“Do you have a crisis communications plan for your company?” That’s a question we ask company officials – with greater frequency of late.
We’ve heard most of the standard answers: “Our products are safe, besides our job is marketing.” …“Why think about the negative?”…“The press doesn’t even know where we are nor what we do.”…“Let’s not create suspicion among our employees that something could go wrong.”…“We have enough problems with labor as it is.”…“It’s best to not say anything – the press will misquote us anyway.”…“You’re just trying to get more fees out of us for something that’s unnecessary” (sometimes this one is silent but said nevertheless)…“It’s not in our budget.”…“Yes, we should have one,…but , our president would not approve that kind of effort…but, we’re just too busy contending with other pressures…but, the odds are against a crisis…but, we’re really too small for a takeover…but, how can we plan when we don’t know what the crisis will be?”
The one we like best is, “we’ll call you if our company has a crisis.”
The fact is that a communications plan consists of a simple set of principles and guidelines to be activated at the moment a crisis may appear likely. But then, it goes beyond a folder containing pages filled with such contingency information as who will be the spokesperson or under what circumstances, if any, do we allow reporters on our premises. How you carry out your company’s operations – your accepted attitude among reporters, community leaders, employees – and in what style you have established your communications practices before a crisis materializes will help determine its outcome. In other words, your company’s reputation, initially, will become a key factor to survival.
Part of a plan, therefore, includes a daily sensitivity to maintaining a positive reputation (the word “reputation” rather than “image” best connotes a perception of truth) with the publics whose influence affect the future of your organization because this is a key basis for determining your ability to recover.
An equally important part of a “crisis plan” is the active preparation and training of key people – especially the top officer – who will be called upon for immediate and critical responsibilities. That may include “media training” – role-playing in the art of fielding reporters’ questions, understanding the job of the press – and clearly assessing or correcting, if possible, the operating elements in your company that may have led to a crisis.
The reaction time in a developing crisis is usually minimal and the demand for communications is normally immediate. According to post-analysis reports by published experts, the handling of the “Three Mile Island” crisis within the first 24 hours following discovery of the leak, surpressed the start of new nuclear power plants in the United States. Conversely, Johnson and Johnson’s established reputation – and its immediate and open acknowledgement of a problem – contributed to the eventual return of Tylenol as a marketable product and the survival of Johnson and Johnson as a viable and responsible corporation.
More recently, the Wall Street Journal published an account of the Texaco-Pennzoil takeover battle for Getty Oil. Its report attributed the content of a routine press release as a key factor in the jury’s $10 billion judgement against Texaco. Perhaps in Texaco’s case, a crisis plan would not have altered the judgement of the court, but whether a greater sensitivity to the public’s acceptance of its actions – and the responsibility with which those actions were communicated – could have made a difference remains unanswered
There’s a common thread connection these three examples: How the public interprets an organization’s ability to handle the scrutiny of a crisis will help determine its future. Publicly-sensitive actions tied to responsible and timely communications will not always avoid a crisis, but at PON Public Relations, we are convinced that lasting damage can be prevented.