Has your company ever been at the center of a crisis, where people and resources were quickly mobilized to respond to the disaster...only to be skewed by the local media and surrounding community for your efforts? When your organization does respond to a disaster, where is communications ranked in the response effort? How significant is communication in your crisis plans? Does it even exist? While it is often one of the most overlooked components of the disaster recovery equation, communications to both internal and external audiences, and particularly the media, is crucial.
Often among operational and technical personnel, communications is considered “softer, more esoteric”. To them, it can be a case of “don’t bother me with communicating , I’ve got a disaster on my hand.” In fact, the most effective disaster recovery takes place when operations and communications work in tandem, almost a checks and balances systems.
Equally important is for both disciplines to understand the respective challenges each faces in a crisis. If your communications efforts are not backed up by operational actions, communications quickly become hollow. Conversely, if outstanding operational decisions are made to respond to the disaster, but are not communicated, the company can be perceived as inept and insensitive.
For many companies, honest and open communications with the media are inherently part of the corporate culture. For others, the failure to communicate may stem from fear of lack of control of the final product, skepticism about the outcome of the message. Pat Peeples, managing director of corporate communications for Vail Mountain, Colorado (the largest ski resort in North America) offers some real world perspective: “not all press that comes out of an unfortunate incident is going to read like brochure copy”.
An unwillingness to aggressively communicate in the face of a catastrophe can have disastrous consequences. The result is speculation, innuendo and rumor. Ned Walker, vice president of corporate communications for Continental Airlines, the nation’s fifth largest carrier perceives it this way, “it takes ten times as much effort to correct misinformation as it does to state the facts up front.” Walker adds that once inaccurate information arrives in a newsroom database, it can be very difficult and often take months and years to get corrected.
At the very outset of a crisis, establish your company as THE source for information. It’s your disaster isn’t it? Would you rather have some outsider speaking for your company? The media does not expect that you will know the cause of or the solution to the disaster immediately, but because they are reporters, they will ask questions.
Their questions will generally center around the who, where, when, why and how early on in the crisis. Should you choose not to communicate early and often, someone else will, and stories will be aired and printed regardless.
During the week between Christmas and New Years of 1994, one of the busiest of the ski season, a series of skier deaths occurred at Vail, all tragic, yet all unrelated. Still, the fatalities raised concerns for skier safety. Peeples advice, “If there’s a problem, be forthright and forthcoming, address it head on.” Internally, the mountain manager and risk managers reviewed all circumstances of the deaths, and communicated their findings to front line employees as well.
At the same time, news releases were issued and resort representatives made available for media interview to speak to the unfortunate situation. “The more knowledge provided from senior management to front line employees, the more correct information gets out, as opposed to speculation,” says Peeples. “You would rather have the truth and follow up be known, than to speculate. Deep down, people want to know what’s going on. Alleviate people’s fears and concerns,” she adds.
It’s only through preparation, practice and surviving an actual crisis that a company and its personnel understand the importance of an open communications policy.
And it is only under the emotional and physical strain of a disaster that the strength of the policy is truly tested. However, there are a few basic rules of thumb when it comes to crisis communications:
- Window of Opportunity: Respond to the media within two-four hours of the disaster. When we say four hours, that’s really pushing the outside of the envelope. In the first couple hours of a crisis, you are not expected to have a lot of answers, but that should never stop you from communicating with employees, the surrounding community and the media. “I don’t know the answer at this time, however we will try to find out” is an acceptable answer.
- Make the media an ally, not an adversary. If the crisis demands evacuations or giving directions to external audiences, YOU NEED the media to disseminate information. Tell them plainly what you need. “We are asking for your help in letting residents surrounding the plant know...” Look at the media as a vehicle for getting your message out.
- Lead with you humanity. The simplest words are the most powerful. There is no shame in saying, “We’re sorry for those that were injured.” Expressing empathy does not equate with liability, and far too often, this fear is liability prevents spokeseople from expressing care and concern in their messages. Remember, it’s a disaster because the event has been monumental enough to cause great physical, emotional, psychological or even financial trauma. Be sensitized to that.
- Build equity in the bank. Don’t wait until the disaster to build good will with the local media. Invite reporters for tours of your facility and offer story suggestions. Be available for interviews. When the disaster does occur, and invariably it will, the media will be at your doorstep. However, you will have what’s called “equity in the bank”, if you’ve established a rapport. The reporter you know personally, will tend to give you and your organization a fairer shake in their coverage.
- Hire communications professionals, then trust them. Seasoned communicators understand the “heat of a crisis” either because they have been through one, or because very often the come from the ranks of journalism. While their advice might not always be pleasant, they generally know what they are talking about, so believe in their counsel.
Pat Peeples sums up communicating under fire this way. “Don’t deviate from an open, honest and forthright stance, persevere. You have got to realize that however disastrous or internally upsetting a situation, that from the media’s perspective, tomorrow is another day.”
Stephanie Nora is a partner in the firm of Wixted-Pope-Nora & Associates, a strategic communications and media training firm based in Chicago and Des Moines.