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Spring Journal

Volume 32, Issue 1

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I received the assignment the second I entered the chief photographer’s office at the Savannah Morning News and Daily Press. There was a fuel spill at a local industrial site. I was assigned to get the photos. I was to go with the reporter, and have the shots processed by deadline for the afternoon edition, two hours away.

It took about 20 minutes to get to the industrial site. With ten minutes spent picking up the reporter and getting to the car, about a half-hour of my two hours was gone. I needed 30 minutes to process and print the film. If I assumed it would take me about a half-hour to get back to the office, that left me around a half-hour to get the shots, and for the reporter to get his facts. About normal.

When we arrived at the scene, a company official refused to let us enter the premises. The reason, she explained, was that the electrical equipment in my camera could spark and cause an explosion. Beyond the gate where we were standing we saw people in fire-proof suits running around chaotically.

I held up my camera and said it was a Leica. A Leica, I explained, had no batteries. It was a completely manual camera. The light meter on top worked by photoelectric cell, and I could take that off, if that were a concern.
The official was not moved. The friction of the camera mechanism could cause a spark, which could cause an explosion, she said.

That was clearly an impossibility. But the press does not have any absolute right to access to a disaster. Traditionally, members of the press have been given access on the grounds that the public has a right to know about newsworthy events. Plus, police, fire and emergency agencies love good press.

But this company official was well within her rights to bar us from the private property of her company. She gave the reporter only the sketchiest of details. The bitter cold Savannah suffered the night before had caused a pipe to burst in a fuel storage tank. An undetermined amount of fuel had spilled. Crews were trying to stop the leak and clean up the fuel. All media were banned to avoid the possibility of fire and explosion.

The exchange had taken ten of our allotted thirty minutes. Since the official would not grant us access, we returned to the right-of-way along the highway. There we could stand, observe and photograph without intrusion.
The sight was grim. We could hear muffled orders being shouted, the occasional obscenity as something apparently didn’t go right, people scurrying frantically in fire-proof suits. The official indicated the place could blow at anytime, and I was prone to believe her.

We checked with the police, fire and paramedic crews. They had no more information than we had. They had not been asked to help in the cleanup, and they responded to the call as a precaution.

I took what photos I could, using my longest lens, shooting through the chain-link fence. I photographed the frantic scene of leaking fuel and frantic movement by people in their fire-proof suits. Time was up, we had to leave.
The reporter had just enough information to write a long cutline for the photo of the disaster. The cutline explained that a burst pipe had caused volatile fuel to leak, and emergency crews responded in the event of fire or explosion. This photo and cutline ran on page 1 of the afternoon paper.

The impression left was that the town of Savannah, or a goodly portion thereof, was about to be immolated.
As the day wore on, the emergency crews were called back to their stations. It became apparent the fuel spill was under control. By late in the afternoon, company officials were more cooperative, possibly because they saw the holocaust afternoon edition.

Yes, company representatives said, there had been a fuel spill. Yes, there had been a danger of fire, but the cold weather kept volatility to a minimum. A dike surrounding the fuel storage tank captured all the spilled fuel. Regular disaster drills had kept the company’s crews proficient in handling this kind of emergency. While the situation was serious, there was no extreme danger to the plant or the town.

The original response by a company official, however, made it appear as though things were much worse. The press was forced to rely on its own observations. It was these observations, not facts supplied by the company, which were printed.

As I work with clients, I relate this story as a way of illustrating the importance of including media relations as part of the disaster recovery plan.

All too often, this suggestion is rejected.

I didn’t know then why that company official in Savannah responded the way she did. However, since working with other companies’ disaster recovery plans, some generalities have been formed.

This is MY Disaster — Keep Out!

A company recovering from a disaster views it as a personal loss. It is no one’s business how it chooses to act to recover from the damage. Depending on the severity of the disaster, local officials may be notified — police, fire, emergency squads, and the like. But the notion that others might be affected doesn’t seem to enter the corporate consciousness.

A business is not an island. Any business affects the lives of its suppliers, customers, employees and stock holders. The economy of an entire area can rise and fall with the fortunes of one company. A disaster affects far more than the people and equipment who are a direct part of the firm. A corporate disaster is a shared disaster.

The Media Always Look for the Worst

There can develop within companies the idea that any encounters with the media are to be avoided, since the reporters are always out to perform a hatchet job. Since the opportunity to hatchet a company is particularly easy during a disaster, a time of crisis is one time the press should especially be avoided.

While there are certainly cases of unbalanced, biased reporting, it is not correct to think all reporters are simply pushing their own agendas. When information is available, reporters will usually do a good job of presenting a news story in an objective manner. If one side of a story seems to have more play than another, it is usually because there was simply more information readily available from one source than another.

