Not all crisis communications plans are created equal. Some are comprehensive, well-designed plans that include clear protocols. Even if flexibility is required, the basic structure of the plan is built to succeed.

But a good plan doesn’t just build itself. It’s time to scrutinize your crisis communications strategy for the warning signs that you might be in trouble when a crisis calls.

Warning Sign No. 1:  You do not have a clear system for reporting a crisis.

How do people in your company report a crisis? Common pitfalls include not having any requirements among employees to report a problem or potential problem, not having a single phone number to call to report a crisis, and not having a clear definition of what constitutes a crisis.

A reportable crisis should be defined as any event that can negatively impact the revenue and reputation of your company. This can range from a sudden crisis, such as a fire or explosion, to more insidious problems, such as sexual harassment or executive misbehavior. This definition should also include any events in between that can trigger a crisis, such as dangerous working conditions or problems that are continually swept under the rug.

As a rule, you should welcome the possibility of over-reporting rather than under-reporting. Encourage employees to speak up and bring issues to the attention of their immediate supervisors.

Encourage supervisors to report up the chain of command. Better yet, there should be a hotline number that any employee can call to report an actual or potential crisis. Regular employee meetings should be held in which supervisors ask employees questions and create opportunities for them to speak up about potential problems.

Often, there is a weak link in the chain of command. Employees may fear reprisals for speaking up, and that’s not the workplace culture that you’re trying to cultivate.

Warning Sign No. 2:  It is unclear what information you need to gather and share.

Spontaneity and winging it are unacceptable when a crisis is unfolding. You must know what to ask and whom to share the information with. Once you have established a reporting system, such as a hotline, you need to consider what happens when someone calls the hotline. What questions does the recipient need to ask the caller? What information should the caller be prepared to share?

A flaw in most companies is that neither the caller nor the person receiving the call has a script to follow that outlines what information is necessary.

The solution to this problem is to address crisis communication planning on a clear, sunny day. A team of people should discuss what they would want to know in a crisis and then write out the questions that the hotline operator should ask.

The system becomes stronger when strategic individuals evaluate the answers to these questions. They can recognize when a crisis is unfolding and pass that information on to the hotline operator.

In places where a 24-hour operator is not a viable option, consider making a single cellphone the hotline phone. Each week, a specific manager can be designated as the crisis manager. She must carry the phone with her 24/7. Her job is to answer the hotline anytime it rings, and to start gathering information she can share with other managers, so that they can address the crisis.

Warning Sign No. 3:  Roles are not well defined.

Most organizations fail to have an established and dedicated crisis management team. Hence, their response to a crisis is usually ad-hoc and prone to fail because they make mistakes in the heat of the moment.

Once you have gathered the initial information, you must clearly establish whom it goes to and what actions they should take.

All companies should have three types of plans for a crisis: a crisis communication plan, an emergency response or incident command plan, and a business continuity plan. Few companies have all three. Many companies have none.

The leader of each of these teams should be a member of the crisis management team, along with the CEO. You should consider limiting your core crisis management team to only four or five leaders. This is your inner circle. Each of them should have other internal managers and experts they can call on as needed.

The crisis management team is the group that should receive the information gathered when someone calls the hotline number.

Each should then dispatch their legions of designees to respond to the events.

In our case, the leader of the crisis communications team needs to start communicating facts to internal and external audiences as quickly as possible, using the most reliable tools. They should include:

  • Holding a quick, initial news briefing with any media who may be on site
  • Posting the information to your website
  • Emailing information to the media and employees with a link to your website
  • Using email to reach key stakeholders, such as customers
  • Using YouTube to host a short video statement for the world to see
  • Using your established social media platforms to drive traffic to your statements on your website and on YouTube

Your ability to use these communications channels depends greatly on the size of your team. When you are short-handed, use the channels in the order outlined above.

The difference between crisis communications success and crisis communications failure lies in planning. It is called a crisis communications plan for a reason.

Don’t wing it. Take the time now to determine if you are destined for failure because you are missing the most critical strategies.