Whatever their origin, disasters involve some degree of surprise. Even when plotting a hurricane, serious questions remain unanswered until the winds make landfall. Most disasters are complete surprises. A sudden electrical outage. A flood. A failure in the system. An accident. The most precarious communications response is the one that improvises on the spot instead of deciding in advance who needs to know what, when and where.
Indelible images linger years after the crises that affected Johnson & Johnson, Perrier, Exxon, NASA and Union Carbide. In some cases, the memory is of fast, decisive action effectively communicated. In others, the memory is tainted by delayed action or a failure to communicate, with the resulting image of being disorganized or not under control.
The first rule in crisis communications is to take the initiative; determine the facts and be the first to inform those who need to know. It’s good business as well as sound communications.
While it’s a truism to say that no two disasters are the same, there are common elements which come into play in all disasters. For starters, the media will be on the company’s doorstep, wanting briefings, interviews and updates on what happened — all dictated not by your readiness to respond, but by their deadlines.
Just as quickly as the media, your customers need to make decisions on whether, where and how they will continue to do business with you. Employees want to know what they’re supposed to do, when and where. Meanwhile, shareholders and financial analysts are forming a lasting impression based on how they perceive you as handling the situation.
From office cubicles to local TV screens, communications will occur — whether or not your company takes the initiative in communicating. Failure to take the initiative in that unavoidable communications process poses serious risks. Employee morale can be seriously damaged and an atmosphere of disorganization and chaos created. Management credibility can be undermined, along with good will among customers, suppliers and vendors and confidence among stockholders.
A business that is perceived as ill-prepared or disorganized after a disaster can lose market share as well as new business opportunities. Given the increased emphasis on accountability among stockholders as well as government agencies, there is an added risk of legal exposure if management is seen as ineffective and failing in its responsibilities.
Just as the painful lesson has been learned that the time to begin dealing with disasters is on the drawing board in advance — not when they take a company by surprise — the same lesson is being learned with regard to communications. To be effective, plans must be developed and tested in advance — both for business recovery and for communications during and after a disaster.
Hurricane Andrew was a disaster filled with reminders about the role of communications. Employees needed to know where to get help, food, temporary housing and cash and then where and when to report to work. From bank customers who wanted to withdraw cash to families who needed milk for infants and from reporters clamoring for news to public agencies wanting to be updated, there was a nonstop demand for information.
With 1700 miles of power lines down, Florida Power & Light issued media advisories with safety tips for the public and held daily news conferences about the recovery process. IBM and other South Florida employers issued news wire releases asking employees to call their company 800 number to confirm that they were okay and to get the help needed for themselves and their families.
IBM’s communications support involved writing news releases, making available backgrounders, fact sheets and video, answering media questions and conducting interviews. It also included working with public agencies in the affected areas and gathering information about IBM’s relief efforts.
When a crisis occurs, it’s in a company’s best interests to be candid and cooperative and to be seen as taking strong, positive action to handle the situation and return to normal operations. The more serious the problem the more important it is to gather, verify and manage the flow of information to critical audiences.
At such times, it’s tempting to think only in terms of “Meet the Press,” since the media immediately come knocking at the door and soon are broadcasting and printing information — right or wrong — on what happened. But what about also responding to the other crucial audiences that can make the difference between recovering or suffering consequences that endanger the future of the company?
These audiences need to be targeted: employees and their families, customers, suppliers, contractors, consultants, shareholders, financial analysts and community groups, as well as public and government agencies. In addition, there is the panoply of media contacts in the business, financial and trade press — newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. The list of audiences is formidable.
Even a company that’s prepared learns from hindsight about the importance of communications. At John Alden Life Insurance, headquartered in Miami, a disaster recovery plan kept the company up and running after Hurricane Andrew, but still there were communications lessons to learn. Carlos Miro, vice president for technology services, reported that the company “needed better management of communications within the company” so that everyone knew who was doing what and what each person’s responsibilities were.
“Finally,” he added, “we realized that we should have communicated more effectively with other parts of our organization. We are a national company, and some offices in other parts of the country thought it was business as usual in our office.”
As with business recovery, communications in a disaster has two parts:
1. Advance planning and preparation
2. Effective implementation of a plan
To be effective, communications strategy must take into account overall business strategies and priorities and company policies, practices and procedures. This can’t be done in the middle of a crisis.
Advance planning develops answers to these questions:
Who are the key individuals in the com- pany to contact?
How can they be contacted?
Who’s in charge of the information sys- tem?
Which technical experts can provide brief- ings?
Who are the key audiences?
What do they want and need to know?
Who are the spokespersons?
Are they trained and prepared?
What are the key messages?
Who needs to be contacted outside the company, including the key media?
