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!