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In the recently published book “Simple Rules: How to thrive in a complex world”, MIT and Stanford authors Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt show how simple rules often lead to better decisions or actions, by taking away those considerations which are not relevant for the solution. Can this also be applied to crisis communications or crisis management plans? Here are some thoughts.

As a matter of fact, more often than not, the volume of crisis communications plans measured in inches is reversely proportional to the level of knowledge about its content among those who should work with the manual. When I speak about crisis communications plans with colleagues, I often hear that their plans are “just the paper” and “live in the drawer”. For bringing a plan to life, it takes much more than writing the plan. It also has to be digestible to its audience.

That being said, a lot speaks in favor of simpler manuals. That’s easier said than done, given that organizations tend to become more and more complex, as they find themselves tied up in their joint ventures, partners, third-party suppliers, and often deal with regulatory frameworks beyond imagination. How can a plan reflect all these interactions with various stakeholders and players, and still remain simple and straight.

Having a crisis plan means to know your stakeholders. Having a crisis plan means to know your stakeholders. In fact, this could be a good guiding principle for drafting a leaner, simpler plan: Think hard who your stakeholders are. Then describe how you would communicate, interact, engage with them in a crisis. Which are the channels and tools you would use to communicate with them? What would be the content?

Also, a plan should be designed and structured according to these four basic steps:

  1. Analyze: What has happened? Why? Who’s fault? Who else is involved? What are the consequences? What are the concerns of your stakeholders?
  2. Decide: What is your response? Which approach do you take? Which tone do you apply?…
  3. Engage: Which audiences are to be adressed with which messages through which channels? Listen carefully to your audiences (aka stakeholders), if necessary, go back to step 1.
  4. Monitor: How do you come through with your messages? Who else is communicating?

Another thought: I’m not a big fan of crisis scenarios. I’m not suggesting to lightheartedly say “what will be will be”, but inventing 25 possible scenarios and describing the response to each of them in great details doesn’t help a lot, if scenario 26 unfolds instead, which you haven’t had on your mind. Scenarios blow up plans and make them hard to handle. Having a clear idea of your risks is one thing. But don’t overengineer your crisis communications plans. What will happen in a crisis is that people will turn away from a document that is too complex to handle it.

Last not least, a good structure will do wonders! My suggestion is to strip off everything from your main plan which could as well sit in an appendix or a directory, rather work with references in the document.

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