This daunting array of questions leaves no doubt that advance planning is essential in order to communicate effectively during a disaster. Such planning demands formation of a crisis communications team that’s prepared and ready to spring into action.
A spokesperson (and his/her backup) is an integral part of a team that also includes technical experts (to guarantee accurate information) and a communications coordinator. The coordinator would be responsible for drawing up a response plan, keeping it up-to-date and directing its implementation in case of a disaster.
But the team can’t exist only on paper. Dress rehearsals are needed to test the degree of preparedness and to identify and correct any weaknesses in the communications plan.
Communications equipment must be available and in working order, with alternative locations as a backup. Part of preparedness is planning for worst case situations and facing “What If” questions, such as: What if the phone lines are down? What if the standby facilities to print materials are out of commission? What if the crisis communications team can’t reach the scene of the disaster?
Since company spokespersons play a crucial role during an emergency, they must be carefully selected, prepared and briefed on the communications plan. Spokespersons, with backups, must be ready to field tough questions and able to explain technical information. They must follow the operating principle of honesty and accuracy and they cannot be the individuals assigned to manage the crisis.
Look for spokespersons with these traits:
- Experienced in dealing with the media
- Knowledgeable about the company and its operations
- Familiar with top management and its mindset
- Comfortable and effective in speaking to the public
- Able to think on their feet
The spokesperson or someone else must be assigned the role of communicating with employees, customers, shareholders and any other key audiences. Whatever information is provided must be centrally approved and coordinated through the crisis communications team so it is accurate, consistent and relevant.
Advance planning and a checklist ensure that key audiences are contacted in a timely fashion. One pitfall is to delay or fail to contact the appropriate local, state and federal organizations and authorities. These could include police and fire departments, mayor’s office, utilities, hospitals, EPA, FAA, etc.
Dress rehearsals and periodic reviews of communications plans ensure against another pitfall: failure to keep plans and their key details up-to-date and in tune with changes in personnel, facilities and operations. A crisis is the worst time to discover that you have an outdated phone number or that a key internal contact is no longer with the company.
With advance planning, standby materials are available in order to communicate effectively and in a timely fashion.
They include current background material on the company and on its information system, prepared statements (ready for appropriate modifications), contingency Q & A’s, photographs of the facility for the media, audio and video tapes, lists of contacts in the media and in key constituencies.
A communications crisis team must be ready to prepare, orchestrate and disseminate the flow of messages that are part of the information requirements in a disaster. These center on employee alerts, evacuation announcements and procedures, site closing.
Prompt dissemination of information is vital on many fronts, from the need for employees to assist in the response to the need for customers to maintain your credibility in doing business. Where a crisis becomes serious and its ramifications widespread in the community, arrangements must be made for media briefings. These often include authorities from local, state and federal government as well as fire and police.
In an ongoing crisis, a communications team needs to:
- Make spokespersons available to up date the media regularly
- Correct — diplomatically — mistakes made by the media
- Continue to log all calls from the media and key audiences and ensure that inquir- ies are answered
- Provide technical experts as needed for in-depth briefings
- Arrange for senior management to make follow-up comments
- Evaluate information and statements so they reflect the latest developments.
Announcing the end of a crisis is not enough. Follow-up is crucial to make certain all the crucial audiences know what they need to know. Press releases, statements, briefings are part of the process.
So is attention to communications in order to strengthen a company’s credibility with employees, customers and any other audiences important to the business.
In summary, a communications crisis team faces a formidable task and a company may need to turn to a consultant for outside help. To start with, its public relations department can be first-rate and still lack crisis communications experience or I/S knowledge.
A communications consultant should supplement the expertise of your PR department with crisis communications experience, the ability to translate technical information for non-technical audiences and knowledge of the I/S media.
The consultant also can provide media training for spokespersons and work with you to create and test an effective crisis communications preparedness plan.
During a crisis, a consultant should provide an objective view of the communications task and keep the response focussed on pressure points and key audiences. Typically, an outside expert is best suited to balance differing points of view, besides coming armed with knowledge and experience in such situations. This is particularly the case where I/S disasters are concerned.
In action, a communications response to a crisis succeeds when a sound plan is effectively implemented.
The communications team works in terms of its objectives. It manages the issues by sticking to clearly defined themes. Sights are set on crucial audiences.
What must come across is the overriding message: We have met the crisis, are dealing with it and normalizing operations.
In fact, something happens to the media and analysts during a disaster. Not only do they rush to print the “bad news”, they also look for “good news” on how everyone, including your company, is responding to the crisis.
They’re ready to hand you the microphone so you can tell your story — if you’re prepared and ready to do so.
Carol A. Keslar is marketing media advisor, IBM Communications Services.
This article adapted from Vol. 6 #2.