Effective Crisis Communications by hedongchenchen


									Worst-Case Scenario
A Communications Plan Can Avert Disaster
by Peri Kinder

At the height of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Salt Lake City Communications Director
Karen Hale received a phone call telling her the city was experiencing its own oil crisis. Tens of thou-
sands of gallons of crude oil were flowing into Red Butte Creek, contaminating waterways, endanger-
ing wildlife and putting the public at risk.

Hale knew residents needed to be alerted to the situation, the media had to be contacted, Chevron
officials needed get on the scene and city officials had to go into full crisis mode.

Luckily, there was a plan.

“When you get a call that there’s an oil spill in Salt Lake, it just doesn’t register,” Hale says. “With any
kind of disaster, it takes you by surprise, so having tools at hand and in place makes a huge differ-

The city’s crisis communications plan had been devised long before it was implemented during the
oil spill. And just like actors in a movie, each person involved followed their script to ensure the emer-
gency was handled effectively.

City leaders met at the public safety building to gather information and decide what would happen
next. Phone numbers were activated so the media and public could call and get information. A press
conference was set up and the media alerted. Reverse 911 calls went to residents living near the
creek and, before the weekend was over, volunteers were passing out flyers, inviting residents to a
town meeting to discuss the oil spill.

Officials kept in constant contact with Chevron, sharing and receiving information that was used to
expedite a solution to the situation, and Chevron immediately pledged to take full responsibility for the
leak, bringing in crews from outside Utah to clean up the affected areas.

Salt Lake City already had social media sites in place and these pages were utilized to send informa-
tion to the public. Information was disseminated regarding temporary lodging for those evacuated
from their homes, the health risks of the spill, the extent and cause of the leak, and regular updates to
the community.

The crisis communications plan for the city involved leaders from almost every department. Public
services, the city attorney, economic development, the mayor’s office, emergency services and public
utilities were departments heavily affected by the spill. And they each had a role in creating successful

Regularly, city officials participate in workshops and sem-
inars to stay up on the latest developments in crisis comm-unications. The city holds regular drills and
revises the plan frequently when new situations arise or technology is updated.

Josh Ewing is an expert when it comes to developing an efficient crisis plan. He was the communica-
tions director for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games and had to plan for any contingency,
especially because the country was already on high-alert following the 9/11 tragedy just months be-
fore the Games.

A communications plan for the Games was prepared, rehearsed, adapted, practiced, rehearsed again
and changed many times as new scenarios emerged. Although things went well during the Games,
the crisis plan was implemented one time for a brief period when the anthrax sensors went off at the

“It was a false positive,” Ewing says, “but a late night press conference was scheduled. It was well-
planned and we were completely prepared. We had to have our game together. It seems that a lot of
time when you plan for a crisis, it won’t happen because the organization will have done an entire risk

Ewing is now employed with Love Communications and helps companies develop their own crisis
plans. Whether a business has 10 employees or 1,000, Ewing says a company should plan for every
risk they can think of—and develop a communications outline to ensure contact with employees, cus-
tomers, the public and media, if necessary.

Where to Start
The first step to creating a plan is to have someone in the company receive communications train-
ing. If a company has fewer than 500 employees, Ewing suggests the PR specialist should attend the
training. For companies with more than 500 employees, he says the CEO and vice-presidents should
also be included. For a small business, only the president/owner will need to be trained.

Because a company’s reputation is on the line during a crisis, a breakdown in communications could
be devastating. After having the right people trained, companies should start listing all the things that
could go wrong. “They need to think about what could happen in their line of business that would
require them to communicate in a way they don’t want to. Because that means something negative
happened,” Ewing says.

For example, a restaurant might create a plan in case a customer finds a mouse tail in their soup or
someone develops food poisoning. But there should be plans that also address what would happen
if there was a robbery, a flood or a fire. Think of all the worst-case scenarios and prepare a plan to
cover each one.

Who will talk to the press? Who will contact employees and family members? Who will monitor social

Recently, an employee at Papa John’s Pizza caused a stir when he wrote a derogatory ethnic slur
about a customer on a receipt that was then handed to the customer. The customer saw the slur, took
a photo of the receipt and posted it on the internet. The image went global and Papa John’s didn’t
learn about it until it was too late. “They didn’t have good social media tracking skills, and they didn’t
know it had happened until it was already viral,” Ewing says.

Once Papa John’s learned of the incident, it fired the employee and issued an apology on its Face-
book page. But many feel its reaction wasn’t quick enough in today’s fast-information society.

