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Redefining the communications audit: Assessing your crisis communications preparedness

In an excerpt from his book, “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan,” author Tim O’Brien details how a public safety agency can assess the effectiveness of its communications

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The following article is excerpted from the newly published book by Tim O’Brien titled, “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture.”

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Many years ago, the communications field borrowed a term from the accounting profession – audit – to make what it does sound more like high-end consulting. For a business that’s prone to hyperbole, this one actually resonates. Some of the things we do in the communications profession do hold their own against the most slickly packaged services that McKinsey and other blue-chip consulting firms serve up.

A good “communications audit” is one of those things. A communications audit is simply taking stock of how your communications function is configured, functioning and performing. Though, I have to admit, I never liked the term “audit.” I always felt it brought with it the baggage of a certain distrust in how things were going.

For that reason alone, I think many organizations that really needed communications audits have shied away from them. They don’t want to know what they don’t know. More to the point, why subject yourself to getting a report card when you have no idea whether you’ll pass with flying colors, or in the end, look like you’re failing?

Let’s call it an assessment

So, instead of calling it a “communications audit,” let’s call it a communications assessment. And in the context of this book, let’s be even more focused and explore the notion of conducting that communications assessment to determine just how ready your communications function may be for the next crisis. Let’s call this a “crisis preparedness assessment.” On the flip side of the same coin, you could even call it a vulnerability assessment.

The best and most natural time for any communications function to conduct an assessment is when a new manager takes charge. Most new (public affairs officers) do this in their own way. Staff members know the new boss has to get a handle on things, and the new communications chief can approach the whole process more constructively during this honeymoon period. Wait too long, and the launch of a communications assessment can easily feel like a witch hunt.

Still, this isn’t to say the only time to conduct a communications assessment is when you have a new supervisor. In fact, the development of a new crisis communications plan is an ideal time to do a good-faith crisis preparedness assessment, while sending a message to the staff that crisis management will be a new priority. That alone is likely to mitigate an atmosphere of defensiveness.

The process

The process is pretty simple. Gather all of the data and information that currently exists that will help assess how the organization is perceived and is communicating. This would include surveys, focus group information, industry data, customer and market data, media coverage and more.

Then map out everything the organization is currently doing in terms of communications outputs. List it all out in something like an organizational chart to visually see how communications is supporting the entire organization. How are these internal functions using the communications function as its internal communications agency?

Perhaps more importantly, what are these separate functions doing on their own that constitute “communication,” and why isn’t the communications function involved with that? Keep in mind, there may be no wrong answers to the question. It could be a matter of budget, staffing, or simply department head preference. But unless you explicitly work to understand that, you can’t tell if the way it’s working is the way it should be.

The next step is to do an output evaluation. In other words, look at every form of communication output that comes from the organization: news releases, ads, brochures, the website, social posts, newsletters and e-newsletters, PowerPoint presentations, videos, etc. Everything.

Analyze the content to look for consistencies and inconsistencies, not only in look and feel, but also in messaging and content. Through it all, is a core institutional brand coming through? (Yes, law enforcement agencies have a brand, be it intentional or not.). What are the immediate results? And to tie this to crisis readiness, is that “brand” trustworthy and credible?

Once you’ve got a good sense of what the organization is putting out there from a communications standpoint, and who’s doing it, the next step is to determine how it’s all received, and ultimately, how the organization is perceived by its key stakeholders.

Do original research. Interview people via surveys and focus groups. Conduct internal and external interviews. Find out what the organization’s self-perception is and how that compares to how its external stakeholders see it.

Then analyze all of it to see what’s working and what isn’t. Find out where the consistencies are and the discrepancies may be. Are there any major blind spots in the organization’s self-perception? Are there trust issues with key stakeholders? Are there credibility issues?

Going one step further

Such analysis will help you in all of your everyday communications and organizational branding initiatives. But to gauge crisis preparedness, you need to go one step further.

Do a separate analysis of everything and imagine how it all will be used to reach out to key stakeholders when your organization’s operations are seriously disrupted or could be disrupted.

Where are the gaps? That’s all you’re looking for at this stage. Where are the places where you don’t have people, or systems, or communications channels, or technological platforms in place to communicate to all of your important stakeholders at a moment’s notice? What have you been ignoring or taking for granted?

This exercise could very easily expose a significant vulnerability that could hurt your organization at crisis time. In a sense, what you are doing is a mild form of stress-testing your communications function through an academic simulation.

Structuring the assessment

For reference, here is a basic structure of a communications assessment:

  • Internal and External Communications
  • Output (Includes the full range of vehicles and deliverables generated by the communications function and others)
  • Assessment of Staffing and Existing Resources
  • Technological Platforms, Tools, Apps and Equipment Inventory
  • Content and Messaging
  • Physical Footprint of All Communications Functions
  • Access to Databases, Information, Information Systems
  • Outside Resources (In the form of partners, vendors, agencies and consultants, along with their roles)
  • Secondary Research (Includes all internal and external data as gathered)
  • Original Research (Includes those interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc.)
  • Allied Organizations (May include trade associations, licensees, partners, etc.)


Taking a step back, you can then cross-check to see if you have everything covered by breaking things down into the four major categories of any communications program:

  • Paid: All advertising initiatives, including online ads, classified ads, Google ad programs, etc.
  • Social: Social media and the organization’s presence on platforms and sites the organization doesn’t control but where it may have a presence and a following.
  • Earned: All media relations activity, be it publicity outreach, or your program for media response.
  • Controlled: Some in the communications field think of this as “owned media,” but that can be a misnomer especially in crisis situations. Almost no organization actually owns the platform on which its controlled media resides. Controlled media are platforms where you typically have full control, like your own website, your own online video platform, the printed newsletters you send out, your brochures and annual reports, emails and memos you distribute. These are all controlled 100 percent by you, but only from a content perspective. The gray area is that you actually rent space from host sites for your website, a blast email service, your podcast, or your video Vlog. Depending on the nature of a crisis you could face, the actual owners of the platform could decide to de-platform your organization at a time when you need that platform most. This is an important consideration during the crisis preparedness assessment.

Analyzing workflow

The final major component of a crisis preparedness assessment is to analyze the workflow of communications staff members and others in the larger organization who may perform certain communications duties.

Map out who does what. Visually gauge how the work is getting done, who is doing it, their qualifications and effectiveness, how much time and organizational resources they are using to do it, and what other responsibilities they may have.

These are the people you will need most at crisis time. You need to answer the questions: Are they ready? Are they capable? Will they be accessible? Will they have the time? And if need be, can I commandeer their help regardless of organizational turf issues and politics?

About the author

Tim O’Brien, founder of O’Brien Communications (, is the author of “The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture.” He has provided crisis communications and issues management support to clients from Fortune 100 firms and national nonprofits, to government entities and emerging start-ups. Tim has handled hundreds of crises, large and small over decades, working with some of the most iconic brands in the world along the way.