Thirteen reasons why crisis and emergency communication plans fail

Beginning a series of common issues with crisis communication plans

Companies, jurisdictions and agencies spend a tremendous amount of time and effort developing crisis communication plans. Some studies I've seen suggest that less than half actually have communication plans, but I'm not really talking to or about them. (If, after observing all the failures of communication during disasters and reputation crises they are still not interested in doing a plan, I question whether anything I say would overcome their resistance.) If you are reading this, I'm guessing you or your organization have a plan.

But, we have seen that many well thought out plans do not work as expected during an event. I've been so fortunate over the past decade to work with so many different organizations and communication professionals. I've learned from all of them. Learned from successes and even more from disappointments. The range and variety has been great--from very large federal agencies, to some of the largest global corporations, to non-profit development agencies, to small law firms and family farms. All that, in my parlance, has been a great blessing, and one I am eager to share.

I'm trying to share what I've learned in a few different ways. I've developed a crisis communication planning template which I call the OnePage Crisis Communication Playbook, and also have developed an extensive Gap Analysis Tool. This analytical tool, supported by some of the most experienced and best minds in crisis and emergency communications, is intended specifically to help communication leaders determine if their plans will work BEFORE they are tested by real life events. 

But, I'm also working on a document that identifies the most common failings or weaknesses I have seen in the dozens of plans I have reviewed or been involved in updating. That document, perhaps even a white paper, is still being developed, but I was eager to share with you in this new year my list of the 13 plan failings that I've identified so far. I suspect their will be more. I can't go into detail in each of these right now, but in the coming weeks I'll probably comment on each of these with greater focus. But, to help jump start your thinking about updating your plans for 2013, here are my 13 greatest plan failures:

1. Last Event Plans -- too many, like battle plans, are built to fight the last battle, not the next one. That is because most are created by those with specific examples in certain kinds of crises but because of limited view and experience, are not truly "all hazard" plans.

2. Past World Plans--these are plans created for the world of Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite, not of Jon Stewart and Huffington Post, let alone one billion people on Facebook. Probably the most common failure.

3. Directionless Plans--an oxymoron, you think? Most plans have detailed directions but seem to leave the critical thinking to the senior leaders. Everyone in the response needs to have clear directions, policy statements, declarations of intent to guide them in good decision making. Few plans include these guidance statements.

4. Same but Bigger Plans -- this is a common failing of organizations who do intensive communications routinely and have sizeable internal staffs. They see deploying their staff and making decisions in major events similar to how they do it every day. Universities in particular fall prey to an overly collaborative process that fails in crises. The reality is major events require significantly larger staffs and organization structures and decision processes that reflect the very different realities of major events.

5. Fly Solo Plans -- The reality of much crisis and emergency response is that it is collaborative. Government agencies working with other agencies, private companies or non-profits working with others, including government. Only certain kinds of events are fly solo events, most are not. But many plans do not take into consideration how to work effectively in collaboration. This is the great beauty of ICS and JIC but too many planners don't seem to have sufficient background to build these processes into the fabric of their plans.

6. A Failure of Imagination Plans -- Sandy, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, Haiti, Katrina. We live in a time of mega-events, but many plans simply don't anticipate a worst case scenario beyond all imagining. This is most often seen in the limited communication responders anticipated. The objection is, we don't have any more. But in a big event you will need more and there are all kinds of ways to prepare including advance contracting, VOSTS, non-responder employees, etc.

7. Too Many Plans Plans -- Some have plans for hurricanes, plans for pandemics, plans for recalls, plans for big accidents, plans for spills and way too many plans. The best plans are "all hazards" in that they are highly adaptable for a wide variety of circumstances with the fundamental structures, directions and processes that stay the same regardless of scope or type of event.

8. Top Down Plans -- a remarkable number of plans anticipate that organization leaders will be making all the decisions. This is a more general problem than merely that of approval paralysis (next one). While clearly organization and/or political leaders need to be involved in high level decisions, a major event involves many different decisions continually by lots of people throughout the organization. Those plans that are organized to see everything flow up to the top are doomed to be too slow and too ineffective for fast moving events and particularly for today's instant news world. This is a fundamental flaw in the National Response Framework's External Support Function 15 which we saw play out in spades in Deepwater Horizon, problems clearly pointed out in the After Action Reports.

9. Approval Paralysis Plans -- ah, you know about this one, don't you. You're squirming right now, aren't you? How can a plan be NIMS compatible, ICS consistent, JIC-based and have approval processes that allow realistic engagement in today's digital communications world? Only by properly delegating approval authority, and that begins (in my opinion) with clearly separating information from messages. Much more on that later.

 10. Big Shots Know Everything Plans -- This is actually about a bigger issue called training. One of the biggest problems that responders in big, high profile events face is that the senior execs or main elected leaders show up and take control. The problem is, they know little to nothing about ICS, response structures, unity of command, and all the good work that the responders have been trained to do. So they mess it up. They have the authority, but not the humility and the training needed. Plans need to incorporate these leaders, including their participation in drills and exercises, as well as realistic roles that recognize the key position they hold without destroying the response organization.

11. All Words, No Actions Plans -- the best crisis communication plans recognize that effective communication is about actions taken to protect those affected. And they recognize that all actions need to consider the perception and reputation impact of those actions. That means crisis communication plans must intersect with operational response plans to a greater degree than ever before.

12. Not There When You Need Them Plans -- what good is a plan when it is in a big red binder on your shelf in your office and you are 5000 miles away when it happens, or at the scene with the plan nowhere in sight. Brevity, simplicity, accessibility are all critical. Not an easy task, but certainly made easier by today's mobile technology--if only it is used.

13. Engineless Plans -- A plan without the requisite supporting technology is like an ambulance without an engine. The attendants can be well trained and pile in the vehicle ready to go, but today's technology is essential to get collaborate with a dispersed team, collaborate with other responders, get information and messages and out and engage with a wide variety of audiences and participants.


There, those are my thirteen.

I'd love to hear from you what I've missed. And, if you want to get the complete document going into detail on each of these, just shoot me an email at I'd love to hear from you. And Happy New Year!