The Six Stages of Crisis for Communication Planning
Phase One: The Warning Phase
A crisis or disaster is an unexpected event that disrupts normal operational processes and has the potential to create significant financial, security, safety and reputational harm. Depending on the nature and severity of a crisis, the safety and well-being of people may be endangered and may present complex threats and risks. Typically, such an event is viewed as a “singularity” – it happens. Following from that premise planning, especially for crisis or disaster communication, is too often viewed as a “singular” communication plan or a static set of communication functions. My research and analysis suggests that in reality, crises and disasters have a recognizable life cycle or somewhat predictable series of “stages” through which such events progress. Each of these stages presents distinctive challenges, obstacles, needs and opportunities.
These unique aspects require recognition and adaptation if the situation is to be effectively managed. This is particularly true for overall successful communication where the advantages of strategic adaptation to the circumstances of each major stage as well as the purposes, goals, challenges and functions of communication during each stage. Communication planning can be enhanced by recognizing and segmenting planning for these particular phases. Every stage of the crisis dictates the audience’s requirements, including the need for information and dictates the response of the agency providing the warning.
There are six identified phases within every crisis:
(2) Risk Assessment;
(5) Resolution; and
This is the first of six essays that will explore each phase of a crisis, identify specific areas of concern and provide manageable solutions.
The first stage of a crisis is the warning phase. Communication best practices dictate that crisis communication during the first phase of a crisis or emergency be constructed and consistent with the commitment to take appropriate action to increase readiness as a potential emergency situation looms. Communication undertaken during the warning phase of an emergency situation is designed to increase ability to respond effectively to an emergency when it occurs. Responsiveness should include procedures to implement notification of personnel assigned to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the response team and emergency management support functions. The warning phase notices may be the last instructions, reminders and notices that are communicated before the chaos and confusion of a disaster or emergency springs forth. Being mindful of the wording in notification messages will either motivate your audience to act professionally and appropriately or might unintentionally frighten them and create undue stress.
The first three stages of a crisis may not always occur in sequence. In some cases there is no advance warning. In many instances the need to react/respond must proceed simultaneously with the process of assessing risk and determine the response. In fact, the responding and managing stages may themselves be implemented while risk assessment or eventually resolution and recovery stages come on-line. The value of viewing these as stages is not that this is an inherent and necessary absolute sequence (although it does generally follow the life cycle of an emerging crisis or disaster) but rather that these “stages” require preparation for the unique goals, needs, objectives, target audiences, messages and challenges which each presents. In most of these stages it is likely that the communication processes would need to run concurrently and at the same times as other processes.
It is also important to remember that communication planning needs to provide for two-way communication during the warning stage. It is essential to have plans and procedures for retrieving, collecting, processing, sorting, analyzing, evaluating and ultimately discarding information from a variety of credible sources. Having a systematic way to gather situational intelligence and reports from critical credible sources as well as having an established process to effectively manage that inbound information such that you can assess the threat risk during a warning stage is an important predictor of overall crisis management success.
One key aspect for communication plans is to ensure that you are constantly vigilant and on the lookout for potential warning signs. This includes active scanning of traditional and new media, especially social media. Seeking information and assessments that will aid in the threat, risk and impact analysis. These efforts should also include monitoring of communication within the boundaries of your organization (e.g. formal and informal messages) as well as processing feedback (both positive and negative) from customers, vendors, stakeholders, neighbors, media etc.
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Your warning signs radar or sonar should help you anticipate, predict, avoid and better mitigate many types of crises and disasters (although admittedly not all and not always). This means that you should have inbound communication plans and processes to help you see “over the event horizon.” I frequently use the example of an iceberg when discussing warning signs. The largest part of any iceberg (and the most dangerous part for a passing ship) is the part of the iceberg which is below the water line and not immediately or easily visible. To see the real threat and risk of the iceberg, you have to consider the parts that are not visible with “normal” vision. You need a proactive “sonar” to see what dangers may be lurking below the water line...
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