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The Art of Crisis Communications: Have a Plan but Keep it Simple

For this week’s blog, I asked longtime PR pro, Staci Busby, to share her insights on crisis communications, a very important topic that inevitably must be faced by all companies and their communicators.  With more than 20 years working in corporate, non-profit and agency environments, Staci Busby is an accredited Public Relations Counselor who has led crisis communications teams through a variety of issues and crises, ranging from employee murders, picketing and triple swipes on debit cards to E. coli poisoning, natural disasters and significant layoffs.

Oil spills, toxic sludge slides and mine disasters… now what? We’re confronted with major disasters regularly. How we handle these crises for our employers can make or break their reputations.

It’s always interesting to read the opinion pieces after a catastrophe occurs. “I would have done this.” “They should have done that.” The truth is we all would do better in hindsight. So the best we can do is learn from our experiences and mistakes, (ours and others), and be as prepared as possible when a crisis does hit.

Although in a crisis situation we’re usually forced into a reactionary mode, it is possible to plan ahead by creating a basic process to follow so that you are not blindsided when a tragedy occurs. I’m not an advocate for filling your bookshelves with plans for anything and everything that might happen, but I do believe it’s important to brainstorm possible threats and develop a simple guide that will help you and your company endure potential crises.

You may find volumes of valuable information to help you predict, plan, practice and prepare for the unthinkable; but it’s rare to find a simple, practical guide to use once a crisis hits, so here are a few simple tips to keep in mind.

  1. First, when a crisis hits, take a deep breath and clear your mind so you can focus on the specific issue you are facing and determine its magnitude.  It’s hard to think during a crisis, particularly if people are injured or killed. Use the simple guide you’ve already developed to help you focus on steps that need to be taken.
  2. Next, gather the facts and develop key messages. Uncover the who, what, why, when and where of the crisis – without speculation, rumor or innuendo. Then, flesh out the basic messages regarding the situation.
  3. Third, identify key audiences (investors, employees, customers, any government officials, media, etc.) that need to be informed. You can tailor your messages to the relevant audiences based on what is most important to them. For example, if a crisis occurs that is not publicized by the media, you may still send a letter to employees explaining the situation. However, it’s always important to be prepared to respond if the press becomes aware of the situation, or you may choose to work with key members of the media to disseminate your message to a particular audience.
  4. Next, identify a limited number of spokespeople, ensure they are familiar with the issue and prepare them to deliver the key messages. Consistent messages are critical because they can minimize confusion and help an organization maintain credibility during an emergency or crisis situation. It’s essential that the spokesperson represent a unified voice for the company.
  5. Determine the most effective method of communicating to each audience. A letter or e-mail to employees may be the best way to handle an internal issue. However, if it is an issue with public consequences, you may decide to respond with a written or verbal statement delivered by an authorized spokesperson. When contemplating the method of communication, always consider the extent of the situation, the audience and the impact it may have on the company.
  6. Now, communicate. How, what and when you communicate to whom can affect the impact of the situation, positively and negatively. The quicker you communicate clearly to your selected audiences, the fewer rumors you have to dispel. Quickly communicate how the crisis will be resolved and what steps you will take to prevent it from happening again. If the resolution is a long process, offer some checkpoints as to when you’ll be   updating your target audiences about your company’s progress.
  7. After the initial response, remember to monitor the results of public statements. What is being reported? How are employees/customers/investors feeling about the crisis? Are your messages being delivered? Are questions being answered? If your messages are not clear, or are misinterpreted, you may need to adjust the statements accordingly. Stay on top of how the media reports the crisis. Be sure to correct factual errors quickly, so that they are not repeated. In the age of social media, it’s important to have a way of monitoring online chat and responding via selected channels if deemed appropriate.
  8. Assess initial reaction to the crisis and review new information. Once the heat of the moment subsides, the tendency is to move on to other business matters. While the end goal is to resume normal business operations, it is important to stay with a crisis situation until it has been resolved completely and there is no new information to report. Crises often evolve, so you should continue to review communications until the threat and discussion subside completely.
  9. Next, determine whether additional communication is needed. Think about employees, customers, investors and other audiences who may take comfort in receiving an official communication informing them that the situation is resolved.
  10. Finally, remember to evaluate the effectiveness of your crisis communications process by asking these questions:
    • How can we prevent this from happening again?
    • How can we improve the crisis/issues management process?
    • What went right? What went wrong?
    • How should we revise our guide based on what we’ve learned?
    • What did we need at our fingertips that wasn’t available?

