Crisis Communications

Effective crisis or emergency communications planning is an absolute requisite of any company’s comprehensive communications program for both corporate and economic survival, as well as humanitarian reasons.

Unfortunately, this sort of planning, because of its perceived complexity, is generally developed with little regard for what realistically can be accomplished, or it falls into the ad hoc category and is effected ineffectually on the fly.

The fact of life is that depending on the hazard or situation, a company will at some time be called upon to issue an evacuation notice, respond to public or press inquiries regarding financial irregularities, discuss legal, health or environmental matters, explain system failures or contend with questions on losses of dollars or proprietary information….to name just a few of those vicissitudes that might become somewhat nettlesome at any time.

Both internal and external publics will want to know who, what, where, when, why and how when it comes to casualties, property damage, accompanying incidents or lawsuits, descriptions of events, acts of heroism or cowardice, resumption of work and financial implications.

When the telephone rings, however, its generally too late to plan a response, determine who will serve as spokesperson and decide how much information should be disseminated and when.

The sheer size of crisis communications planning can be reduced by grouping types of events into situational categories:

  • An ordinary event involving a senior manager, e.g. the death of a chief executive officer.
  • An extraordinary event, e.g. the 1992 Southern California earthquake.
  • An event in and of the company that the company has caused, e.g. a valve indicator misread results in a toxic waste spill.
  • An event in, but not of, your organization, where the company is a victim, e.g. a hostage situation.
  • A regulatory event, e.g. an insider trading investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • A financial event, e.g. a hostile takeover attempt.

The aforementioned represent a few of the more generalized situations that can occur. In all, flexibility is essential, an regardless of the categories used to plan, all crisis communications plans follow a reasonably simple logic.

First, what vulnerabilities create demands for information of what kind? Second, who must be talked to and in what order? Third, who will do what to whom by when to carry out the established communications objectives? Fourth, whose help will be required to develop and implement activities, internal coordination, public relations liaisons and mutual aid agreements? Fifth, how will the plan be tested and improved over time? And sixth, when will dissemination occur? Is there a commitment to communicate effectively during emergencies? Has a general policy statement on crisis communications been prepared and approved by senior management?

The first action determining the quality of crisis communications activities will be the alacrity and propriety of notifications. Although dispatch is important, establishing priorities and protocols is absolutely critical.

Most often the order of notification priority should be:

  • Those who should respond, i.e. police, fire, emergency medical teams, the company’s crisis management team.
  • Those who must comment, i.e. spokespersons, headquarters units, local government officials.
  • Those with a special need-to-know, stock analysts, customers and suppliers, employees, victims and their families and union representatives.
  • The broadcast and print media.
  • The general public.

News media notification, of course, is quite different than notification given other audiences. During crises or disasters, the media usually gets word of the event and winds up contacting the company, thus placing the communications team in a reactive, rather than proactive position.

The communications team’s reaction must be a joint venture combining the expertise the public relations department, senior management, and security and technical operational experts, if required.

Working with the media during a crisis is clearly critical. Whether assigned to a metro or city desk, or the business page, most reporters are generalists and therefore must be backgrounded in highly complex, technical or scientific information before they can even ask appropriate questions to report the news in layman’s terms.

Wherever possible, glossaries of technical terms, charts, graphs and visual depictions should be prepared in advance. With respect response precision, particularly at the outset, it is important to recognize that it is acceptable to say “This is what we know…this is what we do not know…This is what is ambiguous.”

Negotiations between the media and corporate sources of information are always delicate. They require the corporate communications team to understand the media’s needs, know their own guidelines and limitations and know what is negotiable and what is not. It also means strict adherence to a “single-source philosophy.”

A single-source philosophy  is quite simply speaking with one voice and requires that all statements made, all actions taken, all film footage shown, present the crisis response responsibly, competently and humanly. It also means that spokespersons are credible, accurate, timely, reliable, articulate, authoritative and available and that all information and interpretations complement or supplement the basic message being imparted.

A fully developed liaison program touching internal contacts, as well as external key publics, is a useful tool for managing information. Through these contacts, your company can determine the efficacy of the messages being disseminated.

Finally, the success of a crisis communications response can be enhanced by the following guidelines:

  • Release only verified and approved information.
  • Promptly alert the media to all key events or news releases.
  • When they are on site, ensure that the media have a corporate escort.
  • Have a designated spokesperson.
  • Maintain accurate records and logs of all inquiries and media coverage.
  • Meet press deadlines.
  • Provide equal opportunities for print and electronic media.
  • Do not speculate on the cause of the crisis or emergency.
  • Do not speculate on dollar losses.
  • Do not permit unauthorized personnel to comment to the media.
  • Do not mislead the media.
  • Do not place blame.

There are, of course, many nuances and other elements of crisis communications. Many must be handled on an ad hoc basis, others require specific preparation. The aforementioned, however, is meant to give you an overview.

About Stern And Company

Stern And Company, based in Las Vegas, develops and implements strategic corporate communications, financial relations and marketing programs for public and private companies.

All of our professionals have extensive senior-level experience as financial journalists with major publications or as communications executives at leading major corporations. Our firm’s practice areas include corporate and financial relations, public relations, strategic and product marketing, crisis communications, transaction communications, restructurings, bankruptcies and litigation support.

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