It's Not Too Late to Assemble Your Crisis Communications Plans

Presenter: Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, President, AOE

As some states loosen restrictions related to COVID-19, many are preparing for the next phase of this pandemic. Although the scenarios range from opening businesses and offices again to phased or staggered operations, as well as a multitude of other scenarios, the one constant is the necessary role of good communications. It is key to pause at this time and prepare for the next wave of planned messages.

In early to mid-March, everyone was thrown into communicating about their organization and COVID-19, most without any formal crisis communications plans. While most managed the process admirably, operating without a plan and a defined process created decision fatigue and constant, repeated chaos. This may or may not have been your scenario, but so many I have talked to shared that they were thrust into making immediate decisions and therefore assembling last-minute communication, only to repeat the scenario with new factors and information the next day. The efforts were on the fly: issue, information, assemble team, meet, get info out. Then repeat. The consistency of having key messages, the same team, the process for review and approval of messages was non-existent for many.

While things may have settled somewhat into a groove the last few weeks from a communications standpoint, we are entering the info-react decision scenario once again as re-occupancy and opening businesses moves onto our horizon. It is not too late to plan. There is still plenty of communication ahead of us, so taking the time to pause right now and assemble your crisis plan will help reduce the fatigue of the last two months.

So, as we enter this next phase, here are some key steps you can take to ensure a smooth communications process:

  1. Analyze: What has worked well thus far? What lessons learned can you identify that will help guide your efforts moving forward? Take some time to really look at what has and hasn’t worked.
  2. Plan: Instead of operating ad hoc, commit to actually creating a plan. Don’t confuse habit (or your recent pattern) with a true planning effort. Look closely at the team needed to help you move forward from a decision and communications standpoint, as well as take the time to identify the consistent key messages. Assemble the team. Have a process for review of information and how it is distributed.
  3. Channels: Consider your channels for distribution. While it is wise to stick with the communication mediums that are tried and true with your target audiences, such as an established and well-vetted email distribution list, does your reach need to expand at all for this next phase? For example, if you are a building owner and traditionally just communicate with a few key tenant representatives, do you need to expand the next phase of communication to all in the building and not assume the message is distributed?
  4. Protocols: If you haven’t already established the process for communicating news and procedures related to COVID-19 as well as return to work, develop them now. Examples include process for incident reports related to COVID-19, such as who does an employee notify if they have tested positive? What about violations by those not wearing proper protective equipment or using a space that is closed off? After protocols are created, make sure all concerned know both the expectations and ramifications.

Some other key reminders related to crisis communications best practices include:

  • Have a consistent spokesperson(s). Many have found it is helpful to have one person, such as the HR director, handle operational updates, while the president is the author of more of the compassionate, human element types of communication.
  • Don’t change your core values, culture or brand at this time. Stick to your key messages. Many organizations have even organized their communications under consistent headings or themes, which makes it easy for everyone to discern the information and it helps reinforce the key messages.
  • Communicate early and often. Tell your audience when and how you will communicate, and then follow-through. Don’t wait to respond until you have all the answers: acknowledge what you know as well as what you are working on. Transparency is key.

While there are many best practices to follow, there is no one-size fits all guidebook for navigating COVID-19, so working with a team with deep expertise in crisis communications is advantageous.

Key resources:

Several videos, a copy of Kimberly’s crisis communications webinar and many articles on the topic can be found at

Kimberly Kayler, CPSM

President, aoe

Advancing Organizational Excellence


Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, is president of AOE (Advancing Organizational Excellence), the for-profit subsidiary of the American Concrete Institute (ACI). AOE is an association management, marketing and operations consulting firm that invests 100 percent of its profits back into the industries it serves.

Kimberly has more than 25 years serving technical industries, having started her career as a marketing director for an engineering firm and then building a public relations firm that she owned and operated for 17 years. Today, as president of AOE, she leads the team of approximately 90 professionals to provide a wide range of consulting services to industry associations as well as privately-held companies such as contractors, engineers, and product suppliers.

Recently selected as one of the most influential people in the concrete construction industry by Concrete Construction magazine, Kimberly was the first person in Ohio to earn the Certified Professional Services Marketer designation in 1999. In addition, she is received training and certification by the National Transportation Safety Board in crisis communications – expertise that has aided numerous clients during the last 10 years with challenges ranging from jobsite fatalities and chemical spills to layoffs and now COVID-19. Since 2009, Kayler has served as an Adjunct Professor at Columbus State Community College. She received her BA in journalism from The University of Arizona, and her MBA in organizational management with an emphasis in leadership from Capella University.

These highlights represent the knowledge and considered recommendations from the presenters and participants at the May 2020 Coleman Executive Round Table for Architects and Engineers, rather than those of Coleman & Erickson. Note that this is not a comprehensive summary of the law. Legal counsel should be consulted for questions on how these points apply to specific situations.