Most companies, even though they have a comprehensive crisis preparedness plan, do not take a proactive stance. As a result, the first time they implement any part of their plan is during a disaster. But a good crisis communications plan is not a “sit-on-the-shelf” policy, used only under emergency conditions or dusted off for periodic review. Instead, it is an ongoing methodical process that is put into action long before it becomes necessary.
Communicating with the media is a critical component of any crisis plan. And being proactive is essential. After all, the media play a dominant role in how the public perceives your company. In a very real sense the media can destroy or rejuvenate you.
To be truly proactive, the time to begin working with the media is when things are running normally. Proactive crisis communications is more than being prepared “when” disaster strikes. It involves taking action NOW, “before” disaster strikes.
What you need more than anything, going into a crisis situation, are (1) high credibility, (2) a good reputation, and (3) an abundance of good will. None of these qualities can be generated during a crisis. They need to exist in advance.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
During times of calm, you should assemble and distribute PR kits to the media as a normal course of business. Let the media know who you are and the positive effect you have on the community. The kits should contain a general overview of your company, its business, its civic contributions, etc. Enclose a copy of your annual report and always include the name of your company’s media contact.
A PR kit will put your company’s “best foot forward.” It will also enable you to control the information the media has for background and research data. Reporters will appreciate having your kit on file, especially when they are up against tight deadlines.
In addition to written communications, it’s important to form a face-to-face relationship with local media representatives. Invite members of the media to informal meetings or corporate social functions. Let them meet your company’s spokesperson and key executives so that rapport is established. Make your company and spokesperson known personalities in the community.
The public and media must be continually kept up-to-date and educated about your company prior to a crisis. You can accomplish this by conducting plant tours, media briefings, short courses, and interviews. You should also provide a regular flow of feature articles and press releases.
When you periodically test your disaster recovery plans, invite local emergency response teams and the media. Review your plans with the media, emphasizing your professionalism and ability to continue doing business by being prepared to deal with any contingency. A good and open relationship with the local media is wise and beneficial under any circumstances.
Besides your spokesperson and other in-house contacts, it’s important to have third-party support of your company’s position. Such support is essential in dealing with the media. Therefore, continually develop and update a list of people to whom the media can refer for detailed, analytical information during a crisis. These individuals can include independent physicians, industry experts, chemists, financial analysts, and scientists. They should be credible, reliable, trusted sources who are often quoted in the press.
Maintain contact with these experts during non-crisis times in order to establish mutually trusting relationships. Doing so increases the chances that they will be balanced in their statements about your company during crisis situations.
Proactive Background Materials
Prior to a disaster, anticipate the kinds of questions that reporters would ask and prepare background materials that you can provide early in the crisis.
Anticipate reporters’ questions by anticipating the types of crises you may encounter. Think the way reporters think. They love bad news. (I know, because I was an investigative reporter before entering the field of crisis communications.) What you are trying to achieve is a comfort level for yourself as the situation develops.
Along with other background materials, you should prepare fill-in-the-blank news releases for the media, the public, your employees, and other stakeholders.
Preparing news releases ahead of time allows you to draft well thought-out statements that can be issued to the media with only slight modifications. These statements must reflect your corporate communications policy. Be sure they are reviewed and approved by executive management and legal counsel. You must draft statements that are concise and clear, as well as legally acceptable.
Proactive Crisis Communications
By preparing your rough drafts ahead of time, you won’t have to scramble and haphazardly write news releases from scratch while under the stress of a disaster.
Trying to prepare releases during an emergency situation can result in statements that are careless and full of errors.
Or, the information is never released because you and your legal counsel can’t agree on the contents of the news releases.
Lawyers usually prefer that your response to a disaster be “no comment,” and that you allow them to issue the necessary information to the press. However, be careful of statements that are purely legal communiques, because they can turn the media and public opinion against you.
Being Proactive “During” A Disaster
Quite often, a company will not put forth any effort to establish a positive relationship with the news media. They provide no access, suggest no interviews, and never grant any interviews. Then when a crisis occurs, the relationship between such a company and the media is adversarial. And why shouldn’t it be? There is nothing to build on and no good will to draw on. What exists is a company with “bad news” and a news media ready to exploit it.
