next four steps are about planning, too, but specific pieces.

Step 3: Mobilization

One of your planned-for contingencies has happened – now you have to know where and when you’ll be collaborating with a partner organization. Crisis doesn’t always strike at opportune moments – make sure you can marshal forces at night, on weekends or during holidays. Whether you plan to collaborate in a physical location (like this one, in Oregon), or virtually, make sure everyone can access facilities or web-based collaboration sites no matter the day or time.

Step 4: Operations

This is the point at which you hit the “go button” on your tactical plans to accomplish the goals of your shared, or complimentary, strategic plans. Your plans could range from just conducting joint media briefings to establishing a physical joint information center at an emergency operations center or incident command post. Know the key points in a crisis that drive you to the range of collaboration. Preparing for a response to a worst-case scenario is the safest bet, and this would lead you to working together in a physical space in a joint operational environment. The U.S. National Response Team’s Joint Information Center Model is a great resource for organizing and operating JIC to conduct crisis communications collaboratively.

Step 5: Demobilization

A tenet of the Incident Command System is that one of the key positions at the onset of an incident response is the person or staff responsible for formulating the incident demobilization plan. Mirror this with joint crisis communications activities. As organizations no longer have an operational stake in a crisis, their communicators should be withdrawing from the joint effort. This may not seem as important as the other steps, but it is – once you start depending on other people in a joint environment, you need to manage expectations of when and why folks stay or go.

Step 6: Hot Wash

If you worked with people from other organizations in one crisis, odds are you’ll work together again. Capture lessons learned and best practices immediately at the end of operations, or as people demobilize, if it’s incremental. Use this to improve individual and joint plans for the next go-round. If you focus on processes instead of people, you’re doing it right.

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