How To Create an Incident Communication Plan

Gravatar for

Eduardo Messuti

Founder and CTO

September 21, 2023

How To Create an Incident Communication Plan

Every business faces incidents, no matter how tight-knit or high-tech. Downtime, glitches, system failures, and security breaches are all part of online operations. So all companies must prepare to face such issues, including communicating them to key stakeholders.

Take widespread data breaches, for example. If a breach occurs, a business might need to communicate with hundreds or thousands of stakeholders, including DevOps teams, affected accounts, investors, corporate leaders, and media outlets.

Incident communication is critical to building trust among customers and employees and establishing credibility within your industry. It's also vital operationally, as it helps companies resolve issues faster and get back to business.

Are you unsure about your current plan? You wouldn't be alone. Less than half of U.S. businesses have a formal incident communication plan, even though 98% of business leaders who have one say it's effective. With rising levels of cybercrime, creating a robust and proactive communication strategy is critical to mitigating the devastating effects of data breaches.

If you're without an incident communication plan, you need one ASAP. But don't worry. You've come to the right website. Below is the recipe for forming an effective and long-lasting incident communication plan.

Content Index

What Is an Incident Communication Plan?

An incident communication plan is a living document explaining how a business communicates during an incident or crisis. It could be a PR nightmare, a cyberattack, a natural disaster. Regardless of the issue, it details how an organization handles internal, external, and public communications as it explains the incident, its impacts, and remedies to key stakeholders.

Why Every Business Needs One

There are many reasons why a business should invest time and resources into fashioning a comprehensive incident plan. If done right, businesses can avoid a tarnished reputation, plummeting share prices, and PR nightmares.

Maintaining Customer Trust

Trust is an invaluable business asset. But there's no easier way to lose customer trust than neglecting them during a crisis. When incidents occur, customers want their security needs addressed promptly and transparently.

Incident communication plans create preestablished lines between businesses and affected customers, allowing them to address their concerns directly, quickly, and continuously as they navigate toward a solution.

Effective Incident Response

An incident communication plan isn't just a PR management strategy. It's a vital tool containing technical details that allow internal response teams to overcome incidents. A sound plan outlines roles and responsibilities for each relevant team, ensuring streamlined incident response processes.

Protecting Reputation

If an incident is large enough, it can draw massive public attention, especially in the age of social networks. Without a structured plan, misinformation can spread like wildfire, causing irreversible damage to an organization's image.

Incident plans provide a tested crisis communications playbook outfitted with battle-tested messaging and response status techniques. This helps control and mitigate misinformation or public misunderstandings.

Business Continuity

When incidents strike, it's easy for businesses to descend into chaos, causing service delays and increased downtime. Communication plans are vital during these times, setting clear roles, responsibilities, and hierarchies to minimize the likelihood of long-term business disruptions.

Key Components of an Incident Communication Plan

While incident communication plans are holistic documents, you must break them down into core components to ensure their effectiveness. Segmenting your plans helps identify gaps and reduce the likelihood of plan failure when the time comes to rely on it.

Stakeholders and Communication Channels

Identifying stakeholders is the foundation of a well-prepared plan. This step requires listing every internal and external stakeholder and outlining how you'll contact them in different scenarios.

Internal stakeholders include parties like:

  • Incident response and security team
  • CTOs
  • IT departments and DevSecOps
  • Executive leadership.

External stakeholders could be:

  • Customers
  • Business partners
  • Regulatory bodies
  • Affected clients and customers

Additionally, you'll need a plan to communicate with the general public via social media and more formal media outlets.

During this stage, you're charting effective communication channels for each group and stakeholder within specified groups. For each section, you must plan the most effective, fastest, and safest modes of communication.

These channels depend on the affected party. For larger bodies of stakeholders, this could be email or chat applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams for internal teams. But in other cases, taking a more personal and private approach is best, like in-person meetings or video calls.

Either way, strategize channels that reduce the likelihood of misinformation and unnecessary panic, as incorrect communication channels can turn a small-scale issue into a full-blown crisis.

Incident Severity Levels and Escalation Paths

Communicating an attempted data breach should look different from communicating an actual one. Put simply, you don't need to go code red for every incident.

Establishing incident severity levels and escalation paths is crucial to building paths that lead to fast and definitive solutions. Outline criteria for what constitutes minor incidents, major incidents, and critical incidents. For each level, determine appropriate responses, communication methods, and schedules.

Escalation paths also must be prepared to alert the right people at the right time. These paths prevent overloading incident response teams with minor comms issues, ensuring any major fires are extinguished first.