To mitigate adversaries, every crisis plan should include an evaluation of media relationships. If these relationships are not sound, steps should be taken immediately to establish them. You should also evaluate your preparedness (background materials, Proactive Crisis Communications etc.). For each potential crisis category listed in your plan, you should ask yourself two questions:
(1)“What must we be prepared to say?”
(2)ProactiveCrisis Communication “What information should we begin accumulating now so that we are prepared and up-to-date when disaster strikes?”
For example, if a potential crisis is a chemical spill you should be prepared to talk about safety within your company and industry. You, therefore, need to have data available that cites your organization’s safety record, the safety procedures and precautions you follow, the success of your inspections by the various agencies, and so on.
This information should be updated every few months, and it should be immediately available in the event of a disaster.
Another incident that may cause a crisis is the death of a key executive. Whether this person dies a natural death or as a result of the crisis, you should be prepared to immediately issue an up-to-date biography. Official biographies of all key executives in your company should be on file in your communications department.
These biographies, along with photographs and slides, should be prepared as a matter of routine and not “in the event of death.”
These types of information (which are just the tip of the iceberg) should be readily available in case of a disaster. Most ideally, the information should be assembled in the form of a crisis background kit that can be distributed to the media at a moment’s notice. All information in the kit must be regularly reviewed and kept up-to-date.
When disaster strikes, it is important to get your information out early. This enables you to present the facts in a controlled, proactive package.
If you don’t keep an up-to-date crisis background kit available, how long would it take you to gather this information and be prepared to issue accurate statements? By not having to waste precious time in tracking down the necessary facts, you’re able to devote more time to managing the actual day-to-day, minute-to-minute aspects of crisis communications during the disaster.
Tell “Your” Side
You want to tell “your” side of the story as soon as possible after the incident, in the way that will tell the truth and make your company look best. You want to issue the most positive statements you can in a proactive way, rather than allowing yourself to be placed in a position to defend against negative, reactive questions from reporters.
One of your first steps immediately after a tragedy occurs should be to release a statement about the incident. (A basic outline of this statement should have been prepared prior to the crisis so that you only have to fill in the details.)
Your initial statement should tell the facts about the crisis: the type of crisis, location of crisis, location and phone number of your company’s crisis information center, status of the situation, name of your spokesperson, when your spokesperson will be available for questions, etc.
Depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the crisis, your initial news release could be immediately followed by another statement (and, if appropriate, even an ad) that expresses condolences to families of those killed, injured or displaced; it could thank the fire department, police personnel, Red Cross, and anyone else who helped in the crisis; it could note your company’s history of safety and recent inspections; it could acknowledge acts of heroism by employees or rescuers; and it could promise a thorough investigation to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.
Relationships need to be established quickly with the key media covering your crisis and its aftermath. (For the most part, these relationships should have been cultivated “before” the crisis.)
All reporters should receive prompt responses and frequent update calls. Your spokesperson should respond to press inquiries daily and be available for television and radio interviews to answer questions and express your company’s position.
Keep in mind that you must not overlook the fact that if you do not provide information to the media — especially during the critical first few minutes and hours of the crisis — someone else will...and that’s not in your best interest.
If “you” are providing the information, your odds are much greater that the story will be balanced.
By actively and quickly providing information to the media you dramatically improve your chances of correcting false statements as well as getting your side of the story told in the news.
Take A Proactive Stance Today!
Proactive crisis communications is a simple procedure, but one that is often ignored by companies with disaster recovery plans.
Don’t assume that your plan can only be set in motion concurrently with a disaster. The time to begin implementing your crisis communications is when there is no crisis and it is possible to create a reservoir of good will.
To have a successful proactive program, you must maintain good relations with the media and public. Your company’s credibility should be high. You must earn a reputation for being responsive to reporters and for meeting their deadlines.
Develop formal crisis communications plans so that you can effectively reach all key audiences (especially your local news bureaus) in the event of a disaster.
If you fail to be both responsive and accessible during a crisis, you will have a much more difficult time recovering — not only financially, but also in regaining the confidence of your employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, and the communities in which you operate.
You have a duty to these audiences to be prepared to communicate effectively when the unexpected happens. And you can, Proactive Crisis Communications only fulfill this obligation by being proactive before and during your crisis.
Michael E. Trunko is a principle for Trunko Communications.