The crisis you never expected suddenly strikes. Five hungry reporters are outside your door, demanding answers. Another dozen have phoned in the past 15 minutes wanting to know what happened and why? How will your organization react, and who will do what?
That, in a nutshell, is the problem facing many companies and organizations every day. You need only scan daily news reports to realize that your crisis could be just around the corner.
In my 10 years in reputation management counseling, and during 22 years as a journalist, I discovered that few organizations have a formal crisis communications plan. That can be very dangerous.
In most cases, the perception of your company or organization is established in the first few hours after a crisis. Usually the news media are the ones who set that perception. Do you know exactly how your organization and its executives will react once a crisis occurs?
Here is what I have discovered in working with management teams that have just experienced an unforeseen crisis or who know a crisis is about to occur:
- Top management invariably say it is the public relations persons' problem.
- Worse yet, the organization may have no P.R. person on staff to rely on or blame.
- The company may have a 'Crisis Plan' but it turns out to be two pages with phone numbers of people to be notified.
- Management decides that it is 'an internal problem' and endorses the stonewalling philosophy.
- The official policy is 'no comment.'
All of these positions are weak and will leave you vulnerable. Every company or organization should have a detailed crisis communications plan that will explain in orderly fashion just what is expected of the executive staff.
This plan gives exact detail on what each management person is to do in the first hour, the first day, the first week following the crisis situation, and finally, what the follow-up will be. Because it is a step-by-step process, a good crisis communications plan is normally about an inch thick and will delve into what may seem like the most trivial of details.
There is no question that the greatest weakness in crisis management planning is the failure to decide beforehand what you will do and who will do it once the crisis occurs.
My crisis communications plans concentrate on the news media because I believe in a very simple philosophy: Perception is truth and the media creates the perception following a crisis.
For those who would even think of implementing a 'no comment' philosophy with the media, I offer this fact: The trade journal, P.R. News, cites a survey that says 65% of the public takes 'no comment' as an admission of guilt.
The most important communications strategy in a crisis, particularly in the first few hours, is to be open with the public by being available to the news media.
Here are the 10 most important rules of crisis communications:
1. Have an in-depth crisis communications plan that includes dealing with the media, the community and your employees.
2. Make sure the crisis team has been professionally trained in doing hard news interviews.
3. Name a spokesman and two backups today. Don't wait for the crisis to occur.
4. Deal with the crisis head-on. Don't hide out.
5. Respond to reporters' questions immediately. They expect a return call or an onsite interview within ten minutes of the request.
6. Never lie. The big lie would be stupid, but many executives tend to tell the little white lie. When you even think of telling a lie in a crisis situation, say the name: 'Richard Nixon.'
7. Never go off the record. In a crisis there is already much confusion. Don't add to it. Tell a reporter only what you want to see on the front page of the local paper.
8. Have media kits already prepared and in the crisis room ready for distribution.
9. Practice implementing your crisis plan by going through a mock crisis once a year. Don't forget the news media element during the practice.
10. Have the Boy Scout motto nicely printed and place it on your office wall where you must look at it every day: 'Be Prepared.'
The need for every company or organizations to have a thorough crisis communications plan is summed up nicely in my favorite saying from an unknown source: 'By the time you hear the thunder, it's too late to build the ark!'
Bill Patterson is vice president, reputation management, for Hameroff/Milenthal/Spence, a communications agency.
This article adapted from Vol. 9#2.