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Crisis Communications:
Some Tips for When It Is Your Turn at Bat

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

"Bad news on the doorstep" was the refrain from the popular song years ago. And it seems to be getting a lot of play in the business world these days. With situations ranging from sudden stock gyrations and layoffs, to labor disputes, key executive deaths or disabilities, fires or natural disasters and workplace violence, there is no limit to the type of situations a business executive may be confronted with in any given day. Sometimes, there is a small amount of advanced warning, such as with a storm coming - but in most cases there is none - or at least none about the magnitude of the consequences.

This is where a crisis communications program can greatly reduce the stress that management finds itself under, and allow them to focus on dealing with the situation. However, like most contemplation of unpleasant situations (such as with estate planning and wills), crisis communications will get ignored or put off - until there is a crisis. Perhaps fewer than 20% of business have a crisis communications plan, 5% maybe a more accurate figure.

What exactly is ‘crisis communications'? The Institute for Crisis Management defines a crisis as "a significant business disruption which stimulates extensive news media coverage. The resulting public scrutiny will affect the organization's normal operations and also could have a political, legal, financial and governmental impact on its business."

So a crisis communications program is designed to help you survive that intense public scrutiny, and hopefully come out of it intact. But that won't happen by chance, and it will almost certainly not happen if there is no preparation for dealing with a crisis.

What are some of the key issues to consider when contemplating the development of a crisis communications program? Here are a few ‘top-level' considerations. These are not the nuts and bolts of a crisis communications plan (there are plenty of references and resources for that) but rather, some practical perspectives that management should keep in mind when developing a crisis communications effort.

Planning Wins the Day -

Like most high-stress situations, dealing with a crisis requires planning and in many cases, rehearsals. Not necessarily of the specific event, but using a ‘simulation' - take your pick of situations you see in the news (workplace violence would be a ‘worse case' scenario) and thrust your management into them. How would they do? Have them draft a statement to the press. Videotape their press briefing. Do you like what you see? Make no mistake about it - the companies that do a reasonable job of this demanding situation have had some form of practice and a plan in place. The reason being is that when you are under stress, your field of vision narrows - in other words - you simply can't see options or responses that you would see in a less stressful environment. Hence, you need statements that are prepared in the less stressful times, and practice at presenting them so you have some degree of dealing with the emotions of the experience. This is why high-stress, high-outcome jobs (like the military and aviation) spend so much time on realistic training - your first encounter with a bad situation should not be your first experience with that environment.

Denial is Not a River in Egypt -

We all have millions excuses for things we don't want to do. Too busy, get to it later - etc., etc. The most interesting one is the attitude that ‘it won't happen here.' That is almost a guarantee that if a crisis situation happens - your management team won't be prepared to deal with it. The problems or issues that we know might happen or expect aren't the ones that really catch us off guard - it's the ones that we emotionally deny that totally blind side us. In aviation (I'm a pilot and instructor), there is a well known forensic profile of the accident-prone pilot - and ‘It won't happen to me' is right at the top of the list of tell-tale characteristics. Rather ironically, the planning for possible crisis situations can result in other actions that will reduce the probability of a crisis occurring. For example, a workplace violence crisis communications planning session might result in an examination and improvement of the company's policies in employee counseling or even pre-employment screening - hence reducing the probability of the very circumstances that would result in a crisis for management. But the very first step is to acknowledge that it could happen, and the examination of how well the company is prepared to deal with it.

Forget about Buying an Extinguisher after the Fire Starts -

If management thinks that just because they have a public relations agency or department that they are prepared to deal with a crisis, that's like thinking that just because you have an account with an office supplies store- you can just go down and buy some extinguishers when you have a fire. Just-in-time logic doesn't work in dealing with a crisis. Having resources that you think can deal with a crisis communication situation, versus the resources and a plan that you have developed and practiced are two different situations entirely. In a crisis, any advisor or resource will need immediate and consistent access to upper management - sometimes for very basic, but important, decisions - at the very time that demands on management have racheted up by an order of magnitude. Management will have to make both basic and complex decisions under incredible stress and a range of distractions. At best, with an agency or public relations department there will be a buffer between management and the media. At worse - nothing will happen and company communications will be non-existent or totally ineffective. In a crisis, the media will first look to the company or its representatives for information - if that source is non-responsive - they will turn elsewhere - quickly. And the company will lose what little control or input that it had.

If You Don't Supply the Information - Now - the Media Will Look Elsewhere -

The media hates an information vacuum - so if you don't provide the information (to the best of your ability) they will interview anyone they can find for comments and background. This opens a tremendous potential for misinformation and potentially damaging information. There are two dimensions to the media's initial demands - the intensity of the demands, and the duration. If you've ever noticed the pattern of media coverage during a corporate crisis - media coverage is intense for about two to three days, then starts to move on the next issue. So you have to be prepared for that sudden, intense level of demands - but it won't last forever. This is why planning is so important - you are not going to get a second chance. Responsiveness is the key. If your management team is stressed out and ‘locks up', or decides it is going to take two or three days to deal with their own emotions an get their act together - you've lost your window. Too late.

Will Your Web Site Survive the Crisis?

In a crisis, a company's web site is perhaps its most valuable communications tool. Yet many times it is not used at all, or technically can't handle the demand (volume of hits), or is a worse case (fire) becomes toast. All of these factors have to be considered if your most powerful communications tool in a crisis - your web site - is going to be used to its full advantage. What are the company's plans for using their web site in a crisis communications plan? Do they have prepared releases that can simply have the details filled in so that they can be posted quickly, and will fulfill the initial requirements for basic information about the crisis? Does the webmaster have the resources (laptop and electronic ‘crisis communications' page with releases for posting, perhaps even a copy of the entire web site) so that if the crisis occurs during non-business hours, management can have call the webmaster and have them post the information or even rebuild the site? Where is the company's web server? Under someone's desk? (Lost cost and high-risk.) Will it survive if a fire or natural disaster hits the offices? Can the company re-post its web site on a backup server quickly? Does the web site have the ‘roll over' ability to handle a rapid increase in the number of hits? (If you ever tried to log on to the web sites of companies that you see in the news that have a crisis - in many cases you can't even get access for several days.) In a crisis situation - having the information to distribute is of little advantage if you can't get it out there. A back-up plan for losing your web site could involve having your agency or other public relations resource issue conventional wireservice releases. It's not quite as effective - but it can be used to redirect the media to other sources of information and will buy you some time to get you web presence back.

Crisis communication, like any potential high-risk situation, requires advanced planning and preparation if you want to be able to affect the outcome. There has to be consideration of the audiences you need to reach, the messages you will need to get out to them, and the highly stressful environment that management will operate under. Without adequate planning and practice, none of this will successfully occur. To paraphrase a line from the novel Beau Geste: "An executive must expect the unexpected."

© Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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