Whoa there, Chicken Little. Take a breath and compose yourself … and for heaven’s sake, don’t say “No comment” to the media; tell them you are currently assessing your chicken coop and will provide them with a statement as soon as possible.
As a business owner, a crisis of some magnitude is inevitable, but something you dread nevertheless. However, the difference between you and Chicken Little is that YOU have a proactive crisis communication plan that establishes processes, procedures and spokespersons, right?
Hello? Hello? Or not? Okay, I get it … I mean why divert cash flow for a plan and media training that could be put to better use stocking the bar for the holiday party? What could possibly go wrong? (I actually just gave myself a chill with that question.)
The last 12 months have been filled with one crisis after the other on both national and local levels. The Sunday New York Times presented a magnificent look with “In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do.” And while there’s no doubt some “bone-head moves” have been made, there have been a number of ill-fated public relations efforts that fanned the basic premise for the front page: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In all likelihood, you are not going to read about companies who avert a crisis with swift, smart, proactive measures – how interesting is that? No, the public wants to read about the CEO who totally “blew off” his advisors who suggested the company might be at fault. Or better yet, let’s catch ‘em in the parking garage; corner that CEO and ask him if he still beats his wife. And for good measure, rest assured, your favorite TV reporter has a Twitter account and is already soliciting anonymous sources who have seen you beat her, so you might as well fess up right now.
Perhaps a bit of an over dramatization, but I can safely say that never before in the history of public relations has crisis communication been more important. It has always been prudent; the ever exploding world of social media has made it a must. And any reporter worth their grain of salt can find out virtually anything about you or your company within an hour of jumping on the Internet.
In Indianapolis, we have a “Godfather of Crisis PR” in David Shank of Shank Public Relations Counselors. While I was preparing to take the Accredited in Public Relations exam last winter, he was certainly one of the most memorable presenters, sharing his list, “Shank’s Top 10 + 1 Crisis Commandments.” It goes like this:
- Crisis is not a matter of IF, but WHEN
- Have a plan
- Know the media (reporters/editors) before you need them
- Be committed to open and honest communications
- Immediately notify emergency responders and regulatory agencies
- Don’t immediately admit fault or try to spread the blame
- If a death or injury is involved, the top person must immediately express concern and sympathy to families and injured
- Have one person designated as a spokesperson
- Tell the facts as they develop with NO SPECULATION; rely on investigative sources for details
- NEVER, NEVER, NEVER SAY “NO COMMENT “
And the “Plus-one”? RETAIN TRAINED PUBLIC RELATIONS COUNSEL … DO WHAT THEY TELL YOU.
I believe that in nearly every memorable instance that has occurred in the last 12 months, Shank’s “plus-one” has been the one “rule” that has been consistently broken with irreparable results. Across the board, in the public and private sector, there is a dangerous trend for leaders to surround themselves with only those people who agree with them. What happens is a bunch of head nodding, and no one bothers to say, “Uh, Emperor, sir, you’re naked.”
When a firm retains public relations counsel, it behooves them to follow their expertise. Of course that whole “retains” thing may taint the relationship a bit … are they paying you to REALLY be their trusted advisor or just facilitate their wishes? And I’m here to boldly suggest that in this economy in which one of the first things to be slashed from the budget has been PR and marketing, the risk of losing an account may play a part in weighing out the advice given. No it’s not right; but in some instances, it has been a reality … reality that has played out poorly in the media.
If you are the owner of a business, a CEO of a corporation, the executive director of a not-for-profit, you are probably starting to think about your 2011 budget. As you move through that process, I’d encourage you to include a “crisis communication plan” as a line item. And if you already have moved through that process, pull out that plan and review it. Perhaps it needs a freshening up? The bottom line: A comprehensive crisis communication plan can mean the difference between a swift recovery and a debilitating incident from which there is no return.