(an edited extract of Kristin Devitt’s presentation to CommsCon 2014 on Thursday 20 March 2014, Sydney).

It is apposite to be talking crisis communications at a time when we are witnessing one of the most challenging crisis communications scenarios unfold in Malaysia, and indeed under intense global scrutiny.

And I think this great mystery… This tragedy… Can we call it that yet? Is made even more distressing to millions around the world not directly affected because of the unknowns.

How can, in a time when we are told big brother is always watching, a Boeing 777 with 239 people on board, Multiple responders, satellite surveillance, just disappear?

And not a single distress call from any passenger mobiles on board.

The not knowing.

The questions without answers.

The dead air.

And what fills that dead air? Of course rumours and innuendo. And a few terrifically intriguing conspiracy theories. But we’ve all contemplated them haven’t we? The old Independence Day scenario, Bermuda Triangle, secret hangers.

Have Malaysia airlines and the Malaysian Government done a good job during this crisis? Yes and no. More on that later.

What I am going to talk to you about this morning is the value of a fully articulated crisis communications plan and why I believe it is more critical than ever that organisations of all sizes and from all sectors need to prioritise this planning as a central part of their corporate strategy.

We all know bad news is good news. And at this point I should admit to doing more than my fair share of death knocks as a news reporter, trying to make corporates fess up to bad practice, catching MPs on the hop.

Without the content, without the official confirmations, without the interviews, media will seek out answers. And they are joined today by it seems the world’s entire population acting as citizen journalists.

The longer the dead air silence, the greater the collateral damage.

Every organisation needs to have in place a rigorous crisis communications plan.

Everyone should know their role and know what they need to do; where they need to be.

Operations, HR, Legal, security, marketing.

It isn’t the time for territorial battles. The plan once written, is “owned” by all parts of the business, and should be refreshed and revised at least once a year. Not a dusty tome with some lofty corporate ideals written last century and filed under “w” for “whatevs”.

And senior executives should undertake media training every 12 months. This puts those in the spotlight through their paces on the most difficult issues, the worst case scenarios.

As well as clearly designated roles, there should be clearly defined communications protocols.

Every business has a diverse range of stakeholders with whom they need to communicate, in a timely fashion, with a consistent message, but via different channels and from the most appropriate person within the organisation.

And there’s the bible. How many of you have in your organisations, or your clients businesses, have a bible for crisis comms?

This is a great tool to have, and unlike the original bible, requires a yearly update.

In it you will find:

  1. All key in house contacts – mobiles / home. / partners phone numbers / email
  2. All key suppliers / partners including ICT suppliers
  3. Emergency services contacts – relevant to property
  4. Full media list – local / national / international
  5. Remote logins – in case of evacuations and the need to work offsite on other devices
  6. Key govt contacts
  7. Other corporate stakeholders
  8. Communications protocols – who calls or emails who?
  9. Who signs off statements / internal or external?
  10. Who speaks to staff / to media?
  11. Template top drawer holding statements

But I am constantly amazed at how few organisations have a rigorous crisis comms plan. I would posit every business needs to at least consider their risk exposure and determine to what extent they should plan ahead. And any business that employs a lot of people, has a high profile or has exposure to the public needs one. As do any businesses that are exposed to injury:. Public Parklands, shopping centres, transport companies, restaurants.

We have dealt with floods and managing a return to business in Brisbane, in our case working with South Bank to manage a positive flow of floods recovery stories; through to the swine flu ship that prompted a state of emergency being declared in Queensland. But a round of redundancies or accusations of illegal behaviour can also be communication crises that bring a business to its knees.

Most businesses have a style guide, often hefty manuals, one for every minion. And I concede underlined headlines can be crisis inducing, at least at my joint, but seriously it is time business invests at least the same time and resources into its crisis planning as it does it branding.

It appears to me as though Malaysia Airlines had a plan.

And you would have to concede that even the world’s best crisis comms expert would be stretched by this bizarre set of events.

They did respond quickly

They brought the families together

They called and continue to call regular media conferences + issue statements (no new updates)

But where they have fallen down in my view is twofold:

1/ rather than one or two key spokespeople, there is an increasing number and array of spokespeople at the press conferences – inconsistencies come in

2/ they don’t appear to have strategised likely questions and best responses. Instead they appear wrong footed all the time, when most of the questions could be anticipated.

It is worth working on ways to respond to difficult questions, to ensure key messages are conveyed.

And it’s also about getting your story told. Using your 50% of the conversation. That requires preparation to ensure those key messages are conveyed and reinforced.

As I said earlier, the advent of social means a greater need than ever to have a crisis plan, but what this case shows is how critical each piece of the strategy is.

The bible, the scenario planning, the media training, the Q/As, the story, the media management… Skip one step, wait for the conspiracies to emerge and standby for a sighting of Elvis.