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How to Build a Disaster Emergency Communications Plan for Your Business

Kurt BirkenhagenKurt Birkenhagen

How to Communicate During a DisasterA business crisis communication plan is like insurance: You don’t think about it until you need it. In a natural disaster the clock is ticking and a well thought out communications plan can make a significant impact on employee safety and potential financial losses.

Smart businesses prepare for unforeseen events. With communication procedures in place, you can disseminate relevant information to all internal and external stakeholders. Here are the steps for developing a crisis communication plan that’ll help you protect your employees and get your business running again after a natural disaster.

Plan: What’s most likely to happen?

The initial steps in developing a disaster communications plan are fairly simple: Determine the most likely threats to your business, survey your communication infrastructure, and identify your audience.

Threat Scenarios

Some emergency events are just more likely to happen to your business than others. Use common sense, knowledge of the disaster risks to your area, and FEMA resources to identify these threats.

For example, Houston-based companies in flood-zone areas are more likely to suffer damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, and storm surges. Those near California’s fire hazard safety zones and earthquake hazard zones don’t need to plan for severe blizzards. But statistical probability doesn’t mean your business can’t be hit by a tornado, shut down by an oppressive heat wave, or thrown offline by a pandemic. Don’t put your disaster preparation at risk because of a failure of imagination. Considering a variety of scenarios will help you construct a more effective crisis communication plan. While your crisis communication plan won’t have the scope of the HayWired Fault Earthquake Scenario, it will need to be comprehensive and realistic if you want it to work.
concerned person on mobile phone

Communication Infrastructure

After you’ve identified the most likely disaster scenarios to befall your business, consider which communication infrastructure will likely be affected. Inventory what you have pre-disaster and what you’re likely to have post-disaster. Any communication disruption will affect your crisis communication plan. Here are a few common types of communication infrastructure:

  1. Internet
  2. Landline
  3. Mobile
  4. Satellite phones
  5. Two-way radios
  6. Walkie talkies

Hurricane winds, earthquakes, and flooding typically do the most physical damage to hard-wired systems like power lines, cell towers, and fiber optic networks. Wireless communications are commonly disrupted by heavy rain, snow or fog.

Take in to account how your disaster will immediately impact your crisis communication plan, then think long-term. Infrastructures come back online at different times.

For example, cell phone tower transmitters and receivers misaligned by tornado winds may be a relatively quick fix. Fiber optic cables served by a magnitude 7 earthquake may take weeks to repair. How does this affect how you’ll handle communication within the first 24 hours as opposed to the first seven days?

Communication Channels

Similar to infrastructure challenges, after disaster strikes, you may not have your choice of communications channels. When choosing the best channels for your crisis communication plan, think about how frequently your audiences check in with specific channels and prioritize those that make the most sense for your business.

Text Messaging

Texts are short messaging services (SMS) that can alert all of your employees on their mobile devices. Many people check in frequently with mobile texts, so they’re ideal for quick responses. However, since generally more limited to the amount of content you can disseminate— email may be more appropriate for audiences who need more information.

Since most smartphones have text-to-talk features, texts can benefit anyone with a visual impairment or a broken screen. Group text messaging services for businesses or free apps like Google+ Hangouts or GroupMe are great for sending content to groups.

Social Media

Social media lets you communicate quickly to large groups of people. Services like Facebook’s Safety Check let users mark themselves as “safe” during a disaster. During Hurricane Harvey, a Houston family trapped on the roof of their home was rescued after using the Nextdoor app to call for help. Fifteen nursing home residents were saved from a flooded nursing home after the facility owners used Twitter to share a viral photo that reached emergency responders. Stories like these show the power of social media to reach audiences with life-saving information during a disaster.

example of rescue called for on Nextdoor

Keep in mind that the flow and accuracy of information disseminated on social media can be hard to control.

During Hurricane Sandy, one Twitter user spread the false story of the New York Stock Exchange being flooded. During Hurricane Florence, a Facebook user created and shared a report of a “sharknado” that drew significant attention. The claim was totally false.


