from pickett&associates … exploring PR, social media and entrepreneurship

Plan Now for Tomorrow’s Crisis January 5, 2012

Last year may well go down as “the year of the crisis.” The  killing of six individuals and wounding of Senator Gabby Giffords in February; the devastating earthquake in Japan and the subsequent precarious state of its nuclear power plants; the devastating spring tornadoes that ripped apart communities like Joplin and Tuscaloosa and then the debilitating Penn State debacle.

This list makes the potential problems your company might face seem miniscule, but don’t be fooled; it doesn’t take a crisis of epic proportions to cripple a business. As you plan for the upcoming year, I encourage you to set aside some time to think about your crisis communication plan.

A crisis is traditionally defined by business leaders as “any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of your company, usually brought on by adverse or negative media attention.” These situations can be any kind of legal dispute, theft, accident, fire, flood or manmade disaster that could be attributed to your company or impact your ability to operate. It can also be a situation in which the public perceives your company did not react in the appropriate manner.

In an increasing litigious society in which information is shared with the masses as fast as a “140-character Tweet,” a proactive crisis communication plan has become an essential document for every business. And while some public relations firms may see it as a beneficial “add on” to their services, I firmly believe a proactive crisis communication plan – performed long before a TV news crew is standing on your doorstep – is an essential piece of an overall communications strategy for organizations.

The first step in this plan is performing an audit of the business to determine potential scenarios. This includes consideration of its number of employees, its vulnerability in terms of potential exposure and risk and its standing as a private entity, public company or government agency. Some things to consider:

  • Do your employees interact with the public, particularly minors?
  • Does your company provide a service on which the population depends?
  • Does your workplace have potentially dangerous equipment or products?
  • Do your employees operate a vehicle as part of their jobs?

These questions are fairly obvious and can prompt a long list of “worst case scenarios.”  And rest assured, just when you close your eyes for sleep, you’ll probably think of one more.  That’s okay – that’s why you’re going through this exercise: so you can rest easy.

The next step is to take this long list and cull them down to about one dozen – you’ll find some of them have common themes like “traumatic incidents of a personal nature that profoundly impact workforce” (which would include an employee’s death, suicide or being the victim of a violent crime, non-work related) to “incidents of disaster that impact both the facility and business” (tornado, fire, etc.). Once identified, decide your core message points for each of these scenarios (and put them in writing!) as well as to whom and how you will be responding. Do you issue a news release? Do you wait for the media to contact you? Is the message the same for stakeholders as it is for customers and clients? These variables make the difference between a well-executed response and a botched attempt from which a company might never recover.

Likewise, identify who should be notified of the crisis and when as well as who will be doing the talking to the previously identified audiences. These respondents should not only include the company president and management, but appropriate advisors like legal counsel and a public relations professional. This “phone tree” should include cell numbers, home numbers, email addresses, etc. Here’s the most important part of the phone tree and the rest of your communications plan: It doesn’t do you any good if it’s in your desk drawer at 3 a.m. In today’s “mobile” society, save a copy on your smart phone, on an external server, on thumb drives for the entire team and a few hardcopy notebooks distributed around “just in case.”

A crisis never happens at a convenient time, exactly as you have planned and most often, not even between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. … that’s why it’s a crisis. But you can take some control of the situation by proactive preparation. If you remember nothing else, remember this: The most important thing to remember in a crisis is tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth. If you do this you have done all you can to minimize the situation.

With that, I wish you a happy (and hopefully crisis-free) 2012!


Big Company … Big Crisis December 14, 2010

Filed under: Crisis Communication,Strategic PR — pickettwrites @ 2:19 pm

Long time no blog.

Back to that “cobbler’s children have no shoes” theory. I know it is essential that a business maintain the stream of awareness created from relevant-content blogs, Tweets and Facebook posts. However, my workload of late is a good reminder WHY so many businesses have turned to Pickett&Associates to assist with their social media management! When you’re trying to run a business, marketing for YOUR business slips down the priority list.

So, after a brief absence, I’m back on the blog wagon hoping your heart has grown fonder. And the last few weeks have certainly given me lots to blog about: trends in public relations, new developments in social media management, myth-busting search engine optimization and a litany of observations.

So, for today, how about the wonderful world of public relations? Fineman’s annual “Worst PR Blunders of 2010” list is out and, honestly, the fact that they were able to cull it down to 10 is pretty impressive. Mind you, these are the “biggies of national scope.” Topping the list is British Petroleum and their monumental bungle, including the CEO’s ill-conceived quotes “it wasn’t our accident” and “I just want my life back.” I was just waiting for him to say, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”

Toyota’s web of “pay no attention to that car behind the curtain,” was a close second followed by the NPR/Juan Williams fiasco. You can follow the link above to read the report in its entirety. What it proves beyond a shadow of doubt is that money and company size certainly don’t buy good public relations’ smarts. And of course, I always wonder, “How did their public relations professional allow this to get so out of hand?”

