A plan for crisis communication : Need of the hour

Plans should be in place for communicating with employees in the event of a disaster. An effective plan for crisis communication is critical to this end.

As the monsoon sets in, companies and civic authorities in India are gearing up to review their preparedness to handle heavy rains and floods. Doing the due diligence for all such potential problems is vital, because of the likelihood of their occurrence in many Indian cities. One of the aspects which should be reviewed to deal with such situations is the organization's plan for crisis communication.

Call-tree method guidelines
  • Every caller employee should call a recipient on one of the listed numbers, and then ask the recipient to confirm his other contact numbers. Thus, all three numbers (home, work, mobile) are verified during call-tree testing.
  •  Record the start-time and end-time of the entire call-tree exercise.
  •  On completion, consolidate all corrections in contact details.
  •  Create records (such as an exercise report) for audit purposes.

In the event of the occurrence of a crisis, it is imperative to communicate promptly with the employees, stakeholders, customers, media, vendors, regulators and parent organizations. In this article, we shall discuss a pragmatic approach to develop and implement a plan for crisis communication with employees.

Need for crisis communication plans
In the hour of crisis, employees look to the management for direction. The absence of communication from the management can lead to wrong assumptions, as well as the spread of inaccurate and damaging rumors. It's also important for the management to communicate with employees about people safety aspects to enable them to make informed decisions during a crisis. For example, in situations like the 26/7 floods in Mumbai—when many vehicles and houses were submerged—organizations must fall back on their plans for crisis communication in order to check every employee's well-being, and find out who needs assistance from the organization.

An internal plan for crisis communication should establish a framework which will enable communication with all (or select) employees in the shortest possible time during a crisis.

Developing the crisis communication plan
To ensure that the plan for crisis communication is effectively implemented, each department/business unit (BU) must nominate a coordinator. He will own the responsibility for developing, maintaining and implementing the plan for crisis communication for the designated department. The head of the respective department will take ownership to ensure that the plan is rolled out smoothly.  Though the plan for crisis communication should be driven by the top management, an individual plan needs to be maintained at the department level.

Doing it the call-tree way
The call-tree is a simple yet effective mechanism for reaching out to employees in a very short time. Using this plan for crisis communication, the BU head (or coordinator) invokes the call-tree and communicates the message to, say, X number of employees (X typically ranges from three to seven). Each of these X employees then individually communicates to another X number of employees. Thus, within two iterations, the message gets communicated to X2 employees. These iterations are repeated as part of the crisis communication plan, based on the number of employees in the department. Backups are identified at each level, so that the communication link for employees is not broken.

A call-tree can be created using a simple worksheet for each business unit (BU). The call-tree will have a tabular structure, which lists who (caller) calls whom (recipients). This plan for crisis communication also includes identified backups for every caller. Mobile, work and home numbers are collected for every listed employee. 

Automated methods
The call-tree method, while extremely simple and effective, is manual in nature. Hence it might not be that scalable if there are a large number of employees who need to be contacted. To address this limitation of the crisis communication plan, there is an automated method which enables business continuity (BC) managers to record a voice message which is then broadcast to all/select employees. During this call, the system can also be configured to seek input from the users. For example, 'Press 2 if you need any assistance.' Inputs gathered from users are then shown to the BC managers in real-time, thus making it a 2-way communication system. Since the system is Internet-based, the BC manager or coordinator can invoke this from office, home or a cyber cafe. The system keeps re-trying until the employee is contacted; it even uses SMS messages in an attempt to reach the employee. Such automated services are now available from vendors such as Amika Mobile, AtHoc, Everbridge, MIR3, and SendWordNow.

Exercising the crisis communication plan
Practice makes us perfect. Therefore, it's important to regularly exercise the plan for crisis communication to ensure that all role-holders are aware about the plan, check if the plan works as expected, accuracy of employee contact information, and driving coordinators towards maintaining the crisis communication plan.

Compared to other BC plans, a plan for crisis communication is less complex and hence requires less lead-time for exercising. The following things should be considered while exercising the crisis communication plan.

• The exercise should be scheduled during non-working hours. If employees are in the office, they may not call each other to convey the message.

• Even if the contact details of all employees are not available with the coordinator, you can still announce the date of this exercise. This will drive coordinators to update the plan.

As BC practitioners say, "It's better to have a BC plan and not need it, than to need the plan and not have it."

About the author: Bhaven Haria, CISA, is an independent information security and business continuity consultant. He has seven years of experience with Wipro and Paladion. Haria has assisted more than 110 customers with their infosec and business continuity initiatives. He can be reached at [email protected]

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