Unlike the old fax machines that send documents over phone lines, today’s e-fax technology uses the internet to securely send documents from business to business. E-fax services use data encryption to ensure the safety and security of transmitted information. But you can use them like email.

If your business is in the health, finance, or insurance industries, you need to comply with privacy regulations like HIPPA when transmitting consumer and patient information over the internet. If you were a medical clinic, for example, you could use e-fax technology to send medical information for injured patients or legal documents securely.


Disruption to mobile and internet services may leave you with only a landline. During a disaster, time and resource constraints may make calling out to all your audiences impractical. In that situation, a recorded dial-in phone service comes in handy.

Pre-recording an automated message is an efficient and inexpensive way for small-to-medium sized businesses to field hundreds of calls. Employees and customers will need dial-in numbers and access codes before the disaster, so make sure those are available.


Apply the same pre-disaster planning to identifying the groups who need to hear from your business. Each audience will have their own information needs and expectations.
Customers will want one question answered: “How does this affect my product or service?”
Next, consider who in the company is best to deliver it. Some communication may take technical skills, like operating software or hardware. Others may need speaking or PR skills, like coordinating with the press. Here are common audiences to consider:


During a natural disaster, you’ll likely be reaching out to your employees early on. If they were not at work when the disaster happened, they will need answers to basic questions like:

Other questions like “What if I can’t come into work?” should be addressed in your disaster preparedness plan. Your employees should know the proper protocols and procedures for sheltering in place or how to communicate their safety status when circumstances permit.

Crisis communication during business hours will also need to include employee families and emergency contacts. Human Resources is usually the best department to handle employee communication.


Customers will want one question answered: “How does this affect my product or service?” One immediate priority will be addressing incoming customer calls to your customer service or other customer-facing departments.

Your crisis communication plan should include a way to address these questions. Automated phone and email messages work well for informing customers of your “temporary problem” or directing them to a secondary phone line or call center.

You can also auto-route your inbound phone lines to go directly to employees’ mobile devices. This is something you set up ahead of time—then, if people can’t make it to work, activate the pre-planned alternate routing.


Create a plan to reach all of your suppliers with your status. Depending on the devastation to the area, and highway or airport closings, delivery services will likely be affected. Update and gather all of your supplier contact information and designate an individual or group responsible for contacting them.

Government Officials

If your business is regulated by federal and state agencies, you need to include that as a high priority in your crisis communication plan. To protect workers, OSHA requires businesses to notify them when more than three workers have been hospitalized or when there is a fatality. If you’re in the business of handling or producing hazardous chemicals, the EPA requires notifications for incidents where there are chemical spills and releases for certain quantities.

Your crisis communication plan should include all of the regulations that affect your business, the reporting criteria, and the agency contact information. Failure to report can lead to fines, so make sure the right person or team is chosen for this crisis communication step.

News Media

The news media may be an afterthought for many SMBs, but it can actually be an inexpensive way to get your message to a large audience. Local and national news organizations love human interest pieces that focus on the impacts on families and businesses during a disaster.

If you’re approached for an interview, consider assigning your PR person to use the opportunity to communicate to your audiences. Or solicit an interview with local news organizations and share updates on how your business is doing.

Create: What Can You Do Right Now?

After identifying the likeliest threats to your business, infrastructure, and audience, begin pulling together resources and creating assets for your crisis communication plan. You can’t anticipate every contingency of a disaster, but you can prepare basic communication templates to save time and make better decisions.

Contact Information

Gather and update contact information for all of your audiences. Include any local TV and radio stations and government offices. It’s better to have the information and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

If you’re a smaller organization, add an employee “phone tree” to your crisis communication plan. Even in today’s highly connected digital world, phone trees can be an effective way to inform a team about small and large disasters—from icy road closures to major flooding.

Some employees may, understandably, balk at giving you private information like personal email addresses or social media accounts. Any personal information—aside from that legally required for employment—should be optional.

