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Communicating in a crisis.

It's a funny thing about a crisis. No one ever believes it will happen to him, and when it comes, most people are totally unprepared for it.

This is as true in business as in the rest of life. How we handle a personal crisis is often a mark of our character and being able to deal constructively with a crisis and to communicate effectively while it is in progress is usually an indication of how effective we are as managers and professionals.

Crisis management during the Bhopal tragedy, the Gander air accident, the Tylenol poisonings and the "tainted tuna" affair all said things about the companies and organizations involved - some decidedly positive, others negative. As such, they influenced the perceptions of the marketplace about those companies, reinforcing that effective crisis communication is as vital a part of managing your perceptions (and thus your marketing) as anything else you do.

What identifies a crisis? Experts have pinpointed five key characteristics. First, it's an action or incident that results in events moving beyond normal operations.

Second, it is a situation that is always beyond your control for some time: minutes or, sometimes, even years.

Third, it requires immediate action to regain control. Fourth, it usually threatens people, property or reputation. Finally, it requires the involvement of the most senior management to correct.

Crises are perceived differently by different people. There are always at least two distinct target groups with whom you must communicate when a crisis occurs: your employees and clients, and your stockholders and others with whom you do business.

Employees (and also suppliers) view a crisis operationally. How will this situation affect our operating ability, our jobs and our future on a day-to-day basis? Clients, customers and others such as bankers view it perceptually, in terms of its impact on your image, your goodwill, your reputation and your ability to rise above the crisis. Your crisis communications plan, therefore, should be developed for different audiences with clear messages to satisfy each that you are in control and moving forward in spite of the problem.

It has been said that crisis communications is 90% preparation and only 10% inspiration and, like many other business maxims, this one is fundamentally sound. But, of course, because most of us don't think a crisis will ever happen, few of us have the 90% part in place, leaving the 10% inspiration with a lot of work to do when the calamity occurs. In these situations, because the crisis itself is demanding all our management skill, the few resources we have left over for communications are rarely inspired. So, it is vitally important to have a plan in place, in advance, ready to go if needed. And if you never need it, terrific.

The crisis plan has four main tasks. It alleviates speculation and rumour (because sustained negative public opinion in itself eventually becomes a crisis). It maintains and shores up employee and client/community support for you and your business. It does what it can to contain the crisis and to protect lives and property. It reinforces your management ethics and values; in other words, don't compromise your principles when a crisis hits, live by them instead. The way in which the Tylenol scare was handled is a classic example of how a company - Johnson & Johnson - turned a desperate situation around by the application of its very strong moral values and principles.

Some of the major preparation" components of your plan should be:

I) Designation of a


All communications should be channelled through only one source. Some organizations have two spokespersons: one for the employees and one for other groups, but the fundamental principle is to reduce the extent to which rumour, speculation and conjecture can get out of hand. Usually, the most senior person acts as the spokesperson, but not always. Pick the most senior credible person who is best able to communicate well and clearly on his/her feet. The spokesperson always forms part of the crisis team that should be selected to deal with all elements of the crisis situation.

II) Prepare and keep up-to-date

all routine information on

The company: assets, inventories, personnel, vital statistics, addresses, phone numbers, next of kin, main clients, customers, suppliers, professional advisors and, very important, all key media in your marketplace, including trade and professional journals. Having this information at your fingertips reduces the amount of time otherwise required to gather it up when the crisis hits and the questions come. Time you won't have.

III) Develop a media plan:

Contacts (as mentioned), fact sheets on the business, access to a room where the media can gather if necessary, training in media relations for the spokesperson(s), information on advertising rates in media that you may have to use, and so on. Some key tips on working with the media are listed below.

IV) Do some role playing.

Simulate a crisis and put your spokesperson through the hoops. Many organizations are starting to do this on a regular basis, and it boosts morale and confidence to know that we're ready if necessary".

V) Open and maintain a crisis

logbook or handbook

This book records every element of the planning and communication process to be used in a crisis. To the greatest extent possible, it should also record day-to-day activities that occur during a crisis (and maintenance of the logbook should be part of the overall plan). When the crisis is over, a follow-up session should always be held to determine what worked and what did not, using the logbook as a resource.

When the crisis occurs, there are key steps to be followed. First, those people most directly affected must be notified ahead of all others. Second, communication takes place with other groups who "need to know" but may not be directly influenced by the situation. Third, marshall all the facts in a central source as they become available and use them as part of your crisis message while the problem is in place. Fourth, make contact with the media if necessary or (in the event that they contacted you in the first place) open the lines of communication with them and keep them open. Fifth, be rigorous about centralizing your messages to that speculation, fear, rumour and conjecture are minimized.

Finally, remember these key principles that apply to communicating with everyone, not just the media:

* Establish facts quickly and disseminate them accurately.

* Be honest. The more you cover up, the more opportunity you create for illwill and misunderstanding.

* If you don't know an answer, say so. Try to get the answer and pass it on. Don't guess, speculate or "wing it". Never say "no comment". Instead, explain honestly why you cannot comment.

* Answer the question only. If you don't understand it, seek clarification.

* Keep your answers brief, simple, to the point and as unambiguous as possible.

* Give the most important information first. The first point you make is the one most likely to be remembered.

* Challenge innuendo, rumour and loaded questions.

* Do your best to stay cool, calm, and, very important, polite. It's a known fact that good manners, even in a hostile or explosive situation, almost always reduce tension and make interpersonal communications more constructive.

We all hope that a crisis never comes, but, if it does, a clearly thought out crisis communications plan can help you work your way through a potentially very difficult situation.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Barrow, Peter
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Mar 22, 1991
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