This is where “I should have; I could have” comes in handy. Learn from each issue or crisis and apply those lessons to your ongoing planning process.

Remember, it takes years for a company to build a solid reputation and seconds to destroy it. When a crisis hits, the people involved in handling the fallout have very little time to think and often have difficulty thinking clearly, depending on the magnitude of what has happened.  Having a simple plan and following basic steps to communicate will help insure your company keeps its reputation intact no matter what type of crisis it is facing.

Crisis Media Relations: the Tiger Woods Edition

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

As of this writing, the celebrity gossip scandal involving golfer Tiger Woods is still unfolding, but enough is known to serve as a teachable moment in PR crisis management both for individuals and businesses.

Woods has parceled out information about the circumstances of his car crash in morsels just small enough to create an appetite for more. He has tried to balance the need to answer the media’s questions — not to mention those of the police — with his desire to protect his privacy.

Businesses sometimes find themselves in a similar dilemma when news comes out that makes them look bad and they try to respond to it while at the same time protecting their privacy. The best plan is to get out as much information as one can as soon as possible in order to prevent speculation from taking the place of known facts in the story.

The bare-bones facts in the Woods case are these, according to news reports. Woods left his Florida home at 2:25 a.m. Nov. 27 in his 2009 Cadillac Escalade and promptly ran off the road, knocked over a fire hydrant and hit a tree. Woods’s wife, Elin Nordegren, appeared on the scene soon after and reportedly used a golf club to break the rear windows on the car to free him.

Woods was taken to the hospital, treated for facial cuts and bruises and released.

After holding off Florida Highway Patrol investigators’ requests to interview the couple for three days, Woods’s silence created a vacuum filled by media speculation and gossip, including mention of a previous report in the National Enquirer that Woods may have been involved with another woman. The snickerers online found an alternative reason why his wife was wailing on the Escalade with a golf club.

Sunday, Woods issued a statement that prompted more questions than it answered. It read, in part: “This situation is my fault. I’m human and I’m not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Those with cynical motives can take off and run with “I’m human and I’m not perfect,” in any number of directions, and they probably have.

In his statement, Woods asked the public to respect his own and his family’s privacy. While even as a celebrity he is entitled to a certain amount of that, playing the privacy card has its downside. Deliver a carefully worded statement but offer no opportunity for questions and you only invite more criticism.

Monday, Woods spurred the next news cycle by revealing he wouldn’t be playing at a charity golf tournament in California this week that is to benefit his Tiger Woods Foundation.

An Associated Press story, published Saturday, laid out the public relations crisis management dilemma he faces:

“Assuming Woods has crisis management advisers, he had better get them on the phone. Assuming they answer, he had better listen to their advice. Say something, and say it soon,” wrote the AP’s Tim Dahlberg. “’I was always a believer that you should come out and say what happened, apologize if need be and take it from there,’ said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency.”

Say something and say it soon could be good advice for a business faced with a crisis to manage, too, be it a lawsuit, a high level executive departure or a product recall. Public relations experts advise convening a crisis management team to draft a response plan and carry it out.

In the article, “A startup roadmap for crisis communications,” Wendy Lane, founder of the PR and marketing firm Lane PR, lays out a well thought out crisis response plan.

In brief, Lane advises a company set up a response team ahead of time that includes one or two top executives and representatives of the public relations department. Any public statement, or statement to employees, should be drafted by group consensus within the crisis team. While company officials should reach out to key constituencies affected by the news – such as board members, key clients or vendors – information should not be distributed piecemeal. If someone hears a tidbit of news from a colleague rather than a supervisor, that prompts rumors.

Communicating to those outside the company, including the news media, should also be similarly well-coordinated. In October, I covered a story in which T-Mobile, a wireless carrier, had to notify users of its Danger Sidekick smartphone that, due to a server failure, backup information on their phones, like contacts, calendar entries and e-mail addresses, had been erased.

T-Mobile and Sidekick (a company owned by Microsoft) quickly acknowledged the problem, apologized profusely, temporarily pulled the Sidekick off the market, disclosed as much as they knew and gave disgruntled customers gift cards as compensation for their loss. Within a few weeks, lost data had been restored for most subscribers. The company made the best of a bad situation with a coordinated plan.

It remains to be seen how the Tiger Woods situation will play out. While crisis management professionals advise a more proactive stance than Woods seems to have taken, he still retains strong “brand equity.” He’s a successful golfer, both on the course and at the bank and is a positive role model for all kinds of people. He may have some reputational capital in reserve to survive whatever additional bad publicity lies ahead.