As an employer, you’re legally obligated to protect the personal information of your employees and customers, so be cautious when distributing any employee information.

The larger your organization, the less effective a phone tree gets, since there’s a higher chance of someone not being available to make their series of calls, thus “breaking” the tree.

Prepared Messages

Prepared statements save time, reduce stress, and eliminate mistakes during a disaster. Prepared messages could include an email for suppliers, a Facebook post for customers, or a holding statement for the local press.

Build message templates for all of your channels and audiences by first identifying the most common questions each audience will ask. Even though you don’t have the critical data to fill in yet, you can still create the basic messaging structure. Here are some sample prepared messages:
twitter sample disaster communications tweet

sample email disaster communication

Crisis Communication Training

If you don’t train your employees on your crisis communication plan, the chaos that ensues will counteract all of your preparation. Approach employee training like your communication templates. Fill in the things you know right now. Create a framework of expectations and duties.

Every employee should have a basic understanding of the communication hierarchy and contingency plans. In the midst of a disaster, you don’t want them asking: “Who am I in charge of calling?” or “What happens if my work email isn’t working?”

Practice your crisis communication plan. Establish a cadence for reevaluating your strategy. Merge disaster training into other prep—like fire drills. You can also schedule training whenever you update your contact information. Keep things predictable and consistent.

Make sure all new hires and current employees have updated copies of the plan. Include as many people in the planning process as possible. Helping create the plan will inspire them to follow and share it with others.

New Infrastructure and Channels

Look into adding or updating current communication infrastructure to help improve your emergency response time and effectiveness. New investments can be as small as purchasing car-phone chargers and as large as investing in a power generator. The Federal Communications Commission offers other tips for communicating before, during, and after a major disaster.

Check to see if how your existing communication channels will work in a disaster. You may be able to repurpose them if they have the adequate features. For example, check if your conference calling service lets your record messages remotely and allows people to dial in from their current locations. You can use this feature as an emergency call-in hotline for employees, customers, and suppliers.

Act: Communicating During a Disaster

The disaster has impacted your business and employees. It’s time to put all that planning to work. While you’re in the thick of it, you need structure and flexibility. The crisis communication plan gives you the structure. Here are some tools and strategies that will keep you successfully adapting to an evolving situation.

Multiple Communication Channels

Good crisis communication plans include multiple ways to contact your audiences. These include cell phone numbers, landline numbers, and personal email addresses. Collect and use as many contact points as possible during the disaster. You can’t be sure what channels your audiences can access.

who do we need to update during a disaster

Communication Hub

Establish a central communication hub to handle the flow of incoming and outgoing information. As updates and decisions come from management, the central hub works as a point of contact for your company and all of your audiences.

Locate the hub on-site (if possible) or find a secondary external location. Make sure the hub is supplied with your communication checklist, contact information, prepared communication templates, and equipment

Depending on the volume of information and the size of your company, it may make sense to divide hub duties according to audiences. A sales rep assigned to handling customer questions, an HR representative to contact employees, and a buyer to email suppliers.

Automated Dial-in Recordings

Some conference calling services—like ours—allow you to record dial-in messages by phone. You can use these to disseminate information to employees, customers, and suppliers. Recorded dial-in messages make communication more efficient and ease the burden of your communication hub staff. You can even pre-record a few templates with basic information and then activate them when faced with a crisis.

Messages are easy to create, and they let you change your messaging on the fly. Plus, conference calling is ideal for management teams to communicate with any remote workers or those displaced by the disaster.

Hurricanes are more powerful and wildfires more destructive. Regardless of the type of disaster, a crisis communication plan can make your employees safer and help your business recover faster. You can’t control what happens to your business, but you can control how you respond. Start preparing today.

Head of sales and marketing efforts for conferencing and collaboration company - Vast Conference. Enthusiastic client advocate focused on design and product development to deliver simple, easy-to-use conference call and online meeting services.

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