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A CRISIS MANAGEMENT PLAN
Are You Prepared?

By Bill Patterson
HMS Partners


Ask most corporate executives about their plans for crisis management and chances are that many of them will say something like, "Sure, we’ve got a crisis plan. Harry, over in public relations, takes care of that."

But, just what does Harry really have? Unfortunately, in many cases, it is just an emergency checklist with some phone numbers.

What will Harry do when 50 pickets show up outside your company headquarters?

What is Harry suppose to do when your top-selling product is recalled?

What does Harry tell the news media when you have to close that old plant and lay off 900 people?

If Harry does not know what to do immediately (and who will do it), then your crisis plan is in need of an overhaul.

Most of us like to think we do our best work in the midst of a crisis or controversy, when the adrenaline is flowing and we can make vital decisions in a split second. And in fact, many executives do perform extremely well under pressure.

But, in a world when the wrong split-second decision can cost a company millions in negative publicity, not being prepared is not worth the risk – to executives or the companies they work for.

That official company crisis plan may include a lot of the right ingredients such as a company spokesperson, crisis team members, a list of telephone numbers and perhaps even a list of potential crises. It might even hit as to who is to do what in a crisis. Undoubtedly, most will include a phrase like, "never say ‘no comment’ and always answer reporters’ telephone calls."

A crisis plan should include all these points and a lot more. But crisis plans, for the most part, are just too broad. At the very best, they are merely the starting point for handling a crisis.

WHAT IS AN EXECUTIVE TO DO?

For starter, if your organization has a crisis plan, dust it off and take a look at it. If you do not have one – and you are not alone – it is time to start thinking seriously of developing one.

It may be something you can do internally or you may want to bring in some outside expertise. It depends on your internal capabilities and how important the plan is to you.

It has been our experience that even major organizations with large public relations staffs often need the outside objectivity and expertise they can get from trained crisis management professionals. Experience is by far the best teacher in dealing with crises, but gaining that experience on the job is too costly for a business with its reputation and financial future on the line. Usually it makes sense to go to people who already have the experience.

Whichever way you choose to design your crisis plan, you should start by thinking of all the things that could pose a crisis to your organization. You do not have to be Union Carbide, Johnson & Johnson or Exxon to face a crisis. Crises are non-discriminatory. They can hit any of us and when we least expect them. Just ask the people who were involved with the Sudafed, Tylenol or Perrier crises. Or ask Victor Kiam or John Sununu.

Some crises arise because of a conscious business decision on your part. You make the decision knowing it will create public relations problems for yourself. Plant closings, layoffs – these fall into that category. Other crisis are beyond your control – fires, recalls or sabotage for example.

But whether or not you can plan on a particular crisis, you can always prepare for one.

THE BOY SCOUT MOTTO: "BE PREAPRED!"

For instance, if you are in the chemical manufacturing business and a chemical spill is a possibility, assume you will have one and draw up a plan on how to handle it. Sure, you cannot plan for every detail but some work now will prevent a lot of headaches and save precious time later.

What is the worst thing that can happen to your organization? How will you deal with it? If there is even a slight chance that it could happen, assume that it will and write it into your plan.

When our clients start getting into details and ask what they should include in their list of potential crises, our usual response is: Think of a crisis as anything that can happen to your organization that could generate negative publicity. A crisis does not have to be an explosion or strike. It can be as simple as a real estate transaction, employee theft in corporate headquarters or an employee with AIDs.

Once you get a handle on what a crisis is, then you can start thinking of how to deal with it. That is where the plan comes in.

When the reporters and photographers are at your office door, you will not have the time to start figuring out who is in charge, what to say and who will say it.

A crisis plan is as detailed document that provides management with a "general" methodology to handle "general" crises.

What a crisis plan isn’t is a complete plan to deal with every specific crisis. You cannot write a plan to handle every crisis because each one is going to be different. A good plan works because it forces a crisis management team to take actions to handle specific problems associated with a specific crisis.

IMMEDIATE IMPLEMENTATION

Like every other plan, a crisis plan has to have a trigger. When a crisis hits, there has to be a reporting process that moves it to the team leader in a matter of minutes. The team leader then needs to activate the team, if necessary, as soon as possible. In a crisis, time is a luxury you never have.

