If you're like me you have been following the news about Ebola in the United States with increasing concern. Like me, you probably also do not think your personal health, or that of you family, friends, and colleagues, is threatened by the deadly virus. And like me, you believe you have more immediate concerns--your business, your brand, your relationship with your clients.

Even those of us who are not experts in public relations have observed government officials stumble trying to explain the progress of the outbreak and the steps they are taking to contain it. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Put yourselves in their official shoes for a moment. What would you tell your customers if your business was suddenly blindsided by catastrophe, either inadvertent or due to misadventure? What would you say to answer their questions and maintain their trust in you and your product?

If you're like me, you've just realized it's time to review your company's crisis communication plan.

I actually think "crisis communication" is a misnomer, because it suggests your way of keeping clients informed has gone into panic mode. The whole idea behind having a plan is to prevent such a breakdown from ever taking place.

I can hear you saying now, "but things happen; I'm not omniscient or infallible--I can't control what others do." All true--but even in the face of disaster you can take steps to maintain your business's credibility with the public.

A good crisis communications plans depends on your business's ability to respond to the actual disaster. Calming talk, no matter how soothing, can't substitute for a real response or paper over a poor response. If your organization has not conducted a risk assessment to anticipate, analyze, and address potential threats, then forget about having a successful communications plan--because you won't have anything to communicate.

The key is to include communications as part of your team's crisis management strategy from the get-go, and that means appointing a designated spokesman, who is part of the risk assessment/disaster planning group. And, yes, that person may well be you if your business is small. In the best of all possible worlds, the spokesman should be a familiar, senior face --he or she should already be known to and respected by your clients. Now is not the time to give a junior executive a chance to shine.

Whether you a just now developing a plan or are reviewing your existing plan, here are the essentials you should look for. A good plan for crisis communications includes:

  • A commitment to honesty. The best way to deal with bad news is to acknowledge it. Keeping secrets or fudging the truth will come back to haunt you. Be measured, be discrete--but tell the truth.
  • A path forward. You've taken ownership of the problem and you have a plan to address it. Let you customers know.
  • A series of updates. Now is the time to be in your clients' faces with a schedule of regular updates. Show your customers that they can depend on you for up-to-date information.
  • An "exit strategy." Let your constituents know when your updates will end, and a place where they can seek additional information after the crisis has passed. You might, for example, establish a place on your website that keeps all of your crisis communiques and includes an "FAQ."
  • A post-mortem. Make it a priority to review your communications when things have calmed down. Make notes about what was successful and what needs improvement. Then take steps to improve.

Crisis communications boils down to two words: be prepared. The fiasco unfolding before us as officials take one misstep after another to communicate about a highly predictable threat to public health ought to be the only warning you need to inoculate your company with a robust communications plan.