Crisis Communications Plan Key to Surviving Company Emergency

by Dean S. Goldman, president, Goldman & Associates Public Relations

We all know that life can change, dramatically, in an instant.

It’s true for business, too. In a flash, an operational error, a misguided decision, actions by a disgruntled former employee, or myriad other possibilities can catapult your company from its normal daily routine into a full-fledged crisis.

Ironically, this emergency all too often generates another kind of crisis‚ one that can be equally devastating to your business. For when an emergency hits, the media can swarm, literally, to your door. Reporters armed with cameras, microphones, and note pads will be looking for fast information and the best pictures, sounds, and quotes to meet their rapidly-approaching deadlines.

Don’t expect that you can stall the media or avoid them outright by withholding comment or telling them you’ll talk later. The reporters will simply look for information from sources other than yourself‚ information that may not be accurate and almost certainly will not convey your message in the way you wish to express it.

Communicating effectively in the minutes and hours that follow a crisis is vital not only for getting through the immediate situation, but also for how well your business survives the crisis into the future. Whether your company directly serves consumers or provides services or products to other businesses, it’s important to recognize that you have many “publics.”

These publics include your customers, your employees, the news media, the public as a whole, investors or shareholders, and‚ depending on exactly what your business is‚ governmental and trade agencies. Any negative impressions these publics form as the result of poorly handled crisis communications could take literally years to overcome, with the costs, direct and indirect, to your business being very high. By the same token, well-planned and executed crisis communications can keep your company prospering during and after the emergency.

Think about it. After an oil tanker ran aground and began spilling thousands of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Exxon’s slow response to provide information, and its chairman’s initial outright refusal to talk to the news media and subsequent poor performance in interviews, caused the phrase “Exxon Valdez” to become synonymous with corporate irresponsibility.

On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson’s quick move to alert and continually inform the public during its 1982 Tylenol tampering crisis is widely credited as the reason the company not only weathered the emergency, but flourished afterwards. In fact, Tylenol sales ultimately increased.

Many companies have plans for how to operate in an emergency situation. But all too few have guidelines for communicating during a crisis. If your business doesnít have this kind of plan, make it a priority to develop one. A number of companies use their in-house public relations teams or work with outside public relations firms to devise crisis communications plans. If these are not options for your business, you can still develop a basic plan by following these steps:

  • Hold a staff meeting with at least one representative from all aspects of your company, from operations to customer service to administrative and other functions. Brainstorm to identify the types of scenarios that could arise as emergencies for your company.
  • Identify who your “publics” are. Customers, employees, the news media, and the general public are among them, but are there others?
  • Decide who the company’s spokespeople would be during a crisis. Limit the number of spokespeople to one or two; ideally, they should be top executives with the company.
  • Make sure that your spokespeople are highly accessible at all times during the crisis. Keep in mind that they may need to be reachable 24 hours a day.
  • Consider using your company’s web site as a place to post statements and information. If you decide to do so, work with your IT people now to make sure the site will function properly for this purpose.
  • Think through the kinds of questions each “public” would likely have for each of the emergency scenarios you’ve identified. For example, the news media will ask the “what, when, and why” facts of the situation and they’ll question you about any negative consequences. Employees would want to know how their jobs are going to be affected. Have your designated spokespeople practice giving answers to the questions.
  • Keep in mind that it’s best for some of your publics, including your employees and customers, to receive information about the crisis directly from you rather than through the news media. Plan for how you can quickly disseminate information to them. In a small company, a staff meeting and phone calls to key customers may be all that’s required. Larger organizations may need to communicate through e-mail and other avenues.
  • Once you’ve developed your crisis communications plan, educate everyone in your company on it. In particular, make sure that all employees know who the designated spokespeople are and how to quickly reach them in a crisis. Also be sure that staff realizes that all questions are to be referred to the spokespeople.

Invest some time in developing your company’s crisis communications plan now. This way, if your organization ever does face an emergency, you’ll be ready not only to weather the storm, but to sail successfully into the future afterwards.