What To Do When the Sky Is Falling

"Honest, open dissemination of information will defuse the crisis, while avoiding the media will prolong the crisis."

By David P. Kowal

What would you do if barrels of hazardous waste were discovered on your property? What if your product were tainted with rat poison? What if your company were accused of discriminatory practices? What if a group of community activists protested your expansion plans?

These are just a few of the crises that can strike a business. Yet few businesses have crisis communications plans that can guide them when the sky is falling. Crossing your fingers clearly is not enough. So what should your company do to be prepared in case a crisis strikes?

Preparing a Plan

The first step should be to develop a crisis management team. Top management should be well represented, including the CEO, public relations manager and corporate counsel. The public relations manager should have the trust of the team and should have a great deal of influence in determining what information is communicated and how it is communicated. Technical experts also should be team members.

Legal advice is essential, but don’t let your counsel decide on what gets communicated. Failure to communicate quickly and truthfully will only deepen the crisis.

Each team member should have a clearly defined description of his or her role during a crisis. A team leader should be chosen, in addition to a media spokesperson, a back-up spokesperson and an on-site coordinator. Each team member's address and home telephone number should be listed in the plan.

Once a team is established, members should discuss potential crises the company could encounter and a list should be compiled. In addition, a step-by-step procedure should be developed for dealing with each crisis.

The procedure should include a list of which audiences will receive crisis information and in what order they will receive it. Typically, employees are notified first. If they are at risk, neighbors to company property should also be notified immediately. Depending on the nature of the crisis, community leaders and regulatory agencies also should be notified quickly, followed by media, customers and others.

It is crucial to act quickly. During the first hours after a crisis is discovered, information about the crisis should be gathered and disseminated. Honest, open dissemination of information will defuse the crisis, while avoiding the media will prolong the crisis. When a company hides information it is assumed the company has something to hide. Media have deadlines and it is their job to report the news. If your company makes the news and you refuse to comment – or even if you are too slow to comment – the news will come from other sources and it is likely to be unfavorable to your company.

At the same time, it is also important to be prepared when speaking to the media. Only appointed spokespeople should be interviewed, and it is important that they answer questions consistently. Whoever speaks with the press should have a self-assured, calm manner that conveys trust and confidence. With help from other team members, spokespeople should develop three key messages to deliver about the company. The key messages should be repeated as often as possible. In addition, team members should develop a list of potential questions that may be asked. Appropriate answers should be developed and responses to those answers should be anticipated.

To put employees at ease and to minimize rumors, employees should be updated regularly by e-mail and, if feasible, meetings where they can ask questions.

Logistics also must be considered. Determine where press briefings will be held and make certain the meeting area can accommodate the needs of both print and broadcast press. A "war room" should be created with all necessary information, fax machines, phones and other equipment. The room should include televisions and radios so that broadcasts can be tracked. If the company has more than one site, a system should be established to provide all facilities with up-to-date information.

Once a plan is developed, it should be tested and updated at least once a year. The public relations manager and key executives should keep copies of the plan off site and readily available when a crisis strikes.

Debriefing sessions should be held after a crisis and the handling of the crisis should be discussed. Whenever action is necessary should be taken not only to improve the plan, but to prevent the crisis from ever happening again.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.