Your Crisis Communications Checklist

By Kate Young

Is it true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity? That may depend on whether you’re asking a reality-T.V. star, a candidate for president of the United States, or—I don’t know—a bank.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans expressing confidence in U.S. banks plummeted to an all-time low of 18% in 2010. Since then, that number has limped back up, but only to an uninspiring 32%. Layer on top of that a punitive regulatory climate and inflammatory election-cycle rhetoric, and you’ve got your answer right there. Where you’re bank is concerned, there is such thing as bad publicity, and you can’t afford it.

If something goes wrong at your bank, will your public statements reflect professionalism and credibility—and renew confidence in your organization?

Stuff happens.

We all know that no organization can inoculate itself against every known and unknown risk. So let’s assume you have the world’s best disaster recovery plan. (Of course you do.) And when the worst happens, your bank is fully prepared to take appropriate steps to swiftly correct the situation. Great.

Now what are you going to say to the public? And perhaps just as importantly, who’s going to say it? In this era of social media, bank employees may be tempted to post their own updates. This actually happened in the aftermath of a bank robbery not long ago. Depending on the nature of the crisis, that kind of grassroots PR can cause some real damage—fueling the rumor mill or hampering investigations or recovery efforts. You need to get ahead of that before it becomes an issue.

What’s the plan?

We caught up with Theresa Wendhausen, CFMP, of First National Bank and Trust, and Amy Delaney, CFMP, of Pacific Continental Bank to learn more about the issue. In addition to leading marcom at their own banks, they’ve developed the crisis communications curriculum that Theresa teaches at the ABA Bank Marketing School, where they both serve on the advisory board. And what’s the first thing we need to know about crisis planning?

“If you don’t have a plan,” Wendhausen said, “it’s a crisis.”

Wendhausen, Delaney—and ABA—have some suggestions for what you can do now to help make sure you’ll be able to communicate the best way possible during the worst situations:

1. Identify your crisis team. Because this team will be in charge of crafting and implementing the crisis communications plan, it should include stakeholders from key areas of the bank, such as senior management, marketing/communications/PR, and legal/compliance. Make sure that all members of this team understand their roles and the chain of command.

2. Establish/strengthen relationships with key audiences. If you don’t already have the names and phone numbers of local reporters and community leaders, now would be a good time to introduce yourself—when all is well. By the same token, check in with your customers on a regular basis, via email, newsletter, and website posts. If they’ve learned that they can rely on you for news and updates during normal times, they’re more likely to trust in your transparency during a crisis.

3. Document your plan. This is your opportunity to formalize your procedures and ensure accountability for them. Use the plan to specify roles and responsibilities, provide emergency contact information (including vendors), and set up a notification and monitoring system. Outline your communication guidelines. Provide for a crisis command center in case the normal workspace becomes unusable.

4. Account for the full range of possible crisis situations.  Emergencies come in all varieties, from weather events to technical failure, scandal, legal trouble, civil disruption, security/data breaches, violent crime, and property damage caused by fire or flood.

5. Work through potential scenarios. Test your operations. Wendhausen suggests that you “plan for the unexpected by playing what if.”

6. Prepare potential messages appropriate for each stage of a crisis. You may not always know what’s going on—and even if you do, you may not be at liberty to discuss it. For these situations, Delaney recommends that you develop “holding statements.”


7. Train your spokespeople. Keep in mind that your CEO might not be the best spokesperson. It’s better to go with someone who’s well positioned to address the needs of the target audience—not the needs of the bank. And that individual may benefit from media training. Never use an external spokesperson.

8. Train all bank employees. Make the staff aware that only specified bank spokespeople are permitted to make public comments about bank business. Provide employees with social media guidelines to curtail damaging chatter.

9. Practice ABA’s “5 Commandments of Crisis Communications.” Your bank’s reputation is at stake, so what you say must be true and believable.


10. Remember that “no comment” is a comment. The last thing you want to do is give the impression that you refuse to cooperate or are covering something up. Delaney adds that some people hear “no comment” as an admission of guilt.


11. Conduct a post-crisis analysis. Your crisis communications plan should be treated as a living document, and allowed to evolve and develop along with your organization. After a crisis has subsided, take the time to analyze news coverage, customer response, and employee feedback. Use the lessons learned to update and refine your plan.

As part of its library of communications tools, ABA offers A Guide to Crisis Communications. Acknowledging that each organization—and each crisis—is different, this guide provides context, tips, and approaches for drafting a crisis communications plan that’s right for your bank. Available to ABA member banks, the guide also includes sample plans for a variety of different crisis types.

Kate Young is the content editor of Email: [email protected].