In a Crisis, There is No Time for the Press

In the midst of chaos, the last thing anyone wants is someone hanging around asking “what happened and what are you doing about it now?” Yet a disaster recovery manager will be answering just these questions when asked by his superiors and fellow workers. It is easy to anticipate the questions which will be asked not only by the press, but by other company officials. Since a summary of the disaster response will have to be provided to company officials anyway, it takes a small effort to produce another copy for the press.

We Have a Public Relations Department To Do This

Handling the press during a crisis seems like the task of the public relations department. It is for handling the media that they are paid. But public relations department expertise is seldom where the disaster occurs. Disasters are first local concerns. The local press won’t contact a PR office hundreds or thousands of miles away. The press will come to the scene of the disaster. That means they will come to you.

Anything I Say Will Be Used Against Me

In a litigious society, it is the fear of any company official that words meant to clarify, inform and comfort will come back to haunt her or him in a court of law. Therefore, the best policy, it would seem, would be to say nothing.

Yet the press can be given meaningful information with little risk of causing legal problems later. The best approach is to disclose the facts truthfully. In the case of the fuel spill in Savannah discussed earlier, the official who barred the press would have helped her company by saying something like the following (note: this is an example only):

“At 7:58 this morning, a pipe on a diesel storage tank ruptured. Approximately 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel flowed out before the leak was stopped. To our knowledge, all of the leaked fuel was captured and retained by a dike around the fuel tank, which was built just for that purpose. The diesel fuel is kept on the premises to run auxiliary generators. There has been no injuries to any plant personnel, and no damage to the environment. All other tanks have been inspected and are not damaged or leaking. We have not yet determined what caused the leak. To our knowledge, no fuel has leaked into the Savannah River. Crews trained in handling this type of disaster are responding to the spill. It is expected the fuel will be completely recovered by noon today.”

Such a statement details the facts of the situation and admits no liability, yet it does a lot to promote the idea that the company is concerned about the situation and is doing its best to promptly respond to the disaster. More importantly, the press does not have to speculate about what is happening.

How a company appears to respond to a disaster can be as important as the response itself. If the response is shrouded in secrecy, the press will assume there is some reason for secrecy — a reason that should be disclosed to the public.

If a company openly deals with a disaster and takes a little of its valuable time in explaining to the press what happened and what the response is, the dividends can be enormous.

Donald Wallbaum is a partner in MillerUpton Wallbaum, a technical documentation and communications consultation firm in Logan, Ohio. He has worked as a photographer, photo editor, reporter and publisher for a variety of newspapers during his eight-year journalism career.

With what seems to be an ever increasing number of tragic events taking place each and every day, it is no longer a question of “What if a disaster strikes?,” but rather one of “When?” And it is through the common occurrence of such emergencies as bombings, fires, and natural disasters that we are steadily forced to reevaluate our position on emergency notification and disaster response. With earlier notification methods such as manual “call trees,” voice messaging, pager alerts, power dialers, sirens, and offsite service bureaus experiencing major shortcomings and often times breakdown, emergency planners have turned to automation as the means by which to efficiently manage their call out procedures. The introduction of today’s new interactive voice processing technology, coupled with state-of-the-art automated notification systems, has enabled us to revolutionize both the speed and accuracy by which we perform our emergency notification/disaster response procedures. In situations where seconds count, immediate and precise notification can truly make all the difference -- can ultimately determine our success or failure.

Responsive to the comprehensive notification plans of today’s corporate, industrial, and government environments, today’s automated notification systems perform critical emergency call outs to “key” employees, EOC staff personnel, and disaster response teams quickly and effectively. Activated remotely from any touch-tone telephone or directly from the keyboard, today’s state-of-the-art emergency call out systems allow one telephone call to initiate hundreds of calls instantaneously. And with some systems now being able to dynamically allocate telephone lines, emergency operations centers are capable of placing multiple outbound and receive multiple inbound calls simultaneously -- dramatically reducing overall notification/response time from hours to only minutes.

With certain critical situations occurring at some point within every organization, today’s automated emergency notification systems provide utmost efficiency through the use of predefined call out schemes known as scenarios. Scenarios may include the names and/or positions of the personnel or residents to be notified, the sequence by which the call out is to be performed, and the message or instructions to be delivered. The number and design of these scenarios may be included in the system’s architecture or may be custom-tailored to meet the specific needs and requirements of the end user -- providing optimum flexibility.

Many of today’s automated notification systems also offer an interactive staffing feature that intelligently determines the availability of your personnel. Using high-quality digitized speech recordings of the human voice, emergency call out systems may prompt call recipients to enter Yes/No responses to such qualifying questions as “fit-for-duty” status, estimated time of arrival, etc. Providing immediate verification by logging these individual responses, this information may be monitored in a real-time mode, printed to disk, or stored in the form of a system status report for an accurate, comprehensive audit trail. Furthermore, some emergency call out systems now efficiently search and find required staff members based on priority level, time of day, shift, or specific calendar rotations -- maximizing overall call activity and productivity.

