Disaster Preparedness: Crisis Communication Plan Model

Version 2.1 Crisis Communication Plan: Outline

Contributors: Lance Stuchell, Nancy McGovern, Linda Detterman

Last updated: Janury 2014 for DPM Workshops


This document provides an outline for constructing a Crisis Communication Plan at ICPSR and offers a step towards identifying core components. The outline was developed to produce a plan that:

  • Identifies procedures appropriate for an institution/subunit within a parent organization
  • Supplements overall disaster planning of an institution /subunit within parent organization
  • Facilitates organized and efficient communication during and after an emergency
  • Provides guidelines for internal, intra-organizational, and external crisis communications
  • Identifies staff and departmental units to lead the implementation of plan components

This outline is especially guided by and adapts language from: Louisiana State University Crisis Communication Plan; North Carolina State Crisis Communication Plan; and “Write a Crisis Communication Plan” at Ready.gov.

Lance Stuchell, Intern, Digital Preservation team, ICPSR prepared Version 1.0 of this outline in August, 2008.  Version 2.0 reflects revisions made after developing the ICPSR Crisis Communication Plan in March 2009. Version 2.1 is reflects an update underway at MIT Libraries.

Crisis Communication Plan Components

Purpose: specifies the objectives of the crisis communication plan in preparing for and responding to an emergency and emphasizes the need for clear, concise, and correct information for staff and others affected by the emergency.  Links: organizational documents that refer to crisis communications requirements (e.g., disaster planning policies, operational plans).

Scope: defines the internal, intra-organizational (if applicable), and external communications that will be required before, during, and after an emergency. Links:  organizational procedures that refer or relate to crisis communications requirements.

Emergency Communication Procedures: provides a clear note (in ALL CAPS or bold) that the communication plan is NOT intended to change the way emergencies are initially reported,  reminds readers that emergencies should be FIRST reported to the appropriate authorities (e.g. police, fire, ambulance), and includes the numbers for these authorities, or identity 911 as the method to contact first responders. Links: local contacts and information sources for emergency response.

Crisis Preparation: identifies the communications-related components needed to prepare for an emergency situation.  Links: current procedures and information that enable or pertain to disaster preparedness.

Crisis Communication Role/Team: specifies staff with responsibility for communication in the event of an emergency. In larger organizations, there might be a crisis communications team, and in smaller organizations there might be a crisis communications role performed by an individual as part of the disaster planning and disaster response teams. The crisis communications team/role is responsible for developing and maintaining the Crisis Communication Plan. The team should complement and overlap the membership of the Disaster Team, and meet at least annually to ensure that all players are aware of their responsibilities.

Staff Contact Information: requires that current contact information (phone, cell phone, email, emergency contact) for all staff be on file with a central authority, like Human Resources, and should be in multiple formats (password protected intranet, paper, etc.); and identifies staff responsible for the maintenance of this information

Staff Communication Procedures: identifies recommended methods of staff communication in the event of emergency situations (mass email, call trees, etc.), and establishes relevant communication procedures (see Appendix B for how to build a phone tree)

Intra-Organizational Communication: identifies people within the organization that need to be contacted for coordination purposes (e.g. a subunit within a university contacting the university media relations/communication department)

Emergency Numbers: lists local and statewide resources

Crisis Communication Center: identifies an alternate location for the Crisis Communication Team/Role to convene in the event of an emergency (that may also be the location of a alternate site, or meeting place for the Disaster Response Team)

Communication Template: provides a standard statement or communication, the format of which may be drawn up and approved in advance, with accurate details inserted at the time of the event. Templates may be drafted for both internal and external communication (see Appendix A).

Plan Dissemination: requires the communication of this plan in advance to staff and stakeholders, providing sufficient details in the event of an emergency

Phone Tree: have an organization chart for your phone tree; confirm that your core phone tree members are ready(try a fire drill); have multiple ways of reaching members (home, work, cell numbers, addresses).

Crisis Response: stipulates the procedures to follow after a crisis has been declared by the Disaster Response Team and the Crisis Communication Plan (or components of the plan) has been activated. Links: current procedures and information that enable or pertain to disaster response.

Emergency Action: defines procedures for staff to take immediately to ensure the safety of colleagues, guests, or anyone else that may be in physical danger, this may include:

  • Contact emergency authorities
  •  Contact intra-organizational departments to alert them of the danger

Communication Team/Role Assembly: stipulates procedures for initiating the communications role/team during a disaster response. The process will be determined by the size of the team.

Staff Communication: addresses initial communication to subunit staff or within the larger organization after an emergency response is initiated. The message(s) should clearly state how staff may be affected, and account for possible disruptions to communication channels (e.g. email is down). This may include one or more of the following immediate actions:

  • Send a mass email to staff
  • Activate the call tree (see Appendix B for how to build a phone tree)
  • Contact appropriate departments within the organization
  • Determine whether the activation of a crisis communication center is warranted

Intra-Organizational Communication: addresses communications by a subunit to a parent organization, including one or more of the following:

  • Contact appropriate departments within the organization (if it was not done in the previous step)
  • Contact appropriate departments concerning external communication (e.g. for a campus wide event, a university communication depart will handle some general external and media communication), and determine what if any external communication needs to originate from the subunit
  • Contact appropriate departments to coordinate recovery efforts

External Communication: addresses communications to external organizations and individuals affected by the emergency (e.g. user groups, members) or involved in the emergency response (e.g., parent organization communication departments that will handle media and other external communications intended for a mass audience). This type of external communication may not need to take place immediately and should be carefully coordinated when it does.  It should include:

  • Partner/vendor communication may be necessary to facilitate external agreements (e.g. digital preservation backups, shared computing resources) or equipment and service providers (new computing equipment). This type of communication may be necessary to begin the recovery process
  • Customers/user communication may be needed to inform them of the status of any service interruptions and when the unit will return to normal operations. This type of communication could be transmitted via email or on the website (see Appendix A), and may only be needed for extended service interruptions.

Post-Event Evaluation: guides the post-crisis appraisal process for the communications component of disaster planning. This evaluation may lead to a better, more efficient plan. Links: reporting procedures, documentation of emergency detection, assessment, and response.

  • Evaluating Feedback: Solicit feedback from staff, and gather any feedback generated by the external communications
  • Debrief: The crisis communication team/role should convene participants after the crisis ends to evaluate every action taken and the crisis communication plan itself.

Maintenance: explicitly commits the organization to ensuring that the plan works and is kept up-to-date. In addition to evaluating the plan after each emergency, the plan should be tested and evaluated annually, or as otherwise mandated by the Disaster Planning Policy Framework.  Links: disaster planning policy framework, disaster planning and response training schedules, schedules for maintaining disaster planning documents.

References: provides citations for or pointers to key resources that were informed the development and application of the crisis communication plan within the disaster planning program. It may contain citations for these documents or point to a current list of relevant community standards and guidance.  Links: cited resources, community lists of standards and practice.

References used in developing this model document:

American Association of University Women (AAUW). Phone Tree Example.

Louisiana State University Crisis Communication Plan, 2007.

McGovern, Nancy. “Version 2.0 Digital Preservation Policy Framework: Outline.” ICPSR, October 2007.

National Institute of Standards and Technology. Contingency Planning Guide for Information Technology Systems: Recommendations of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST Special Publication 800-34. June 2002.

North Carolina State Crisis Communication Plan, 2005.

  Ready Business.  “Write a Crisis Communication Plan.” Homeland Security.