For the record, a trusted communications advisor should be just that: They serve as respected member of your senior management team, whether that is an internal or external position. And in that role, they are not necessarily a cheerleader; they will probably, from time to time, have to clear their throat a little and tell you something you really don’t want to hear. A communications advisor thinks in terms of “what if” scenarios and acts proactively as a result. If you have a business, there will, at some point, be a crisis. And, as we can see from the behemoths mentioned in the Blunders list, the bigger the company, the bigger the potential crisis. The difference between a crisis and a permanently damaging incident is the way in which the company reacts, takes ownership and makes restitution or amends.

So, do you agree with Fineman’s list? Any additions? I’d love to hear!


The Inside Scoop on the Oil Spill September 9, 2010

Filed under: Crisis Communication — pickettwrites @ 7:08 am

As the newly released BP report led last evening’s news, yesterday’s Carmel (Indiana) Chamber of Commerce luncheon provided some amazing insight into the environmental catastrophe of epic proportions.

Not sure if you knew, but a Purdue professor and expert in “Particle Image Velocimetry” (that’s PIV to the Mensa members out there) was the first to calculate the “more than 60,000 barrels a day leaking into the gulf.” PIV is a statistical technique that has been used for the last 25 years to measure flow volume; the young man, Steven Wereley, was the guest speaker for yesterday’s luncheon.

Rivaling Butler Coach Brad Stevens for the “delightfully unassuming, squeaky clean and youthful appearance” award, Wereley shared how he was first contacted by an NPR reporter as the result of a book he had written during a 2007 sabbatical on the aforementioned PIV. (Evidently the other three experts that came up in Google were German.) As a “dollar-a-day-supporter” of NPR, he found it sort of cool that the NPR science reporter would contact him and put his pen to a sticky note. Literally. He showed us in his slide presentation the chicken-scratched calculations that brought him to his startling conclusion.

What came of that seemingly innocuous NPR interview were 800 media “hits,” including interviews with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, NBC’s Brian Williams, stories in countless newspapers, etc. It also led to some meetings in the nation’s capital with the folks from the Interior Department and, not surprisingly, some major “pooh-poohing” from the folks at BP who were still contending the 5,000 barrels-a-day-number.  It was a fascinating tale of “what I did on my summer vacation” that had a bit of “Walter Mitty” thrown in for good measure (click the link if you don’t get the reference).

And, some good lessons learned. That which seems impossible to some is fairly easily solved by others. And that which is SAID to be impossible to solve by aforementioned corporations (because it was less damaging than rolling out the calculator and a PIV expert) is not only easily solved, but reveals a huge disregard of the environment, the immediate Gulf community and the American public that only fuels the fire for an already-festering distrust corporate America.

Never underestimate the power of truth … and a guy with a pencil and a sticky note.

It’s Thursday, and I’m off to “MillerPalooza,” the fashion show benefiting the Noblesville Education Foundation at Purgatory Golf Course. Before and after: client palooza!


Gettin’ Eggy With It August 27, 2010

Filed under: Crisis Communication,Random Thoughts — pickettwrites @ 7:40 am

As we end this week in which I spent a couple of days contemplating crisis communication, I’ll end it with a few observations regarding the “crisis of the week.”

This morning’s Indianapolis Star has a full-page ad from America’s Egg Farmers, ensuring consumers of the “safest and highest quality eggs possible” and reminding us that the “potentially affected eggs that make  up less than 1% of all US eggs, have been removed from store shelves.”

But in my opinion, they buried the lead. In the second paragraph, “Thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs, according to the Center for Disease Control and the FDA. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm.”

Wait. What? Firm yolks? Really? Okay, NOW we’ve got a crisis. Right here in River City. I’ve spent an inordinate number of mornings perfecting the over-easy egg sandwich. After cooking so the white is all set, I turn it over, turn the stove off, and put a slice of cheese (preferably PepperJack) right there on the egg. I prepare the awaiting 100-calorie, high-fiber round with tomatoes and avocado (or sometime just spread with some guacamole and/or pico de gallo if it’s left over) and okay, some bacon, and transfer egg and cheese over. The first bite is that delightful layer of flavors that is only enhanced by the yummy runny yoke.

And what about the Caesar Salad? The proper Caesar (according to the card from Caesar’s Bar & Grill that my mother carried in her wallet forever)  does NOT include a bottled dressing, but a delightful blend of goodness that starts with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, grated parmesan, garlic infused olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, lemon juice, and ONE RAW EGG.

Hollandaise sauce? Anyone? Hello, that’s raw egg yolks, boiling butter and lemon juice (theoretically the butter should cook the yolks, but if they’re firm, you’ve got an issue that even Emeril can’t fix). Mayonnaise? That would be raw egg yolks and olive oil (with a little salt, pepper, garlic if you choose, and lemon juice), beaten to submission as Julia would say.

“They” say I can find out more by visiting eggsafety.org … but I’m too depressed. First steak tar-tar, now this. I was feeling pretty confident because I have been buying organic eggs from cage free, non-doped up chickens for the last several months. Lately, I’ve made a bee-line to buy fresh eggs at the farmer’s market every Saturday, and I was planning on continuing purchasing those eggs direct from the farm during the winter months. But if I’m supposed to be cooking these until the yolks are hard … I’m just going to have to rethink the whole thing.

