© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
"The bridges you cross before you come to them are almost always over rivers that aren't there."
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
The Value of a Crisis Communications Plan
by Judith C. Hoffman
Editor's Note: The following is extracted from Judy Hoffman's new book, "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat," from Four C's Publishing Co. Judy does an eloquent job of describing a real-life example of minimizing damage via crisis communications planning.
It is difficult to overstate the value of having an effective Crisis Communications Plan. The time you and your management team spend putting this together will be repaid many times over when you are called upon to use it. Time is something that is in very short supply when a crisis breaks. Being able to refer to this plan and start doing the right things immediately will save you a tremendous amount of pain and aggravation down the road. Without such a plan, you can quickly lose control while you decide who needs to be called, look up their phone numbers, and try to figure out what to do when the person you want doesn't answer the phone.
Those who are looking to see how you respond to this crisis will not be impressed if you are stumbling all over yourself. Such incompetence will leave them wondering if they should trust you to run the organization. Conversely, an organization that quickly implements a well thought-out crisis communications plan has a chance to take advantage of a limited window of opportunity.
A good example of this occurred in January of 1998 in the skiing industry. You may remember that, within five days of each other, both Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono were killed in skiing accidents. The natural tendency of the media might have been to raise fears about the declining safety of the sport. Taken to an extreme, this could have severely impacted the industry.
What prevented that from happening? The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) had a crisis plan developed that they could immediately implement. Part of that plan included the compilation of statistics that proved that the accident rate continued to average 36 fatalities a year for the past couple of years.
Within two hours after the first reports of Kennedy's death, the Association faxed nine pages of information to the media and to their member ski resorts. This allowed those resorts to respond properly to local media inquiries with consistent information. They also were able to quickly get in touch with a Ph.D. at the Rochester Institute of Technology who had studied ski injuries for 30 years. He was offered to the media as an objective authority on the subject.
What saved the NSAA from seeing these two tragic accidents spiral into a crisis for the whole industry was the fact that they had a crisis plan ready. Right after the accident, they did not have to create a plan, look up the statistics, try to find an authoritative third-party source and figure out how to contact him. The message that ended up being communicated was that skiing was a relatively safe sport if the skiers followed basic safety practices.
Judy Hoffman draws on 16 years of practical experience from being on the "hot" end of the microphone when she was a spokesperson for a chemical manufacturing company. She now shares that expertise through consulting, workshops and publications. Her book will soon be on sale via her website, but in the meantime you can get ordering information by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
WANTED: INFO ON CRISIS-RELATED SERVICE PROVIDERS
Most of us are aware of services typically contracted to assist us with crisis communications, such as media trainers, broadcast fax/email/phone services and news tracking services. If you represent, or are aware of, services that are less-well known, I may want to report on them. Write to email@example.com.
Making the Best of a Horror Story
by Robbie Vorhaus, Vorhaus & Company,Inc.
Editor's Note: The situation Robbie describes herein, with some information modified to protect client confidentiality, is the type of nightmare all of us hope to avoid. But he establishes that it is, at least, possible to minimize the impact of sometimes-unavoidable crises.
One fall day, a national retailer received a call alerting them that a local employee in Massachusetts was arrested for a gruesome murder. Normally, this would have been dealt with locally; however, several elements led us to ratchet up the urgency. First, the details were that the employee killed two boys, cut the bodies into pieces and buried them. To make matters worse, the alleged murderer used the retailer's property to transport the victims' bodies. This was on the heels of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killer case and sensitivities were high. Media was already making inquiries.
The client spokesperson and Vorhaus immediately flew to the scene, not even stopping to pack clean clothes for the trip.
- We determined that the company communications director would be the spokesperson. Key messages stressed that the suspect happened to work part-time at the retailer, but that's where the link ended. While we expressed sympathy for the victims, we reinforced that the retailer had no connection to the murders.
- We quickly established contact with local law enforcement. They briefed us on updated details of the case, and we cooperated fully with the investigation. The use of the retailer's property to transport body parts was an extremely sensitive topic. Since this was not relevant to the case and could hurt our national reputation, we requested that the investigating officers not make this detail public. They agreed.
- Upon arrival, we went directly to the retail location and received an unpleasant reality check. The store was not up to corporate specifications by a long shot. We worked with the local manager to quickly clean up the location as much as possible, and removed all extraneous branding that could be seen externally to reduce the visual impact. Fortunately, the local store manager knew enough to prevent the media from entering the store until Corporate arrived. Even then, we prevented filming in the store due to "company policy." We stressed that since the retailer was not involved, there was no reason to go inside. Media did some outdoor shots.
- Media was already reporting on the story when we arrived. They were trying to find a strong link between the retailer and murder, beyond the fact that the suspect was an employee. Our corporate spokesperson was able to provide key messages reinforcing that there was no connection, and this came across in all segments.
Robbie Vorhaus is president & CEO, Vorhaus & Company Inc. Mr. Vorhaus and his firm have worked with many multi-national firms to confront issues and crises from consumer product complaints to threatened boycotts. Preparation is the best offense, according to Mr. Vorhaus, who helps companies develop targeted crisis plans. Mr. Vorhaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the company's website at www.vorhaus.com.
- Through quick assessment and response we were able to contain the story locally, preventing it from escalating to national media coverage.
- The retailer reassessed and updated its local store evaluation process.
- Although the local store suffered an initial sales drop, after a few months under new management, sales rebounded.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: What qualifications does someone have to have to work in crisis communications?
CM: I hear that question a lot from students or junior-level PR staff, but it's a question that should also be asked by those seeking to hire crisis communications talent in-house or on a consulting basis. I'm going to list what I think are some of the top qualifications, and invite my readers to suggest others for future publication. A crisis communications professional must have the ability to:
- RAPIDLY analyze facts and reach reasonable conclusions in the midst of a chaotic situation.
- Write persuasively and reassuringly for a wide variety of audiences.
- Communicate a sense of calm to others working on the crisis.
- Quickly learn about subjects relevant to a crisis, but sometimes new to the crisis manager.
With the exception of writing skills, which can be improved significantly through training, these abilities are usually innate and are usually evident early in someone's career. They can certainly be refined through experience and sharing information with others in the business; however, just as some attorneys are naturally skilled at litigation, and some not, so are some PR professionals naturally well suited to crisis communications assignments.
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