© 2001 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Why Emergency Plans May Not Be Enough
Editor's Note: this is the first of what I know will be many contributions by my new executive vice president, Phil Cogan, whose more than two decades of government public affairs experience with FEMA and other agencies provides a unique perspective.
by Phillip S. Cogan
The events of September 11th were a wake-up call for many businesses that thought it "could never happen to them". But crisis plans being developed today may not be enough if they ignore the needs of employees and their families.
Many small, medium and large businesses are now considering developing crisis response plans for the first time. Others are reviewing existing plans to see how appropriate they are in the post- 9-11 world.
And, of course, there are plenty of firms that probably still feel that if they escaped harm in September, they'll probably be OK in the future (never mind that there are a whole range of emergencies that are still far more likely to happen in a business' life than a terrorist event.)
Typical emergency communications plans cover a range of company activities that are essential before, during and after a crisis. Plans might include:
- An assessment of the risks faced by the organization
- A checklist of actions that should be taken when an emergency threatens or actually occurs.
- Task assignments to those who must carry out those actions (such assignments should be at least "three people deep" whenever possible).
- Identification of required resources, their locations and names and contact numbers for those who control resources and can provide them.
- A listing of essential audiences that must be kept informed.
- A methodology for coordinating information gathering, preparation and dissemination, both internally and with external organizations.
- A methodology for systematic monitoring and analysis of media, and concerns and statements by employees, the general public and others. Analysis of this information must lead to recommendations for modification of messages and communications strategies.
If you do all this you should be in pretty good shape, right? After all, the items above, by themselves, represent a pretty substantial planning effort.
Of course, an organization that accomplishes the planning tasks above is far better off than one that does little or nothing. So what's missing?
Well, if you're the President or CEO of a company and you show up for work after an emergency and only the offices and equipment are there when you arrive, what's missing? The employees. That's a no-brainer.
So why do so many companies that have emergency plans fail to account for the information and preparedness needs of their employees AND their families?
For years government emergency agencies have been concerned about whether their essential employees would report to work during and after an emergency if those workers perceived a potential threat or negative impact on the workers' families.
What the studies showed repeatedly (and what experience has borne out) is that essential workers will come to work IF, and only if, they feel relatively certain that the needs of their families have been addressed and the families will be safe in their absence while they're working. If not, employees likely will remain home. Families will be the priority, not distributing the high-priced, high demand widgets from Microwidget. Sorry.
So what needs to be done to help worker families so they're taken care of and the workers themselves can, in turn, "take care of business"?
For starters, every company should have a communications and disaster preparedness project aimed at workers and their families. This has to be done BEFORE the emergency (you'd be surprised how often companies want to launch such an effort while the water's rising or the ground is shaking).
Better yet, invest tangibly in the preparedness of worker families. Purchase all or part of a standard disaster preparedness supplies kit, and give it to employees. Not only will this jumpstart each family's preparedness activities, but it will also be a concrete demonstration that the organization CARES about its workers and their families. The American Red Cross (www.redcross.org) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov) both have information about what every family's disaster preparedness kit should contain.
Next, how about using those normally boring mandatory safety meetings to educate and motivate workers about family emergency preparedness?
And make sure your emergency communications plans adequately address the needs of workers and their families for frequent, timely and accurate reports about the company, the emergency and its impact on workers.
Putting the disaster preparedness and information needs of workers and their families into your plans, and into action, are both essential actions if you want to have employees on the job quickly after an emergency.
The Paintball Products Manufacturers Association
Creation of an Issues Management Campaign
by Jonathan Bernstein
Much of the time, my work is highly confidential, behind the scenes of crisis and issues management. In such cases, I either can't write about it or else I have to alter facts enough to disguise the client. I'm privileged to have a new client, however, for whom my work is very much "on the record" in a highly public PR campaign. We just got started late in September 2001, and this is the first in what I hope to be a regular series of case histories.
Paintball is one of the most popular and fastest growing "extreme sports," with more than seven million players. Yet it is not well-known to the non-playing public and perceptions that do exist are often inaccurate -- e.g., that it's a game for militia-oriented people, that it's unsafe. In fact, people from all walks of life play the game, including judges, lawmakers, doctors, and corporate executives. It's become a popular team building activity for organizations of all types -- including a surprising number of churches! And it's safer, with fewer injuries, than literally all of the sports I, and my kids, were exposed to at school.
Although the game has been around since the early 80's -- first as a recreational activity and now, also, as a competitive sport -- there was no industry voice. Hundreds of companies serve the sport, generating billions in sales, but early attempts at creating a paintball association failed -- participants were just too competitive to cooperate on managing issues of mutual interest.
