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Volume 27, Issue 3

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October 25, 2007

Media Planning for a Disaster

Written by  James M. Folkerts
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Many companies possess thoroughly documented and tested data processing contingency plans to follow in the event of a disaster, but how many of them are prepared to face the media when tragedy strikes? Who will face the press and what will they say? Or, perhaps more importantly, how will they say it?

A disaster that affects your company may seriously disrupt operations, but it does not have to be a total picture of gloom and doom to the public. Media planning can provide an opportunity to show how organized, effective, and responsible your company can be in the face of disaster.

First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles immediately projected a responsible, positive image by dispatching high level executives to answer questions at the scene of its disastrous 12th floor fire in May 1988.

This article discusses suggestions and planning for effective media relations. Some basic dos and don'ts are also listed. These guidelines are not only applicable in a data processing disaster, but also for others of a completely different nature.

The manner in which a company conveys information is critical to the public's understanding and perception of the business. A company issuing only prepared statements to the press as its sole method of media relations does not only risk appearing standoffish, but can also open itself to speculation and rumors if no other information is available.

Different events will require different ways of dealing with the media, but it is essential to understand why the media is at your doorstep. Realizing and accepting that they also have a job to do will go a long way in developing an effective public relations 'disaster plan.'

THE PRESS ALSO HAS A JOB TO DO

Understanding this is half of the job in developing an effective plan. You may want to bring in a reporter as a consultant to provide detailed insight on media-business relations.

Establishing favorable relations with the press can go a long way towards how they react in a situation involving your company. If reporters sense that you are responding to them respectfully and honestly, they will remember this the next time you have to meet with them. Most likely they will give you a fair chance to tell your side of the story as well as to react to questions and statements from other sources. Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens was often treated favorably by the press due to his constant communication and rapport with them.

Remember that reporters have deadlines to meet and that stonewalling them or refusing to answer questions may result in undesired perceptions of your company's actions. Even if it is not justified, silence can also imply guilt. It is acceptable and probably better to say you cannot answer a particular question and why.

You must realize that you are sometimes faced with people inquiring into a business they may know little about. Most reporters will appreciate the effort made to explain a complicated technological process or business strategy.

Often they rephrase questions to obtain additional information or better understand what you are trying to say, not to harass or pester. Remember, the more the press knows about the issues or facts you are attempting to communicate, the less chance you will be misunderstood.

Credibility is perhaps the most important issue when dealing with the press. Events that raise questions about a company's credibility can arouse greater suspicion and have a lasting effect on public opinion. It is important to offer a realistic appraisal of your situation and how it might be covered by the press.

A prime example is the Exxon oil spill in Alaska. The company's failure to respond quickly and effectively to the situation, followed by its attempt to blame the government for the delays, caused it immeasurable public relations harm. The fact that the CEO sent lower-level executives to examine the disaster scene initially gave the impression that the situation was not important enough for him to consider.

IS YOUR COMPANY 'MEDIA PREPARED'?

There are several steps which you can take to prepare selected employees to work with the press in providing information in the event of a disaster.

Media-train those employees expected to meet with the press. Public relations personnel can counsel your employees and advise them on how the media and public might perceive the event or crisis.

Give the representatives a little 'experience' by simulating a particular disaster and conducting a mock press conference, complete with reporters asking questions. Politicians use this technique when preparing for what may be an especially difficult press conference.

Who will talk? It is important to decide exactly who will speak to the press. You may want to appoint specific people in particular situations, depending on such factors as background or experience.

Companies may have an employee read from a prepared statement. It is important to realize that they do not have to read it verbatim. A mechnical report can make the representative seem like nothing more than a 'puppet' of management, just repeating what he or she has been instructed to say. Adding personal comments and providing anecdotes often helps to personalize and increase the spokesperson's and, consequently, the company's credibility.

Establish a single, consistent focal point for the gathering and distributing of information; few things could be worse (or more embarrassing) than the press receiving conflicting information from the same company.

Evaluate the location from where you will disseminate information. Is it convenient for the news media? Perhaps the disaster scene itself can effectively portray the activities you are undertaking. First Interstate's action of sending management to the fire scene showed the public directly that the company was well aware of what was happening.

Don't forget the customers. Customers and stockholders will also be anxiously awaiting information. Set up and publicize telephone 'hot lines' with informed personnel to answer any questions. Again, First Interstate sent out letters and made phone calls to individuals as well as corporate customers to inform them that business resumed immediately after the fire was put under control.

Publicize the 'reconstruction' activities. Inform the press how your longer-term clean-up and recovery plans are proceeding. The Los Angeles Fire Department distributed a video detailing actual scenes of the fire and emergency services teams' assessments of the fire's damage. It also contained commentary by First Interstate management and the Los Angeles Fire Department Fire Chief on how all parties working together were able to face the disaster effectively.

First Interstate employees also participated in subsequent Disaster Recovery conferences to share their experiences and knowledge resulting from the fire.

EVALUATION PHASE

Examine all facets of your plan and its actions. After the major crisis has passed, evaluate the disaster, your dealing with the media, and its effect on the image of the company. What was good or bad? Where can you improve? As a result of evaluating an actual disaster, Dow Chemical Company of Canada is now prepared to face the media with a public relations team which will travel with the emergency response team to the event site.
Just as disaster recovery provides for resumption of your business operations, appropriate media planning can provide an effective and positive image of your company's efforts to do so.


James Folkerts is a Systems Analyst for IBM.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No. 2, p. 6.

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