Crisis Communication

Your company's next crisis could be legal, political, industrial or financial. Whatever the cause, having a plan for communication can lessen the trauma. By Joyce ChastainSpilling ItYour mantra: Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truthBy Joyce Chastain

The press secretary of Florida’s child-welfare agency was arrested earlier this year on charges of child pornography. Last year, the CEO of a Miami sports radio station was arrested for allegedly beating up another person.

Those organizations faced a public relations crisis. Could it happen to your company or organization?

Ask any public relations professional about how to handle crisis communication and he or she will spout this mantra: “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.” Sounds simple, right? It may be simple, but it’s not easy.

Imagine yourself in a situation where you’re enjoying your first cup of coffee of the day and pick up the morning newspaper. As you unfold the creases of the paper and flatten it out, the headline catches your eye: “ATM THEFT SUSPECT ARRESTED.” You read on and are stunned to see the name of your CFO listed as the one arrested. And, they’ve reported where he worked! Suddenly, the peaceful moment you were enjoying is replaced by a frenzy of emotions and thoughts. What’s your first move?

Have a Crisis Communication Plan

This is just one example of when a crisis communication plan is indispensable. Crises come in assorted varieties: legal, political, industrial, environmental, financial, even natural disasters. (Think back to the news broadcasts of the New Orleans mayor during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.) Let’s hope that whenever you’re faced with crisis communication, it won’t be because your CFO stole an ATM machine. It could be because there is recent evidence that one of your manufactured products is defective or the workers on your construction project were just caught dumping leftover cement in an estuary.

Whatever the cause, having a plan for communication can lessen the trauma. Sharlyn Lauby, president of the HR Florida State Council and ITM Group Inc., says having a written plan is not enough. She recommends regular trial runs and practicing tough questions.

“All of us are busy, but finding time for regular review meetings throughout the year is a critical part of the process,” Lauby says. “The most common mistake businesses make is waiting until something happens to dust off their response plan and read it. Make the commitment to meet every month, and use real-life incidents that you read about in the news as a way to discuss how you would handle similar situations.”

Don’t Panic

When faced with a crisis, don’t panic. Maintaining composure is critical. If you look flustered, your credibility will be questioned. First, take swift action, if necessary, to mitigate business losses and ensure employee safety. In the case of the ATM-thieving CFO, you might engage your CPA firm to initiate an internal audit. Then you’ll rely on your crisis communication plan – the goal of which is to protect the reputation of your business.

April Salter Herrle, president and COO of Salter>Mitchell, PR, an advertising agency, tells of how one crisis was turned around. As a result of Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005, many Tallahassee hotels were filled to capacity by people fleeing the storm. This coincided with football season, and some hotels were publicly criticized in the media for displacing Katrina victims in favor of football fans with long-standing reservations.

A local hotel owner was incorrectly referred to in a news article as one who had turned out Katrina victims. This wrong report brought calls from irate residents and from the media. The hotel owner contacted a public relations firm for crisis communications help. Within a few hours, this “bad news” was turned into “good news.” Factual information was disseminated and media interviews were set up to show the ways the hotel owner was helping, including housing victims in his own home.

“It’s smart to reach out to communications and public relations professionals in a crisis situation,” Herrle says.

The two major but separate issues are communicating internally – to your employees, and externally – to the news media, your customers and suppliers.

Communicating Internally

Internal communication is your ally. Employees will be looking for assurances. They want to know that their employer is stable. They will also need to know how their routine is affected. Depending on the size of the company, separate communications from three different internal groups may be appropriate.

Top management is responsible for making critical decisions. From them, employees will need to hear the actions that are being taken to restore order. Operations management keeps the business flowing. They will communicate to the employees any changes in procedures and how to minimize business disruption. The tactical team is the communications group. It’s their responsibility to ensure that those who need to know are updated throughout the crisis.

These three groups should proceed to deliver a unified response. Employees will, understandably, be curious. Coffee room talk will be at an all-time high. Shun the “shotgun” approach to sharing communications. While keeping in mind the mantra of “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth,” delivering a consistent message is critical to the success of your communication effort. Knowing who will be responsible, what the message will be and when it will be delivered will yield more predictable results.

Communicating Externally

How you communicate to your customers and your vendors will vary significantly. Each will want to know how this event affects them. Share with them any necessary operational changes resulting from the crisis. Public details about your business and how it has been affected by the crisis is information they can get from the media.

Probably the most difficult communication during a crisis is with the media.

Even those who are accustomed to fielding questions from skilled reporters can occasionally stumble over their responses. If public relations professionals are not on your staff, if at all possible, engage an outside firm to guide the external communications.

A classic example of how not to handle a crisis happened a few years ago when Vice President Dick Cheney was at the center of a shooting controversy. In the White House’s attempt to minimize the hunting accident, they reported that no alcohol was involved. Later it was shown that there was. It was also stated the victim was hit by 10 pellets. Physicians later revealed it was more than 100. The vice president didn’t personally address the media for four days, prompting the belief of a cover-up.

The CEO of your company may not be the best person to communicate with the news media during a crisis. If the communication comes from the top, there is an expectation that the speaker will know everything. There is limited opportunity to defer a question for a later, more informed, response.
Consult with one of the many professional public relations firms for assistance with development of a written crisis communication plan. Or, if you prefer the do-it-yourself approach, there are excellent publications available that can guide you though the process. Whichever method you prefer, prepare the plan before you need it, conduct periodic reviews to remain familiar with the tactics of your plan, and remember: “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.”

Joyce Chastain is President of the Big Bend Society for Human Resource Management.