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By: Wes Upchurch
Crisis: Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation or negatively impact share value.

Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich are gone. You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they've watched what happened with Bridgestone-Firestone, Bill Clinton, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Worldcom, 9-11, The Asian Tsunami Disaster, Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech.

If you don't prepare, you WILL take more damage. And when I look at existing "crisis management" plans while conducting a "crisis document audit," what I often find is a failure to address the many communications issues related to crisis/disaster response. Organizations do not understand that, without adequate communications:

-Operational response will break down.
-Stakeholders (internal and external) will not know what is happening and quickly be confused, angry, and negatively reactive.
-The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.

The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they require advance work in order to minimize damage. The slower the response, the more damage is incurred. So if you're serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 10 steps of crisis communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.

The 10 Steps of Crisis Communications

1. Identify Your Crisis Communications Team

A small team of senior executives should be identified to serve as your organization's Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the team will be led by the organization's CEO, with the firm's top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty. Other team members should be the heads of major organization divisions, to include finance, personnel and operations.

Let me say a word about legal counsel. Sometimes, during a crisis, a natural conflict arises between the recommendations of the organization's legal counsel on the one hand, and those of the public relations counsel on the other. While it may be legally prudent not to say anything, this kind of reaction can land the organization in public relations "hot water" that is potentially, as damaging, or even more damaging, than any financial or legal ramification. Fortunately, more and more legal advisors are becoming aware of this fact and are working in close cooperation with public relations counsel. The importance of this understanding cannot be underestimated. Arthur Anderson lost its case and went out of business due to the judgment rendered by the court of public opinion, not the judgment of a court of law.

2. Identify Spokespersons

Within each team, there should be individuals who are the only ones authorized to speak for the organization in times of crisis. The CEO should be one of those spokespersons, but not necessarily the primary spokesperson. The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant business people but not very effective in-person communicators. The decision about who should speak is made after a crisis breaks but the pool of potential spokespersons should be identified and trained in advance.

Not only are spokespersons needed for media communications, but for all types and forms of communications, internal and external, including on-camera, at a public meeting, at employee meetings, etc. You really don't want to be making decisions about so many different types of spokespersons while "under fire."

3. Spokesperson Training

Two typical quotes from well-intentioned organization executives summarize the reason why your spokespersons should receive professional training in how to speak to the media:

"I talked to that nice reporter for over an hour and he didn't use the most important news about my organization."

"I've done a lot of public speaking. I won't have any trouble at that public hearing."

Regarding the first example, there are a good number of people interviewed by CBS' "60 Minutes" or ABC's "20/20" who thought they knew how to talk to the press. In the second case, most executives who have attended a hostile public hearing have gone home wishing they had been wearing a pair of Depends.

All stakeholders internal and external are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media, and it's your responsibility to minimize the chance of that happening.

Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the response of all stakeholders.

4. Establish Notification Systems

Remember when the only way to reach someone quickly was by a single phone or fax number, assuming they were there to receive either?

Today, we have to have immediately at hand the means to reach our internal and external stakeholders using multiple modalities. Many of us have several phone numbers, more than one email address, and can receive SMS (text) messages or faxes. Instant Messenger programs, either public or proprietary, are also very popular for business and personal use. We can even send audio and video messages via email. Depending on how "techie" we choose to be, all of this type of communication and more may be received on or sent by a single device!

It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems that will allow you to rapidly reach your stakeholders using multiple modalities. The Virginia Tech catastrophe, where email was the sole means of alerting students initially, proves that using any single modality can make a crisis worse. Some of us may be on email constantly, others not so. Some of us receive our cellphone calls or messages quickly, some not. If you use more than one modality to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much greater that the message will go through.

For a long time, those of us in crisis management relied on the old-fashioned "phone tree" and teams of callers to track people down. But today there is technology offered by multiple vendors and also available for purchase that can be set up to automatically start contacting all stakeholders in your pre-established database and keep trying to reach them until they confirm (e.g., by pressing a certain number on a phone keypad) that the message has been received. Technology that you can trigger with a single call or email.

5. Identify and Know Your Stakeholders

Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organization? I consider employees to be your most important audience, because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others not on your contact list, so it's up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.

6. Anticipate Crises

If you're being proactive and preparing for crises, gather your Crisis Communications Team for long brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises which can occur at your organization.

There are at least two immediate benefits to this exercise:

-You may realize that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation.

-You can begin to think about possible responses, about best case/worst case scenarios, etc. Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.

In some cases, of course, you know that a crisis will occur because you're planning to create it e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition. Then, you can proceed with steps 8-10 below, even before the crisis occurs.

There is a more formal method of gathering this information that I call a "vulnerability audit," about which information is available here.

7. Develop Holding Statements

While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, "holding statements" messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 6 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel chain with properties hit by a natural disaster before the organization headquarters has any hard factual information might be:

"We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff."

"Our hearts and minds are with those who are in harm's way, and we hope that they are well."

"We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website."

The organization's Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.

8. Assess the Crisis Situation

Reacting without adequate information is a classic "shoot first and ask questions afterwards" situation in which you could be the primary victim. But if you've done all of the above first, it's a "simple" matter of having the Crisis Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your communications "tree," ensuring that the right type of information is being provided so that you can proceed with determining the appropriate response.

Assessing the crisis situation is, therefore, the first crisis communications step you can't take in advance. But if you haven't prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly-hired consultants to run through steps 1 to 7. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.

9. Identify Key Messages

With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis? Keep it simple have no more than three main messages for all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.

10. Riding Out the Storm

No matter what the nature of a crisis...no matter whether it's good news or bad...no matter how carefully you've prepared and responded...some of your stakeholders are not going to react the way you want them to. This can be immensely frustrating. What do you do?

-Take a deep breath.
-Take an objective look at the reaction(s) in question. Is it your fault, or their unique interpretation?
-Decide if another communication to those stakeholders is likely to change their impression for the better.
-Decide if another communication to those stakeholders could make the situation worse.
-If, after considering these factors, you think it's still worth more communication, then take your best shot!

"It Can't Happen To Me"

When a healthy organization's CEO or CFO looks at the cost of preparing a crisis communications plan, either a heavy investment of in-house time or retention of an outside professional for a substantial fee, it is tempting for them to fantasize "it can't happen to me" or "if it happens to me, we can handle it relatively easily."

Hopefully, that type of ostrich-playing is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Yet I know that thousands of organizations hit by Hurricane Katrina will have, when all is said and done, suffered far more damage than would have occurred with a fully developed crisis communications plan in place. This has also been painfully true for scores of clients I have served over the past 25 years. Even the best crisis management professional is playing catch up with more damage occurring all the time when the organization has no crisis communications infrastructure already in place.

The Last Word For Now

I would like to believe that organizations worldwide are finally "getting it" about crisis preparedness, whether we're talking about crisis communications, disaster response or business continuity. Certainly client demand for advance preparation has increased dramatically in the past half-decade, at least for my consultancy. But I fear that there is, in fact, little change in what I have said in the past, that 95 percent of American organizations remain either completely unprepared or significantly under-prepared for crises. And my colleagues overseas report little better, and sometimes worse statistics.

Choose to be part of the prepared minority. Your stakeholders will appreciate it!

About the Author:

This public relations article was written by Jonathan Bernstein of http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/" target="_blank. Distributed through the PressDr's http://pressdr.com/distribution/rss/article-distribution-service.php" target="_blank.

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