Disaster can strike when you least expect it. Few understand this better than Detroit’s utility company, DTE Energy. On an otherwise sunny day in March this year, winds topped speeds of 68 mph, causing more than 800,000 customer outages. Knowing a communication nightmare was afoot, DTE had to act fast in not only fixing the outages, but also in controlling the message and reaching its customers as efficiently and effectively as possible. Now, more than three months after the storm that left many in the dark for up to a week, DTE hosted an event alongside PRSA Detroit on lessons learned and what other business communicators need to think of when battling their own challenges. DTE communication team members Stephanie Beres, Randi Berris, and Pete Ternes shared several tips on crisis communication, including:

Preplanning is paramount: Planning for the unexpected is the first step in ensuring your crisis communication strategy has a strong foundation. As DTE experienced, the worst storm can happen on a sunny day. Before disaster strikes, ask yourself what role communication plays in alleviating the worst-case scenario. At Airfoil, in working with clients on crisis communication plans, we ask what are the things that could cripple your business the most. Start at the unthinkable and work your way through the process. This allows your brand to stay in control of the message. Stakeholders also need to ask how not only the external public, but employees receive their information. Employees can be the best brand ambassadors, which is imperative during a crisis. Ensure your plan includes how you will keep employees informed and aware of what’s happening. Walking through each scenario from start to finish (and beyond) can help you flip the switch on your plan when you need it.

Put your best employees in place: As DTE mentioned during the discussion, a crisis is no time for training wheels. While hand raisers and eager learners are a great asset to a company during a crisis, those who are trained, level-headed, and experienced are the ones on which to lean. That’s not to say, however, you should work your top employees to the bone. For your leaders to be alert and ready for action, ensure they’re getting enough sleep and that team members are covering for one another when a break is needed. A crisis is a time for a team to pull together and have each other’s back. When the situation subsides, bring seasoned staffers together with more junior team members to discuss key learnings and begin training them up for the next time an issue hits.

Social media is vital: During a crisis, websites may crash and inbound phone calls are likely at an all-time high. For these reasons and more, people will turn to social media for updates. Additionally, to file stories quickly, reporters may turn to social channels as a way to capture a quote or sentiment around a company. Ensure your social team is staffed to the highest capacity to monitor and respond (as appropriate) during a crisis. Bake a social media response process into your pre-crisis planning, knowing a large population will turn to these channels. Airfoil creates a response matrix for every possible scenario, so our social teams have pre-approved messages should a disaster strike. Additionally, we discuss with our clients ahead of time the review process that should be in place, so we have the green light on how to respond to people online, minimizing lag time.

These are just a few starters in terms of thinking about a crisis communication plan. At Airfoil, we also hold trainings for our clients that not only involve hypothetical situations, but also role-playing tactics that get employees on their feet and moving as if the crisis is occurring. Preparing for a crisis is like practicing for any sport – you need to be repetitive in training during these theoretical situations, so when it is game-time, you and your team know exactly what to do. For more information on how to prepare for potential crisis scenarios – download Seven Ways Cyber Threats Should Turn Your Crisis Communications Plan on its Head.

Crisis