Finally, earlier this year, the Paintball Products Manufacturers Association (PPMA) was launched with seed money from some of the biggest firms in the industry, including major suppliers to huge retailers such as WalMart. Its primary purpose is fostering an environment in which the paintball industry can prosper and educating consumers about paintball products -- in other words, a classic public relations issues management situation.
Bernstein Crisis Management is the PPMA's consulting agency and has launched an issues management campaign that focuses on very basic activities, to include:
- Creation of the PPMA website, www.paintballassociation.com, using the PIER System technology described in previous issues of this ezine (more about PIER at www.crisiswebsite.com). The PIER System, more often associated with crisis response, provided an inexpensive way for the PPMA to have a site with features, such as the integrated database, it could not possibly have afforded as a component of a professionally designed site.
- Announcing the formation of a "Paintball News Bureau" willing to provide the media with expert spokesperson any time there's a story under development that mentions paintball. Too many such stories focus on the use of paintball products for vandalism and the PPMA wants the public to know that they favor jail time for such behavior. At the same time, there are hundreds of "how paintball has brought families together" or "paintball as a team building activity" stories that are under-reported. A PR Newswire release on this service is pending.
- Using PR Newswire's ProfNet service to make expert sources about paintball better known to the media and also to pitch related story ideas.
- Creating press/public information materials for use on the website and elsewhere.
- Initiating a process by which any reporter who has covered the topic gets email letting them know about the PPMA, for future reference.
- Drafting key messages for use by industry spokespersons when there are situations such as a paintball related crime, injury, or misrepresentation of the sport by the entertainment industry, which has all-too-frequently portrayed unsafe paintball practices.
- Using online research to closely track reporting about paintball, helping the PPMA better understand, and counter, popular myths and misconceptions.
All this is being done in the difficult "post 9-11" media pitching environment, although the long-time use of paintball equipment for simulation training of military personnel and police officers -- to save lives -- is a timely story. Paintball is a relatively new sport and activity, an industry defining itself in response to high consumer interest in playing the game. With an increasing amount of television coverage about paintball, the industry is no longer perceived of only as a "military type" activity. Yet there's no doubt that paintball offers the recreational player the excitement of scenario, re-enactment, and "war games." Developing a mainstream image for paintball is part of the communications challenge for the PPMA. This type of very formative issues management is a situation we don't get to see, too often. Look for future articles on this evolving case history.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Guest expert answering this week: Phil Cogan.
Q: Recently I saw a nationally-recognized crisis communications expert appear on Lou Dobbs' Money Line on CNN. Part of the discussion talked about the problems created by many people in multiple jurisdictions talking about the response to the anthrax problem and issuing confusing or conflicting advice to the public. This expert was advocating that one and only one person in the U.S. -- preferably a recognized federal public health official -- be the only one to officially comment and provide information about the anthrax situation in America. Dobbs asked if that meant that even state and local health officials should refer local reporters' questions to that one official. The expert said yes. Do you agree with that recommendation?
A: I caught the same interview that you're referencing, and no, on this point I don't agree.
Even though, at the time of that interview, the public was giving post-911 federal emergency response efforts relatively high marks, they have been increasingly critical of the government's public safety statements. And the fact remains that the protection of public health and safety is and always has been a responsibility of state and local governments, not Uncle Sam. The key to effective crisis communications is not muzzling state and local officials. The proper response is to coordinate the flow of information so that multiple sources are disseminating the same messages. Credibility on these life and death health issues is with the state and local government, not Uncle Sam. And besides, no single federal bureaucracy could, practically speaking, handle the numbers of inquiries that potentially could come from around the country.
The federal government has for years conducted emergency information operations using something called the "Joint Information System"; that system is incorporated in the Federal Response Plan, a national plan for responding to all manner of natural and man-made disasters, including terrorism. The Joint Information System, and the Joint Information Centers that operate as part of the system, should be the framework for communications about anthrax and other terrorism threats. Federal agencies and most state and local governments are familiar with this system because they've used it for years in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's natural disaster operations.
The PR and Legal Team Approach To Crisis Management
Bernstein Crisis Management is capable of providing a joint PR/legal presentation team to train any organization wanting education on both components of crisis management. If interested, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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OTHER IMPORTANT STUFF
Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis response, issues management and litigation consulting. Prior to entering the PR world, Bernstein was an investigative reporter, preceded by five years in U.S. Army Military Intelligence. Click Here for information on the firm's services or call (626) 825-3838.
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