Social media has become one of the most important components in crisis communications. Each
business should have a functioning Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media outlets so
if a crisis does arise, the company doesn’t have to worry about setting up a Facebook account while
everything is crashing down. Ewing says tons of businesses are not utilizing social media and don’t
have the tools to track these sites.

Create a Message
After every worst-case scenario has been detailed, it’s time to create messaging around those events.

The first and most vital part of a crisis message is to show empathy. Businesses need to let people
know in the first 30 seconds that company leaders are concerned about the situation and are com-
mitted to resolving the problem. It’s also important to create credibility and trust with those who have
been affected. And, finally, honesty is essential when talking to the media, the public, customers or

“There is a need for speed,” Ewing says. “If you don’t talk about your crisis, someone else will and it
might be framed in a way you can’t control. And sometimes information becomes disseminated inac-
curately or is sensationalized.”

After messages are created for each circumstance, decide how the information will be circulated. Do
you need to schedule a press conference? Send out a media release? Put information on the com-
pany’s website or social media outlet? And who will represent your company?

Putting the CEO in front of the press might seem like a good idea, but Ewing says most CEOs are
the worst-prepared to talk with the media. “They usually have fairly significant egos and not nearly
enough training. A better option would be the PR person.”

Ewing suggests choosing the person who will sound the most sincere, who will radiate empathy and
who will seem trustworthy. Accepting blame and using a tone that doesn’t sound defensive will set the
stage for the rest of the crisis and how the company is perceived once the emergency is over.

A high-end investment firm in California discovered an employee had stolen money from investors. In-
stead of contacting customers individually, letting them know the situation, the press got involved and
emotions exploded. Customers were coming in to yell at employees and the situation quickly turned
into a public relations nightmare.

“[The company] should have dropped everything in their business and contacted customers one-on-
one to discuss the situation,” Ewing says. “There should have been a message prepared and custom-
ers should have received an email, with a good message, telling them to call the company for more

Stage a Drill
So you have a plan, a message, a spokesperson and a way to send out information. Now what? Kyle
Bennett, a spokesperson for Kennecott Utah Copper, says the next step is to practice.

With a big mining company like Kennecott, emergency scenarios are rehearsed on an on-going basis.
The company involves different groups in its planning from the CEO to employees in the mine. In fact,
Bennett says most of the practiced scenarios come from employees—and they are situations no one
thought of before.

Some workers at Kennecott expressed concern about being in a remote area during an emergency.
Would the company know where they are, how to contact them or how to rescue them? Because of
this apprehension, Kennecott leaders decided to have employees and equipment monitored through
a GPS system. Now any employee can be located within seconds.

“Our safety statistics are better than most other businesses in the industry because we have pro-
cesses and procedures in place to make sure our employees are safe,” Bennett says. “I don’t think
you can underestimate the importance of a crisis communications plan and how important it is to your
company and stakeholders.”

Kennecott practices its crisis plan several times a year and every key person in the plan is given a
binder that details specific tasks that need to be done when responding to an emergency. The plan is
constantly updated and changed as new situations come up or when a weakness in the plan is ex-

Debriefing after each drill allows people on the crisis team to talk about what went well or what needs
improvement. They examine every possibility for every disaster making sure they keep the ability to
communicate both internally and externally. Bennett says planning multiple communication formats
could make the difference in a crisis. If cell towers are flooded with calls, can employees still commu-
nicate? If the internet goes down, can the company still get information to the public and media?

“A smooth plan doesn’t just happen overnight, the plan is re-worked and adapted continually,” Bennett

Saving Face
The larger the company, the more it makes sense to invest in crisis communications training and
planning. It might cost a little up front, but a crisis handled improperly could cost a company thou-
sands of dollars—and its reputation

“With correct handling, a company’s reputation is enhanced. Everyone understands that things go
wrong and, if you do it right, you’ll come out ahead,” Ewing says. “It’s one of those fields that people
don’t think about. No one is mandating a crisis communication plan but if you’re serious about your
business, developing a plan is vital.”

10 Steps to an Effective Crisis Communications Plan:

Consult a professional or send employees for crisis training.
Set time aside to create a plan—at least one day.
Create a list of worst-case scenarios for your business and industry.
Create a list of second-worst-case scenarios (bad customer service, social media barrage, etc.).
Develop an empathetic message for each scenario.
Choose a spokesperson.
Determine how information will be distributed (website, press conference, media release, etc.).
Put the plan on paper. Make sure every person involved has a copy.
Practice. Look for weak links in the communications chain.
Practice again, adapting the plan when necessary.

Greg Byrnes

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