Crisis communications plans can save companies

    A recent tragedy at Atlantis Plastics in Henderson, Ky., serves as an unfortunate reminder that a disaster or crisis situation can strike at any time and without any warning. Sadly, the crisis in Kentucky involved the most unfortunate scenario, the loss of life.

    But the reality is there are literally dozens of situations or events that can trigger a crisis situation – fires, explosions, strikes, natural disasters, chemical spills, manufacturing accidents – all represent potential crisis situations that can threaten a company’s stability and, in the worst case, its survivability.

    Your ability to react and respond to a crisis situation quickly and effectively can have an immense impact on the future course of your company, as well as the perception of internal and external stakeholders, customers, suppliers, media and the community at large.

    A sound crisis communications plan prepares you to deal with potential disasters. It provides a strategic roadmap that enables you to get through a situation, while minimizing potential damage. Unfortunately, few companies either acknowledge their risk of a crisis or invest the time and resources necessary to develop a crisis communications plan.

    Getting started 
    Work with your internal or external communications team to outline a protocol for responding to a crisis. Get the necessary resources aligned. Work through the possible contingencies and conduct a crisis audit.
    Develop a crisis management team that includes the CEO, department managers, public relations team members, legal representatives, security and human resources personnel. 
    Identify the audiences you will need to communicate with and outline how you communicate with them – face-to-face, telephone, electronic communications, etc.
    Establish timeframes for communicating with your stakeholders and audiences. Quick and proactive communication is absolutely essential in a crisis situation.
    Anticipate the most common questions surrounding a crisis situation and prepare responses in advance. Those responses can then be modified based on the nature of the crisis or situation.

    Work with the media, not against them
    When dealing with a crisis situation, always address the media in a proactive manner. Never provide a "no comment" response. That will be interpreted as though you have something to hide or are not in control of the situation.
    If you’re still in the information gathering stage, that’s OK. Share what you know with media and let them know you’ll provide additional information as soon as it becomes available. This provides assurance that you’re actively working to remedy things.
    Always be completely truthful with the press. Never lie. And in crisis situations, don’t speculate. Stick to the facts that you can speak to with certainty.
    Project a calm and in-control image to media. Your demeanor can directly affect public perception of the situation and your company overall.

    Be prepared
    The best crisis communications plan is the one you never have to execute. But being well-prepared for a crisis situation can reduce the negative effects exponentially. Consider forming a crisis management planning team now. Don’t wait for that unexpected disaster.

    Mary Scheibel is a principal at Scheibel Halaska Inc. in Milwaukee.

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