Crisis Communications: Be Prepared for Anything

by Linda Pophal

I was a public affairs director and director of corporate communications in the energy and healthcare industries; in both cases we had well-developed crisis response plans and conducted drills regularly. While helpful, the drills were really not sufficient to prepare us 100 percent for the crises that came up. These included major power outages in the energy industry, major medical incidents that brought large numbers of people to the hospital and generated widespread media attention, and employee relations issues. Surprisingly, what turned out to be our most widely covered and most contentious issue while I worked with the healthcare organization was the purchase of new play equipment for a local mall where we sponsored the play area!

The new equipment was larger than the previous equipment, which prompted complaints from parents, and even employees, who claimed that we were hoping children would be injured so we could drive more business to our healthcare facility.

What made the mall incident so major, I think, was that we were not prepared for it. Who would have thought that something so seemingly innocuous could raise such ire? And that’s really the point—just about anything can become a crisis situation, so communicators need to always be prepared.

I think the most important thing that public relations professionals can do is to identify and develop strong relationships with the media that are likely to cover their organization. PR is, after all, a relationship business. Having strong relationships with the media—and building a reputation of trust and honesty—goes a long way in any crisis situation. If you have a reputation, as an individual and as an organization, of being forthright, forthcoming and honest, you’re able to better weather even the most negative situation. If you work well with the media on the “little things,” it can pay off big time when more serious issues emerge.

With the playground issue we took a very low-key approach. While there were some letters to the editor in the local community paper about the issue, we didn’t reply in that forum. This was before social media existed, but looking back I’d say our approach was very similar to conventional wisdom these days about “taking the conversation offline.” We reached out privately to those who expressed concerns and focused much of our proactive communications internally, with employees. We had an intranet at that time with open forums where employees could discuss issues, and this one was definitely discussed. We created key messages that we distributed internally to management staff so they could share a consistent message with any employees who might have concerns, and we shared a position statement internally with employees.

Our messages included four key points:

  • We were highly committed to health and wellness for our patients and the community at large, and did not feel the equipment posed a risk.
  • The playground equipment was commissioned and purchased by the mall and met safety guidelines.
  • The same type of equipment was in place in other cities around the country and had not proven to be a risk.
  • Signs were posted in the play area indicating height/age restrictions for children using the equipment.

Eventually the issue died down. A key lesson learned from this experience was that communicators are generally wise to “speak once and then forever hold their peace.” If it’s necessary to make a response, make a response and then exit the conversation. Continuing to respond to, or debate, an issue in a public forum, as much as we may want to “set the record straight,” often only serves to extend the conversation and keep it in the public eye.

It’s difficult, I know, to refrain from engaging. I also know that communicators are often challenged when senior leaders don’t agree with the approach they recommend. This, again, is where trust and credibility come into play. If you build a reputation as a communication professional who understands business issues and exercises solid judgement, based on the best interests of the organization you serve, your leaders are more likely to heed your advice.

Here are some additional tips that PR people may not think of until they find themselves in the midst of a, sudden and unexpected, crisis situation:

  • Have a calling tree or process in place to quickly alert those who need to be called in when a crisis occurs—crises don’t always occur during regular work hours.
  • Have a plan for relieving staff or working in “shifts”—crises don’t always occur over a short period of time; sometimes they go on for days, and you’ll need to take into account the need for staff to take a break and, depending on the length of the situation, get some sleep.
  • Consider how you will handle media reps who show up on site—do you have security staff? Where will you attempt to keep the media, and what are your legal rights in terms of allowing, or not allowing, access?
  • Have a plan, work your plan, and debrief afterwards to make modifications to the plan; make sure that everyone involved understands the legal issues that may impact your response—e.g. in healthcare there are HIPAA issues that must be considered and followed; in the midst of a crisis situation, things can be said and information can be released that may create problems later.
  • Keep a cool head, especially if you’re in a lead role. Your demeanor will impact those around you.

What would you add to the list?

Recommended Reading:

The Essentials of Corporate Communications and Public Relations

(A version of this post originally appeared in 2012.)

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