With so many news stories chronicling customer service nightmares, a crisis communication plan seems to be an essential part of every large company's PR strategy. Still, it may be hard to imagine that a small business could run into these kinds of issues.

This assumption is not only wrong but could potentially damage your company. You need a crisis communication plan, regardless of the size of your business. If mishandling communications causes you to lose your biggest customers, how long could your business survive without that revenue?

The following tips can help you put together an effective plan for your small business, so you can be better prepared for the unexpected.

Put a Team in Place

Depending on the size of your business, a "team" may be just two or three people. Nonetheless, in the event of a crisis, it's important to have employees in place with clearly identified roles who are prepared to respond swiftly and efficiently. These roles should include:

  • Spokesperson
  • Response coordinator
  • Collector of media/social media coverage
  • Press release/fact statement writer

Some overlap in duties may occur, but knowing who is responsible for what can help save precious time if and when a crisis occurs.

Identify Your Constituencies

If a crisis strikes, there are specific constituencies you'll need to reach out to. Your customers, first of all, may need to hear from you regarding any impact on your products or services. Your employees will need to know what actions (if any) they should take, including whether or not they should go in to work. There's the local media to consider, as well. As part of your team effort, identify these constituencies and compile all relevant contact information.

Brainstorm Possible Crises and Solutions

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of business crises out there to consider. Among all the possibilities, what's your business most likely to encounter? Encourage your team to brainstorm everything from criminal actions and product recalls to natural disasters and cyberattacks. Your crisis communication plan will likely be more effective if you've identified specific scenarios and outlined action steps to follow if they occur.

Anticipate Likely Questions

With various scenarios in mind, compile a list of likely questions from each constituency. (Assume, for the sake of the exercise, that your business is in some way culpable for the crisis situation.) Don't waste time coming up with elaborate half-truths or jargon-filled responses in an attempt to evade responsibility. As a best practice, you want to respond sincerely and honestly, show your constituencies that you care, and begin to build back some of the trust you may have lost as a result of the crisis.

Create a Template for a Media Fact Sheet

In a crisis, everyone hungers for information (especially the media). With a template in place, you can organize and retain concrete facts about the situation, which can help minimize misinformation and offset damaging rumors and misunderstandings.

Conduct a Test Run

If possible, set aside a half day and put on a crisis-simulation exercise. Pick one example from your list of scenarios and conduct a practice drill for each part of the plan, involving all appropriate crisis team members. This might include holding a mock news conference or putting together a mock press release. The best way to identify strengths and weaknesses in your plan is by testing it.

All that remains is printing out and distributing the crisis communication plan to everyone in the company (even if they don't have an active role to play). Don't let more than six months go by without reviewing the plan and updating where necessary. Good preparation is often your best defense against the effects of a crisis.