We all understand the importance of perception. The line between perception and reality is often quite thin. Actions taken by a communicator during the first moments of a crisis can affect perceptions of an individual or company well after the crisis is resolved.

All your marketing achievements — all the effort, the financial expenditure, and the energy spent in cultivating a high profile — can be dashed by one ill-handed communications disaster.

Enlightened companies, from neighborhood restaurants and retailers to multinational merchants and manufacturers, have a risk management plan for dealing with a disaster. They buy insurance in event of fire, make contingency plans for failed equipment, train management personnel to carry on during labor strikes, code products to track sales, and
expedite a recall if necessary.

But as much thought as they’ve given to overcoming operations disasters, many of those companies have given little thought to how to communicate during the emergency; how to let their consumers know “the food you ate here last night was not tainted,” assure their employees that “everything’s under control at the XYZ plant,”, tell their neighbors that “secure safety measures are in place,” Simple, clear-headed, advance preparation of a crisis communications plan is required in today’s disaster prone business climate.

Although the specifics of each crisis communications plan depend on many factors (the size of the company, its distinct corporate culture, the product or service it delivers), there are some essential rules that all contain.

The following seven steps, adapted from Joan McGrath and Myrna Pedersen, principals of Pedersen/McGrath Associates, Ltd., Chicago, should guide you in preparing a basic plan so that you can communicate efficiently, effectively, and forthrightly at the moment an emergency hits your organization. You’ll get your company through the incident with its image intact or even enhanced.

  1. Identify all the disasters that conceivably could confront your company. Include the routine crises your particular business might face (eg. a bus company might anticipate a highway accident) and the unexpected (eg. untimely death of company president). Practice formulating responses to these potential crises.
  2. Identify the person who should be your company’s spokesperson. This should be someone high enough in the corporate structure to be believable, and comfortable in a public role. Be prepared to relieve this individual of all other duties for the duration of a major crisis in order to concentrate on communicating accurately and sincerely. Only one person should have the role of spokesperson but one of two alternates should be identified if the principal spokesperson is ill, on vacation or unavailable for some
    other reason.
  3. In highly public crises, the media would appear to be the most important audience. But it is necessary to calculate all the different “real” audiences you might need to reach and to figure out, in advance, how you would reach them. A key component of your crisis plan is to analyze each relevant constituency you serve and to organize in advance efficient vehicles to reach these audiences.
  4. Develop your crisis communications plan with clear, easy to access instructions.
  5. Assemble material you may find to be relevant in a crisis, either as background for reporters or as quick reference for your spokesperson.
  6. Make duplicates of everything and store them in a safe, off-site place.
  7. No matter how comprehensive, a crisis communications plan is a living document and needs to be revisited regularly.

Finally, on an on-going basis, cultivate relationships that willaid you in a crisis. Get to know members of the media one-on-one. Meet in person or by phone with key community officials, vendors, and customers to develop a rapport and let them know yours in a caring company. This personal interaction can buy you a lot of support in the eye of the
storm.

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