As a small business owner, the last thing you want to think about is the possibility that your business may be affected by an emergency. However, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, businesses around the country have been reminded that unforeseen crises are always possible.
When a crisis hits – be it a natural disaster, a government shutdown, or a personal emergency that disrupts your services – you need a plan for communicating with your customers and community. To learn how to create a crisis communication plan for your small business, read on.
What is a Crisis Communication Plan?
When a crisis interrupts your small business’s service, you’ll quickly need to communicate with internal and external stakeholders. Just one Facebook post won’t suffice: for example, your employees will need to know how the event affects their roles, while customers will be on the lookout for information about how you’ll maintain service. At the same time, your insurer will want to know the details of what happened: when, where, and how.
Your crisis communication plan is your business’s plan for communicating about the crisis and its effect on your business to the following groups:
- News media
- Community members living near your place of business
- Suppliers and business partners
- Your insurer, local officials, and other interested parties
Depending on the nature of the crisis, you may also need to come up with a plan for contacting the people who are directly affected. In the current coronavirus pandemic, everyone is affected, so you have no onus to explain the situation. However, other crises – from fires to faulty products and beyond – may require you to reach out to specific people impacted by the event as well as their families to extend your condolences or apologies.
What Happens Without a Plan?
If your business has been affected by COVID-19, you might have created an ad-hoc response: posting on Instagram one day, emailing your listserv the next, posting a sign on the door a few days later. If you were caught unaware, you may have found yourself responding to customer inquiries with information that was available on one of your channels, but not all.
However, without a crisis communication plan, the consequences could be worse than some tedious emailing. You might find yourself:
- Struggling to maintain even partial operations
- Upsetting your stakeholders
- Damaging your business’s reputation in the eyes of your community
- Incurring legal liability
- Experiencing financial damage well beyond the length of the crisis
In order to avoid these consequences and create an effective internal communication plan, your business needs ways to both craft a message as well as tailor it for each kind of recipient. To create this plan, take the following 5 steps.
Step 1: Sign Up for a Business Page with Nextdoor
In order to communicate with your community, it’s essential that you have a go-to digital space for connecting with your neighbors. Nextdoor is your neighborhood hub for everything from news updates to new customer referrals. In non-crisis times, your Nextdoor Business Page:
- Is a free way to connect with your local community
- Will show up in neighborhood search results after you receive one recommendation
- Is customizable to advertise your hours, services, and service interruptions
During times of crisis, your local Business Page will act as an efficient way to inform your customers and community alike of service changes.
It’s important to establish your presence on Nextdoor before an emergency hits. Plus, the benefits are certainly apparent (in both non-crisis and crisis times): 70% of people on Nextdoor say they rely on word-of-mouth to find new businesses. Not only will this help build customer relationships, but in times of emergency, you’ll have an effective customer communication management tool.
Step 2: Put a Communications Team in Place
When something goes wrong, who is in charge of communicating to stakeholders? As a small business owner, you might want to take on all the responsibility yourself – but you also must prepare yourself in the case that you’re directly affected by the crisis and cannot helm your own ship. In this case, be sure to:
- Create a small team to coordinate and act in the face of a crisis, with a designated first and second in command. If your company retains legal counsel, you may want to include your attorney on your team.
- Agree on a method of communication and practice using it (i.e., don’t try Zoom for the first time when a crisis hits and add technical difficulties to your list of problems).
- Make sure at least 1-2 people are prepared to act as spokespeople, and are comfortable talking to the news media.
Step 3: Determine Ways to Reach Your Stakeholders
Just as with your Nextdoor Business Page, you don’t want to wait until after an emergency to begin connecting with your customers through a listserv, your website, or social media channels. Ask yourself:
- How do you currently connect with your customers?
- How do you communicate with neighboring residents and businesses?
- How do your shareholders or investors keep track of new developments?
- How will a potential emergency affect the external suppliers that are crucial to your operations? Will you still be able to get the materials you need or will you need to go another route?
If your answer to any of these questions is, “I’m not sure,” your business should step up its efforts to open a line of communication. In order to maximize opportunities for sharing information – in good times and in difficult situations – consider the following channels:
- Your Nextdoor Business Page
- Your website
- A newsletter or listserv
Step 4: Craft Your Messages
In the stress of a crisis, it can be difficult to maintain a clear, consistent message while talking to different audiences. That’s why it’s so important to have a communications team in place before anything happens.
In addition, it’s helpful to draft template language for addressing each audience. Consider starting with a practice scenario that is relevant to your industry. As a model, consider a scenario, like damage to your place of business that prevents the doors from opening. Have your team imagine (and begin crafting a response) to each of the stakeholders we’ve already identified:
- Employees – Employees who are not part of the crisis management communication team still need to be informed about what has happened, and how it will affect their work and pay moving forward.
- Customers – Customers may have questions about when they can expect goods and services they’ve already purchased, whether you’ll be able to maintain consistent service in the face of the crisis, and even what they can do to support your small business and its employees.
- Suppliers and business partners – Your business partners may have questions about how your relationship will change in the immediate aftermath of the event. Can you still send or receive shipments, make and receive payments, and more?
- News media – Reporters from the media may have questions about what happened, how your business plans to deal with it, and whether you expect a loss. Make sure you have a spokesperson that can be the face of your public relations.
- Community members living near your place of business – If your place of business has suffered property damage or loss due to a crime or natural disaster, neighbors will want to be informed of what happened, and what steps you have taken to inform local authorities.
- Your insurer, local officials, and other interested parties – Other parties will need to know the specific details of the incident as quickly as possible. Depending on the nature of the crisis, they may require photo documentation as well as verbal and written statements.
Developing a Core Message
While interacting with these different stakeholders, your business will still need to maintain a clear, consistent message. Your communications team may consider developing a “holding statement” in advance. A holding statement is a template response that you can use in many contexts, even if you don’t know all the details of an event just yet. PR Daily suggests template language like:
- We are deeply saddened that…
- The cause of [this incident/development] was…
- We aim to provide further updates via...
Tailoring it to Specific Stakeholders
While your business is gathering information and reaching out to various stakeholders, make sure not to address your customers the same way you would your suppliers (and vice-versa). Depending on the size of your team, assign each member one or several audiences to reach out and respond to.
Step 5: Planning Follow-Up
It’s not enough to contact your customers in a single email and let them know your business’s service is interrupted. To instill faith, retain your audience, and get back to business as quickly as possible, make a plan for keeping in touch with updates throughout the duration of the crisis via your chosen channels.
Putting Your Plan Into Action
When something goes wrong and it affects your business, the resulting chaos can make it difficult to manage your internal and external communications. However, the stronger and more detailed your plan, the more ready you’ll be when a crisis occurs.
In the face of an emergency, it’s important to remain flexible in your response and keep your communications team in frequent touch. It’s also essential to listen to feedback from your community as your response unfolds.
With Nextdoor, it’s easy to get involved in your neighborhood and monitor the effectiveness of your crisis response in real time. When you claim your Business Page, it’s not just that you become more visible in your community – your community becomes more visible to you, too. Based on its feedback, adjust your response so your business can survive the crisis and thrive in the future.
As a local business, claim your free Business Page to get started on Nextdoor. Resources about how to use Nextdoor to connect with your customers and keep them up-to-date on your business offerings during coronavirus, and more, are available in our Small Business Guide for Coronavirus Relief.