Crisis communications plans are critical for businesses

    The questions are frightening. How would you respond to the media if an accident at your company resulted in serious injuries or death? Or if someone tampered with your product, requiring a recall of millions of dollars of inventory? Or if an official at your company was charged with financial wrong-doing?

    What would be your response to these or other crises? How would you handle the gaggle of reporters camping in your parking lot – or worse yet, the front lawn of your home – waiting for you to explain a business disaster of any kind?

    A recent survey indicates that an alarming number of companies simply don’t know how they would respond. They are without a crisis communications plan and may not have the foggiest idea of what to do when a crisis strikes. Yet any of these scenarios, plus some you might never dream of, could happen at any time.

    The survey by BtoB Magazine showed 57 percent of companies have little or no idea how to handle a crisis, meaning nearly six in 10 companies would not be ready to respond to disasters with a crisis communications response plan in place. Of the 43 percent of companies that do have a crisis communications plan in place, 10 percent of those surveyed worried that their plans couldn’t be implemented. And only half had trained spokespersons on their staff.

    Yet your response to a crisis can have a direct effect on the health and well-being of your company and your brand. As with everything, there are right ways and wrong ways of handling a crisis. The key is to act quickly and to make sure your communications are accurate. The old adage, "tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth" certainly applies. But without a crisis plan, how can you make sure that you accomplish those three rules?

    Take one great example of how to handle a crisis: The case of the so-called Tylenol Murders, when someone tampered with Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, resulting in the deaths of seven people. In what is now a textbook case of how to handle a crisis aggressively, the manufacturer Johnson and Johnson immediately recalled all Tylenol Extra Strength capsules from the market and kept the media informed of every step. A quick response from the manufacturer, effective media relations and complete transparency were keys to allowing the product to be back on the market within the year. Johnson and Johnson suffered minimal damage to its long-term reputation as a result.

    Then think of the Sago Mining disaster, where mine officials announced that 12 trapped miners were alive after a mine collapse, only to later have to announce that 12 men were killed. This mishandling of facts not only damaged the company’s credibility, it had a devastating effect on the families of those miners.

    But death and injury are not needed to create a crisis for your company.
    Lawsuits can be particularly nasty, as the charges are often publicized as fact while the company response is often buried in the story. Charges of financial malfeasance can cripple a company’s credibility, especially in the investor community. A fire or natural disaster requires not only external communications, but internal communications so that employees know whether or not to report to work.

    What would you do?

    One way to plan for the unforeseeable is to dream up any conceivable crisis and create a response. Anticipate crisis before it occurs. Trying to perform crisis communications on the fly can only make matters worse as your message gets muddled in the frenzy of media activity. Making matters worse, decisions may be made hastily and without necessary information.

    It’s important to remember that the Internet allows all information – including misinformation – to travel quickly. The needs of radio, television and print media need to be served, but awareness of the blogging community and other non-traditional media also needs to be taken into consideration.

    A few general rules are helpful, but are by no means a substitute for a comprehensive crisis communications plan.

    • First, create a crisis response team. Make sure all key players, from the CEO, the communications department, the legal department and any of those involved with the technical aspects of a crisis scenario are involved. Make sure you have all contact information – home phone, cell phone, direct office lines – for all key personnel. Remember, in an era of Blackberrys and Treos, no one should ever be out of communication. Even instant messaging can be helpful in getting word to the key players in any crisis.
    • Next, provide media training to anyone who may become involved with the crisis publicly. This means everyone from the CEO to the technical staff needs to be aware that what they say will directly affect your company’s credibility in a crisis.
    • Name a spokesperson. It’s important to have message consistency in a crisis, and having one person in charge of speaking publicly diminishes chances of conflicting messages.
    • Know your audience. Who are you trying to reach? Stockholders? Employees? Consumers? Remember, your first audience is the media, but it is through them that you will often be communicating with your key stakeholders.

    It’s crucial that a crisis communications plan be created for your business before crisis strikes. The stakes are too high to ignore crisis communications. Your company’s reputation and even your bottom line are at risk without proper planning.

    Bill Zaferos is the public relations director for Nelson Schmidt in Milwaukee.

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