Before a specific crisis occurs, you can be certain that not even the best of crisis plans will include everything you need to handle the situation.

It is the team concept that brings together the expertise to understand and evaluate the specific crisis and come up with the solutions that can help your organization cope with it.

So, pick your team well. The team leader should be someone who knows the organization inside and out, and has the authority and clear channels to get to the tope when he needs to.

Name one person to be your company spokesperson and name a back-up. In a crisis, you need to speak with only one voice. Make sure both people have been trained in how to deal with the news media. A crisis is not the time to take chances with someone who tends to exaggerate, lays blame or gets stage fright in front of a camera.

Depending on your business, the rest of the team should include representation from public relations, legal, management, personnel, security and specialists who know the details of a specific crisis. If you have a chemical spill, ideally a chemist ought to be on the team so you know what risks the chemical does or does not pose to the general public.

Do not saddle your crisis team with other duties during a crisis. If the crisis is real, then it ought to be their top and only priority.

Make sure they have access to all the information, i.e.: who, what, when, where, why and how. A crisis is no time to hold back information from your crisis team. Do not assume your team has all the same information that you do.

PLAN & PRACTICE NOW

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your crisis team is to have all of them trained in how to respond to the news media. It should be mandatory that your team go through role-playing with people who are professional media response trainers.

But understanding the media and learning how to deal with reporters is not something that can be absorbed through osmosis. Seminars on media relations, usually conducted by former print and broadcast journalists, provide executives a chance to learn privately from their mistakes rather than read about them in tomorrow’s newspaper or view them on the nightly news.

Executives are learning new techniques for dealing with intense media situations. Terms such as "BUMP AND RUN," "NUGGETS" and "BRIDGING" are being used to teach business leaders how to respond in a positive manner.

They are learning how to quickly bump the very negative questions, then run to their own positive comment on the situation.

The nugget is another simple technique, yet often forgotten in the heat and glare of a tense news interview: Keep your answer short and to the point (20 seconds maximum), and do not babble on with more than you need to say.

And savvy executives understand how to bridge an unfair question with a quick phrase: "That’s an interesting point, Tom, but the bigger question here is what our company has done to improve the situation. For instance …"

The bump, the nugget and the bridge will soon be terms that are understood by modern executives from coast to coast.

Basically, the message remains the same: Be hones, be candid and beware. Assemble the facts pertinent to the story. Know what you want to say. Candor receives more positive attention than "no comment."

Besides increasing credibility, being candid with a reporter usually gets his or her attention. More than likely, a reporter who has been treated fairly will take a second look at releases touting new products or services rather than pitch them in the round file. The upshot is positive coverage of those "good news" items you want to get before the public.

Dealing with the media is not something to be passed off to other staff members or dismissed as unimportant. It begins with your commitment to learn and follow basic guidelines, such as:

  • Answering questions as directly and briefly as you can in a positive manner.
  • Making yourself accessible to reporters.
  • Providing supplemental information in the form of fact sheets.
  • Having a professional understanding of the media’s needs.

Just as important, do not:

  • Mislead or lie
  • Say "no comment."
  • Argue with reporters. Remember, they have the last word.

The lists of do’s and don’ts could cover pages. But what is important is the recognition that dealing with the media requires special techniques and a commitment to understand journalists.

NOW YOU ARE READY

Planning for a crisis is work that usually gets put on the back burner. That is wrong. All responsible property owners have fire insurance. Most never use it but they carry it. The same should be true with a crisis management plan. Be thankful for every day that you do not have to implement such a plan. If you do not have one, pause for a moment and visualize how you would act and feel just five minutes after a major disaster strikes your organization.

Always remember: "When you hear the thunder, it is too late to build the ark."


About the author:
Bill Patterson is Vice President/Reputation Management of HMS Partners, Ltd., a large communications agency in Columbus, Ohio. He presents comprehensive seminars and speeches on business communication, particularly on how to deal with the news media in times of crisis. He can be reached at (614) 222-2555. www.media-relations.com

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