Design, develop, debrief: Crisis communication planning made easy

By Rachel Wells

As children and now in the public relations profession, we all have learned we need to “think before we speak,” and there is no time when that’s more important than when we’re communicating about a crisis. In a crisis, there’s little time and a lot riding on the facts we share and the tone we set, so it behooves us to do as much of that thinking as we can – before a crisis strikes.

Rachel Wells is a communications specialist at Sanitation District 1 in Northern Kentucky.

Rachel Wells is a communications specialist at Sanitation District 1 in Northern Kentucky.

At SD1, we were grateful to do some of that thinking alongside many other PR practitioners late last month when hosted its Greater Cincinnati Crisis Communication Workshop. There, we learned from other professionals, including some PRSA members, who deal with similar issues. We also had the opportunity to share our experiences and our step-by-step guide to crisis communication planning.

The idea of planning for a crisis can be intimidating, so we wanted to break it down into manageable tasks – ones that anybody can chip away at little by little, no matter how low on time or resources. To start, we divided those tasks into three planning phases: design, develop and debrief.


If you’ve given a single thought to crisis communication planning, you probably already have been in the design phase. This is when you decide what you want your crisis communication plan to accomplish. Also, determine how your existing policies tie in. Who speaks to the media? Who’s responsible for social media? Do these policies change when a crisis strikes?


At SD1, we want our crisis communication plan to be used – not just sit on a shelf, gathering dust until a crisis strikes. To this end, the meat of our plan is a set of tools we can use in any crisis, rather than a set of rules and processes. For example, we created an information worksheet to help us collect all the pertinent facts when a crisis strikes, no matter how chaotic our jobs become.

We also looked at the crisis most likely to strike our organization and thought through audience and tactics to develop draft messaging. Since our organization manages storm water, and heavy rains can cause flooding, we know in a flood we’ll want to remind our customers and employees about certain safety precautions, including through social media and email, respectively. Of course, we’ve left blank the time, location and other specifics, but we can rest assured during the crisis that our safety message is clear and our grammar is correct.

Though we’ve created several new tools to use during a crisis, we’ve also found that much of what we do every day ties into our crisis communication planning. We just needed to get organized. Our crisis communication plan inventories by potential crisis the resources we create for our daily purposes, so we know their exact location and will remember to push them out when attention is high and the need for them is great.


As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Your organization, the community it serves and crisis risks are always changing, so your crisis communication plan must adapt. Learn from your successes and your mistakes. Set a review schedule and stick to it.

Going forward, our goal in the SD1 communication department is to go through each of these three phases again and again on a constant basis. This way, we know our plan will never go stale and, instead of approaching crisis communication planning as an enormous project, it becomes a basic mindset.