Also available with today’s innovative, new automated emergency call out systems is the ability to activate digital, alpha, and voice pagers, the ability to transmit FAX forms as required by various management and regulatory agencies, and the ability to control sirens and tone alert radio systems from remote locations via DTMF recording.

With the introduction of today’s technologically-advanced automated notification systems, corporate, industry, and government emergency planners may now potentially eliminate the costly adverse side effects associated with disaster response/contingency planning. Providing optimum security through the use of user-defined identification codes, virtually removing the possibility for human error, and greatly reducing the time and effort associated with manual call out procedures, these emergency call out systems offer us a valuable, yet cost-effective solution to the numerous challenges of emergency notification. In essence, it is through the utilization of intelligent, interactive voice processing technology and state-of-the-art automated notification systems that we may put the “action” into our critical decision-making -- that we may ultimately determine our own success or failure.

Linda Young is the marketing director for Dialogic Communications Corporation, Franklin, Tenn.

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.

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.

Murphy was right. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. And at the worst possible time. The real question is, how will your company deal with it?

Crisis control has become a specialty among public relations professionals. In recent years, we've seen many cMases of events that became instant, national news, threatening the loss, not just of income, but reputation. In business, one's reputation is the bottom line!

There was the now classic tampering with Tylenol. The industrial accident in Bhopal, India, where numerous people died. There was the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the "Alar" hoax perpetrated on the apple growers. More recently, an outbreak of E-Coli food contamination occurred at a Jack in the Box restaurant.

In the cases noted, the public relations aspect of the problem was handled either very well or very poorly. You may not be able to name the chemical company affected by the Bhopal incident, but Exxon's reputation has been damaged for years to come. People retained confidence in Tylenol and went back to eating apples.

In each case, everything hinged on how swiftly the company responded publicly to the event and its choice of a spokesperson.

In some cases, the CEO is the obvious choice, but that person must be comfortable dealing with what will inevitably be a hostile press initially. The news media thrive on bad news and instantly look to assign blame. Thus, the choice of the spokesperson is critical. But, someone must come forward swiftly.

Given the existence of a 24-hour Cable News Network and the ability of even local television news to dispatch reporters to the site of an event, there is no escaping the impact of that first response. Concern, sympathy for victims, plans to offer relief for their pain or loss, a decision to recall a product temporarily, must all be elements of the initial statement.

The company's lawyers will advise against virtually all of these actions. They are wrong. The minute a story becomes news, liability has virtually been assigned to the affected business. If the facts later reveal a different story, it can be told, but initially one has to announce that a thorough investigation of the case is already underway.

Ironically, the same media that will spread the bad news is also the company's best way to counter it. A few, well-placed calls to television news directors, newswire and newspaper editors can provide access to electronic and print media eager to exploit all the angles of the story.

Indeed, providing access, i.e. holding press conferences, is an essential element of damage control. Silence is guilt.

Press conferences allow the company the opportunity to express its position in writing, in the form of public statements, background information on how the product is prepared or the service provided.

A crisis of any sort is a test of how calm top management can remain under pressure. In addition to the often unaccustomed and uncontrollable demands of the media, top management must not only select its spokesperson, support that individual by including other management personnel selected to augment his or her statements, but also act swiftly to bring in independent experts to address the issues raised.

All this must be coordinated by either the company's director of communications or put immediately into the hands of a skilled public relations firm or counselor. It is definitely not a job for amateurs. Too much is at stake.

What is frequently forgotten is that news is now. Instant electronic media communications of news requires an on-the-spot response. It cannot be postponed until the following day "when we have reviewed all the facts" because the facts are that something went terribly wrong or that a charge has been leveled of misconduct.

The company's "facts" are fundamental. "We're distressed. We're concerned. We already have a team looking into this and expect to comment at the earliest possible moment as we learn more. For now, we can assure everyone that we'll take every action necessary to insure no further harm will occur."

Where an entirely false charge has been made, a display of anger, combined with a brief presentation of facts to refute the charge, is worth a million dollars of free publicity.

Be prepared, few are.

Few companies, large or small, have a crisis control plan.

Such a plan anticipates who's in charge the minute events demand a response. Delegating authority to a designated spokesperson and giving that individual authority to contact media, issue an initial statement, provide background information, et cetera, is essential to minimize the damage.

Often a company doesn't even have a single sheet of information about itself available for dissemination. News media immediately dip into existing sources of data, often in the form of information accessed from previously published news stories, many of which may be outdated or inaccurate.

Generally speaking, large companies have an adversarial relationship with the business and general press. They seek to control access to top management and to information about the company. This rarely works to a company's advantage in a world of instant communications.

Another common error is to assign a company's public relations function to a corporate attorney as opposed to a communications professional. Some of the nation's largest companies have an astonishingly small communications staff and regard both internal and external communications with suspicion. A crisis of any sort catches such companies totally unprepared.

Alan Caruba, is President of The Caruba Organization, a public relations group in Maplewood, N.J.