Many companies do not realise the impact that a crisis can have on their business and employees. However, a crisis can be any situation or incident that has a detrimental effect on your business. Most companies think that they are prepared as they have a business continuity plan in place but is this enough? Emma Paton looks at how businesses can communicate effectively using technology during a crisis.

A crisis can range from a fire, technology outage, product withdrawal, rumours and natural disasters to terrorism. When a crisis does occur, the company needs to deal with it effectively, and be prepared to move quickly to minimise the potential damage not only to its business, but also to its brand reputation and the impact on its employees. A company needs to ensure that they not only deal with the situation at hand, but that they are able to communicate both internally and externally with all their stakeholders.

Having the ability to communicate quickly and effectively with all the key decision makers is essential during a crisis to ensure that it does not escalate out of control. For example what would you do if you walked into the office and noticed all your confidential files had been stolen? In the first instance, most people would contact their manager or person in charge to find out what to do next. By having an up-to-date continuity plan in place, employees know who to contact, what channels to use and the correct procedures to follow.

During a crisis, the crisis management team will want to urgently confer and discuss how best to implement the business continuity plan. As the crisis can hit at any time, it is often the case that the team are in different locations. Decisions need to be made quickly and in real time to ensure effective communications. The easiest way to bring people together to make these decisions is over the telephone. However, this can be difficult, especially if you don't have everyone's number to hand. Therefore, how can you possibly get everyone on one call at the same time?

By using a dedicated virtual meeting room, members can speak to each other in real time and make decisions instantaneously. Technology such as audio conferencing allows users not only to dial into the call using one number but by dialling one number, automatically, dial all the key decision makers into a conference call, thus ensuring the continuity plan can be implemented as quickly and effectively as possible.

Once the issues have been discussed and the next steps established, it is time to make all the relevant stakeholders aware of the situation. Using communications channels such as conference calls will help companies inform their stakeholders quickly and effectively. It also allows the crisis management team to ask and respond to any questions in a controlled fashion during the call.

In addition, automated SMS alerts and voice messaging can be used to relay urgent messages to the stakeholders, set up meetings and inform them on the status of the crisis. For example, if a site has been closed, employees can be told en masse when it has reopened and it is safe for them to return to work. A company should also have a backup network system in case their technology fails during a crisis, for example, another phone system that bypasses failures. This is particularly helpful during major crises where phone lines became jammed and networks fail.

The technology is now in place to pull people together and communicate during a crisis situation, but companies still need to ensure that their continuity plan is regularly updated with new contact details and scenarios. The content should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it aligns with the companies' strategy and all the procedures and holding statements are correct.

No matter how carefully crafted the continuity plan is, it will probably reveal discrepancies during practice. Testing is key to the effectiveness of a continuity plan and it is vital that it does not undergo its first test during a crisis. A recent survey from Fortune magazine found that 85 per cent of communication managers from Fortune 1000 companies have a continuity plan in place, yet less than one-third have ever tested it to make sure it works. Developing different scenarios and testing the processes and technology in place will show up these discrepancies and help a company prepare for any eventualities.

Crises are going to happen regardless. Companies need to ensure that their plans are up-to-date and that their communication channels are kept open and easy to access, so they can communicate at the touch of a button to stop a crisis before it has any serious impact.

Premiere Global Services has put together a list of top tips to help a company communicate effectively during a crisis. During a crisis, time is of the essence. To deal with any crisis effectively, a company needs to be prepared to move quickly so as to minimise damage to its reputation as well as impact on its employees. In response to the ever increasing threats facing companies, a great deal of time and energy is spent developing a crisis plan that ensures that the business is able to continue. A vital part of any crisis planning is ensuring that channels of communication are open and available, even if the unexpected should happen.

Preparation

As with any emergency, preparation is key in order to minimise damage whilst providing support. The following are key factors for preparing:

  • Communications plan - The communications plan should underpin the main crisis plan and enable its successful execution. The plan should offer an in-depth understanding of the communication channels available during a crisis and the correct procedures of how to use them. It is important for the plan to contain relevant contact details of who to contact and the process to follow to maximise the speed within which the crisis is dealt with.
  • Accessibility - The plan needs to be easy to follow and accessible by all members of the company. Employees need to be aware of where the plan is kept and have access to their own copy in both soft and hard copy.
  • Buy in - Companies need to ensure that employees are bought into and agree to the plan. Company-wide meetings to discuss the plan and how an employee should communicate during the crisis are critical.
  • Testing - A plan should not undergo its first test during a crisis. No matter how carefully crafted it is, the plan will probably reveal discrepancies during practice. It is vital that companies test their technology systems and carry out a yearly practice.
  • Technology - Companies should ensure that there is the ability to communicate effectively when the usual channel, such as mobile networks and the local telephone exchange, goes down. This contingency will help companies maintain control of the situation by ensuring that people can talk to each other immediately and execute the crisis plan. 
  • Updating the plan - Organisations change on a daily basis, so keeping the plan up-to-date is crucial for companies. Employee records and details should be easily accessible and updated by companies.

Execution

It is essential to prepare for a crisis, but when it does happen, plans can go out of the window. Companies should adhere to the following points to make sure that it stays effective and at the forefront of everyone's mind:

  • Sticking to the plan - It is important for companies to adhere to the plan and follow the guidelines set rather than panicking and second-guessing what to do. Employees need to remain calm and collected during a crisis. The plan has been set up to advise employees on what to do during the crisis.
  • Technology - Again this is vital during a crisis. Technology is available to help when communication channels go down, it should be used to transmit information to the population concerned on the procedures to follow and the extent of the incident, to organise conferences and meetings for those involved and to circulate details on the knock-on effects of the incident. Freephone lines can be set up providing information for relevant people.
  • Employees - They are a company's most valuable asset and it is the company's responsibility to protect them. Companies should make sure that all employees are kept safe, and are able to contact their loved ones during a crisis. Technology is available to help companies keep track of where their employees are, arrange meetings to inform them about what is going on and what to do as well as help employees relay messages. For example, automated SMS alerts or voice messaging can be used as a more mobile channel for employees to reassure their families that they are safe.
  • Inform relevant parties - companies need to ensure that they are able to control their external communications and reduce negative perceptions and media stories. Companies need to ensure that they remain in contact with customers, media, authorities, shareholders and suppliers. This can be done by having clear communication channels in place to protect the reputation of a company.

About the author

Emma Paton is sales manager at Premiere Global Services.