See, I told you it was a crisis … though good job, America’s Egg Farmers, for getting the message out, I guess. Hell, I’ve been “running with scissors” all these years and didn’t even KNOW I was exhibiting risky behavior.  

So, in the “on deck circle” for next week’s crises? Well, we’ve got Johnson and Johnson recalling hip implants (which seems like kind of a big deal), and the military voicing complaints that the wind turbines springing up all over the country wreak havoc with their radar. Oh. The stock market declined again yesterday, amid a “bevy of poor indicators.” No kidding. I look out my window and see homes in foreclosure, people unemployed and kids on the Indiana Healthwise insurance program for the uninsured … I don’t really need the “indicators,” but whatever. And what about those 33 Chilean miners, trapped for at least the next four months before they climb through a 26-inch wide shaft to safety?  Finally, it’s hurricane season, and three big-assed storms are rolling across the Atlantic. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagan and former FEMA Director Mike “You’re doin’ a helluva job, Brownie!” Brown are sitting in director’s chairs as I write, chatting with Matt Lauer on this five-year anniversary of Katrina. “We learned it’s a huge failure of government to not trust the American people with the facts.” Quote of the day from Brownie.

Five years since such a horrific turn of events that the word crisis doesn’t even apply. I may need to re-watch Treme this weekend, the HBO special that captured those months following the national catastrophe. It is a phenomenal look at this city and state, music, food, culture I truly love. I’ll be there in two weeks, immersing myself in crawfish and gumbo, and I’ll be blogging from there. Stay tuned.

Happy weekend … stay out of trouble and remember, cook your egg yolks … and use sunscreen.


Crisis Communication Plans, Part Deux August 25, 2010

Filed under: Crisis Communication — pickettwrites @ 8:33 am

 Wow, the topic of “crisis” struck a chord with lots of you … or you just liked the fact that I alluded to an obscenity in the headline. Nonetheless, the post elicited some good questions as well as dialogue. Keep it comin’! Please share how your company successfully (or unsuccessfully) dealt with an incident!

Meanwhile, I mentioned a “proactive crisis communication plan that establishes processes, procedures and a spokesperson.” I have been asked, “What exactly does that mean?  And who, aside from large corporations, really needs something this extensive?“

Let me take you through the process to explain. I find that the best way to approach a proactive crisis communication plan is to work closely with a leadership team, identifying 10 to 15 potential scenarios that would have a negative impact on the company’s image and ultimately affect the bottom line. This may be the closest this old reporter ever comes to writing fiction, but as we know, all fiction has a little basis of truth. Some premises for scenarios:

  • Any organization that has a facility at which people congregate needs to think about what happens if a client or patron is harmed in any way?  
  • Unfortunately, any organization that handles money runs the risk of embezzlement – an occurrence that makes the organization appear irresponsible and can not only impact the reputation but profitability.
  • Illegal and/or scandalous behavior is becoming more and more prevalent. The clean-cut “guy next door” arrested for some unseemly behavior who is one of your employees will probably require a statement of some sort. Obviously, the jury and judge are there to determine guilt or innocence; hopefully you have an employee handbook that addresses how these situations will be addressed by management as well.
  • Natural disaster or human error that results in damage to the building. The media will want to know about causes, injuries and when will you be open for business again.
  • Not to be flip, but “death” can certainly be a crisis. A good crisis communication plan will include “in the event of death of one of the organization’s leader or spokesperson” as well as a couple of rather gruesome scenarios that can range from a natural cause to a violent end.


The team – which would really be smart to include their legal counsel in this process – reviews each scenario and agrees on an appropriate plan of action and spokesperson. Included in the plan is a complete list of the leadership team’s contact information (including home and cell phone numbers) as well as a similarly complete list of the PR team assigned to handle crisis. All of this information is compiled in one document and distributed to the team; I always suggest they keep a hard copy in their office, another at home and maybe an electronic version on their laptop and/or smart phone. Because it’s my experience that a crisis rarely happens between 9 and 5 when your secretary can reach into the file and pull out your crisis plan.

So, it’s not just about the CEO behaving badly or ignoring good advice, which was mostly the focus of yesterday’s column. The most important thing to remember is this: There are certain things that are going to happen at your organization that are not part of your plan for success. How a business deals with these events can separate a “crisis” from an “unfortunate incident.”  The preparation – and implementation – makes all the difference.


“Holy #@%*! The Sky is Falling!” August 24, 2010

Filed under: Crisis Communication — pickettwrites @ 8:02 am

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:

  1.  Crisis is not a matter of IF, but WHEN
  2.  Have a plan
  3. Know the media (reporters/editors) before you need them
  4. Be committed to open and honest communications
  5. Immediately notify emergency responders and regulatory agencies
  6. Don’t immediately admit fault or try to spread the blame
  7. If a death or injury is involved, the top person must immediately express concern and sympathy to families and injured
  8. Have one person designated as a spokesperson
  9. Tell the facts as they develop with NO SPECULATION; rely on investigative sources for details


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.