Establishing Roles and Responsibilities

Trying to solve an incident as a team without establishing clear roles is absolute chaos.

When drafting an incident plan, a critical component is to outline titles. Under each title, list all responsibilities and expectations. For example, outline leads for external, internal, and public communication. Then, build downward, carefully structuring each role so everyone has clear insight about the responsibilities and who they report to.

Assign response team roles to experienced people who can enter response mode, no questions asked. Specific roles, like security engineers and comms directors, should be on call whenever an incident occurs. Establish these expectations upfront.

It's also essential to properly size response teams because too many hands on deck can decrease agility and increase the likelihood of human error.

Create an Effective Incident Communication Strategy

Establishing key components is the vital first step, but it doesn't guarantee the plan's efficiency. To flesh out a truly effective plan, be mindful of best practices and bake them into the plan as it develops.

Develop Clear and Concise Messaging

Often, technical security concepts use a lot of jargon that's incomprehensible to everyone except experts. Use nontechnical, engaging, easily understood, and confident language when dealing with external communication.

Creating templates for various scenarios and stakeholders is a great way to build consistent, clear messaging. This way, as soon as a crisis unfolds, you have a prewritten, plug-and-play list of effective messages.

Ensure Timely and Transparent Updates

Regular status updates are a nonnegotiable element of any incident communication plan, and never assume you're job is over after sending one update. Routine communication and regular updates are essential to keep stakeholders calm and informed.

Schedule how often you'll send these updates to ensure timeliness and transparency. This applies even if there aren't significant developments. Communication must be frequent, as radio silence is a great way to build frustration and spoil your reputation. Remember: the more severe the incident, the more updates you'll need to send.

Lastly, be honest. Transparency goes a long way, and don't be afraid to acknowledge that the security incident isn't yet fixed. As mentioned earlier, communication strategies are about retaining and developing trust between businesses and stakeholders.

Never hide details that are owed. Withholding information for safety is one thing, such as specific account information. However, withholding information to save face is how incidents become PR nightmares. You don't want to hide the severity of a data breach or avoid letting people know that the incident has taken a turn for the worse.

Coordinate Internal and External Communications

Redundant communication, miscommunication, and conflicting communication must be avoided when incidents strike.

Construct clear, straight communication paths so that messaging between internal and external stakeholders is handled separately and top-down. Without this structure, you can wind up playing a nightmarish game of telephone.

To combat this issue, appoint a dedicated spokesperson or primary contact for internal and external stakeholders. This way, everyone knows who the ultimate authority is from the start and whose word means the most. This allows stakeholders to determine if what they're hearing is false or miscommunicated information.

Incident Communication Plan Implementation and Testing

After creating a formal plan, learn how to implement it before an incident occurs. Like a fire or tornado drill, train the response team in their responsibilities and courses of action.

Training and Readiness

Establish regular training sessions. This familiarizes teams with the plan, their roles, and how to act once it is in motion. These sessions help address any confusion or flaws in your strategy beforehand, reducing the likelihood of failure during execution.

Conducting Mock Incident Drills

The only way to evaluate the effectiveness of your plan is to run through it. Mock drills are perfect for testing, improving, and perfecting your strategy. Doing so lets you adjust your approach and builds comfort for teams within their established roles.

Continuous Improvement and Feedback

Don't be afraid to edit your plan post-creation. Incident communication plans require updates to stay efficient, especially as technology and cyber threats evolve. As you press forward with mock drills or actual incident plan rollouts, continuously ask your team and stakeholders for feedback. Then, you can refine the plan to increase effectiveness, identifying what works well and which parts of the process need tweaking.

Streamline Incident Communication Today

A hyper-detailed incident communication plan is more than a crisis management tool. It's the foundation for preserving trust between your business and key stakeholders.

All businesses need a formalized plan, but many struggle to create a truly effective one. It's understandable. Building a plan takes time, energy, and personnel. And this is why services like StatusPal exist.

StatusPal provides businesses with turnkey incident communication solutions. Our status page monitoring and incident communication dashboard seamlessly integrates many key communication tools, social media pages, and APIs to unite the core elements of crisis management into one solution.

Want to take our services out for a spin? Sign up for a free 14-day trial and find out why some of the world's largest companies trust our incident communication solutions.

Gravatar for

Eduardo Messuti

Founder and CTO

September 21, 2023

Eduardo is a software engineer and entrepreneur with a passion for building digital products. He has been working in the tech industry for over 10 years and has experience in a wide range of technologies and industries.
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