David Bowie. Alan Rickman. The Eagles’ Glenn Frey… and so many others. The world has seen more death in the first weeks of 2016 than we all care to think about.

It comes as no surprise, then, that January ranks consistently as the month with the most deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. It would seem celebrities are not immune to this pattern. Often, people hang on through the holidays so as not to ruin what should be a joyous time for their families, to say good-bye to relatives who have traveled far, or simply … who knows? They’re not here to tell us. Maybe it’s just the cold, gray days of January, with spring so far away leave little to look forward to.

Whatever time of year it happens, death in the digital age gives us so much more to think about, in a public capacity, than funeral arrangements. In the case of public entities such as celebrities or company executives and key employees, issuing a statement or holding a press conference isn’t enough anymore.

Just as having a will in place can smooth the path for loved ones after someone’s death, and having a succession plan helps alleviate doubt about the future of a company, having a media plan in place in the event of the death or incapacitation of a CEO, owner, or key employee provides peace-of-mind. But how do you begin?

Start Now

It’s never too early to develop a plan. Let’s face it. It’s going to be uncomfortable, as is any death-related topicDavid Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey. Executives should meet any resistance with honesty, acknowledging the team’s feelings and sentimentality, and then carefully move on to business. That’s the key: It is business. And it’s a lot easier for everyone to think about – and discuss — these things now, when key stakeholders work on it together, as a team.

Make Sure Your Succession Plan Is In Place

If an owner or founder passes away or is no longer able to fill their role, company announcements should include news about the succession plan. Ideally, the succession plan can be executed – or at least, announced — months before, so the transition won’t be as jarring to stockholders or stakeholders. In the January issue of Canada’s WiFi HiFi magazine, Torus Power’s Kevin Main elaborates on the importance of succession plans for the future of our industry.

Who’s In Charge?

Who will manage the announcement? Usually, the burden will fall on the PR or marketing team, although, in a family owned company, a loved one may request closer involvement. Whoever’s in charge will manage announcements, field questions, and should also know how to deactivate or memorialize social media accounts. http://facebook.about.com/od/Profiles/ss/What-Happens-To-Your-Facebook-Profile-When-You-Die.htm All of this needs to happen in as close to real-time as possible.

Decide on Timing – and Make it Fast!

When any major news breaks – including, unfortunately, the tragic sort – it’s a race against the clock to share the story before others, who may not have the company’s best interests in mind. An announcement should be made within hours, or the next business day at the latest. Make the private announcement to employees and the public announcement as close together as possible. Someone should be tasked with monitoring social media for posts and leaks, whether these leaks may be innocent and inadvertent or intentional. In most cases, these posts can be ignored as long as the announcement is forthcoming shortly and the news is factual and not meant to be damaging to the company. Having an established social media policy in place can also prevent leaks, since employees will already know what they can and can’t post. (We’ll talk more about social media policies in another article!)

Be Prepared.

Having a statement prepared with room to fill in key details helps reduce mistakes and makes it faster and easier to announce the news in a timely manner. This may seem morbid, but it’s a key step in issuing a timely, relevant, and appropriate release. Have a graphic in place, so the art team doesn’t have to face the emotional pain of rifling through photos. Far easier to do it beforehand and tuck it away in a file to be opened only if needed.

Now’s also the time to share any wishes regarding any charitable foundations, memorial services, or specific desires. The information can be included in the release, with details to be filled in later.

Follow the Plan – and Your Heart

Even when death is expected, such as following a long illness, it’s emotionally jarring. Family members may not be ready to provide interviews to the media, and this needs to be respected. Everyone mourns in their own way; you should have a plan and follow that plan, executing it with empathy, understanding and flexibility. Keep in mind, a social media action plan following death has two objectives:

Protect and respect the feelings and privacy of close friends and family members
Show the world, customers, and investors that the company remains strong in spite of the loss

You may never be able to guess the kind words and memories that employees, associates, and fans will share on social media. It’s okay to let this develop organically. If you’re the person in charge of managing social platforms, follow your heart. Reply with personal responses, share your own memories, or offer a mass “thank you.” Invite people to share, or let the memorials develop on their own. Save the responses to share with the family; they may feel moved to reply, or might want to read the eulogies and memories later.

Death is never easy and this January has brought us too much of it. If a key person in your company should pass on or become incapacitated, having a plan in place – and a knowledgeable team to support the plan — can make an incredibly difficult time just a bit easier.