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Crafting a crisis communications plan.

Crafting a Crisis Communications Plan

Environmental awareness and care are the watchwords of the decade. But all business leaders are finding that mere words and mission statements will not suffice. Suddenly, compliance with the law and regulations is the floor, not the ceiling, of acceptable behavior. Alex Krauer, chairman of Ciba-Geigy International AG, one of the world's largest chemical companies, put the situation into context when he said, "Doing business efficiently and effectively in a mere technocratic sense is no longer sufficient to preserve the acceptability of business by society."

Concerns extend beyond the industrial process. They now include the sustainability of source materials and the acceptability of the environmental impact of product use and disposal. Judgments about a company's environmental performance no longer are made solely on rational ground but are based on more fundamental and elusive notions of trust - that a company not only shares the public's concern about the environment but has integrated that concern into its business activities.

Business organizations cannot just plan for day-to-day problems. They must consider what could happen when crisis hits and the spotlight of public interest is turned upon management. Corporations have known for decades that they must develop and test the systems and people who will handle an emergency at a facility. Few are equally aware that the systems and techniques of environmental communications also must be developed and tested.

Communications is a central function of crisis management, particularly when the crisis could involve environmental damage. Far too many corporations develop emergency planning systems but neglect to include communications. In doing so, they overlook the incalculable damage that can occur to a company's reputation, financial valuation, or liability exposure because the public does not feel that the corporation has handled the problem properly, as happened with the Exxon Valdez spill.

A well-coordinated environmental preparedness plan can help a corporation minimize its vulnerability to crises by identifying potential weaknesses and correcting them. Such a plan, which begins with an environmental audit, must go beyond the technical issues. The new environmentalism includes more than plant pollution; thus, preparedness must look at all the environmental aspects of a product's life - from original resource extraction and transportation to manufacturing and waste disposal. These factors must be viewed not just as facts but also for how they will look in the glare of public disclosure.

|Can we justify this action?'

The inclusion of communications in the process of an environmental audit does more than add in the logistics of communications systems, spokespersons, and direct communications links. Procedures that are "reasonable" in the logical, technically driven world of the corporation can be shown to be "unreasonable" in the peculiar green light of environmental values. When such dichotomies occur, important decisions must be made, such as: "Can we justify this action to the community? If not, do we have to change it?"

Today, environmental preparedness planning involves shining the green light of environmentalism onto the corporation. It requires several key steps, taken with the assistance of experts with wide experience dealing with the complex issues involved.

Environmental auditing has become essential to the modern corporation. Today's management needs to call upon outside assessment of policies, practices, and procedures - including everything from regulatory compliance to the sourcing of materials to the waste disposal of final products - to identify where environmental catastrophe or controversy lurks.

As part of the environmental audit, there should be a highly confidential internal interview process that elicits information about current and potential problems with products, processes, or plant operations; executives' knowledge of, and role in, past environmental problems; media coverage of those events; and government interest in the company's environmental issues. Those interviews will reveal the kinds of environmental problems that are most likely to arise from the company's manufacturing and distribution processes.

However, a broader perspective also must be gained. There should be external interviews with environmental activists, government officials, and the media to determine their perceptions of the company and its environmental impacts. Occasionally, their concerns may be far outside the plant gate, ranging from the nature of the raw material being used (e.g., a nonrenewable resource), to the nature of the packaging (e.g., nonrecyclable), to the method of final disposal (e.g., putting a nonbiodegradable substance in a landfill). Such environmental concerns must be taken as seriously by management as the narrower concerns of facility emissions. Any one can escalate into a crisis, whether in the form of a boycott, such as the one against McDonald's Corp. for allegedly using beef from cows that grazed on land formerly part of a rain forest, or a product ban, such as with plastic bags in Suffolk County, N.Y.

Multidisciplinary involvement

The multidisciplinary nature of environmental problems requires that they be looked at, judged, and decided on by more people than just an environmental affairs officer. An environmental issue may have community relations angles - for marketing, engineering, and legal and regulatory aspects. Thus, it is useful to have the results of an environmental audit examined by a committee incorporating a wide range of management skills, supported by outside experts, that can judge all the potential ramifications of the various issues. That group then can make decisions on investments, changes in corporate practices, or strategies to defend existing policies and procedures.

To achieve effective communications in a crisis, it is useful to create a manual that serves two essential purposes: * The manual should define the company's positions and policies on all the issues that have been raised in the audit process. Through the cooperation of specialist lawyers, technical experts, and communications experts, a series of simple statements should be prepared that explain corporate thinking and policy for the host of environmental exposures and issues that could be raised by activists or by events. While technical material should be included in the manual, the company's positions should be written for the lay reader and the average citizen. * The manual should describe all the logistical procedures for communication in a crisis, including: how to respond to inquiries; names, telephone numbers, and addresses of crisis committee members; lists of third parties, such as government agencies and key constituents, that may need to be contracted; and procedures for direct communications to internal and external audiences.

No manual, however well-constructed or studied, really serves to prepare corporate senior managers for the searing experience of an environmental crisis. Therefore, like an army on maneuvers or a fire-fighting squad on a practice alarm, a corporation must test its systems and train its people through simulation.

Practice is particularly vital for effective environmental communications, which require that corporate officials leave their comfortable, logical world built on sound bureaucratic support and learn to enter the minds of a public dominated by emotion, symbolism, and mistrust. Key managers must be allowed to practice such communications and learn to understand the kinds and styles of communications that are most effective in an environmental crisis. Through role-playing, senior management must become angry community residents, suspicious journalists, or ambitious politicians.

Ultimately, the only effective crisis communications preparation is to simulate crisis situations. In one- or two-day sessions, executives can discover a very different world and gain a far more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of communicating about environmental issues.

The complexities of planning and managing environmental crises have caused the growth of multidisciplined teams of experts. No longer can risk assessors, communicators, or lawyers work alone, since their fields have become interdependent, reflecting trends in the businesses they support.

In all phases of crisis planning and management - preparing, managing the crisis, or recovering afterwards - these critical support elements must enmesh their efforts and provide comprehensive support. Today, crisis preparedness and management requires fully integrated support from consultants who truly appreciate the impact of environmental situations gone wrong. This understanding can only come from the experience of working alongside corporate management under the searing pressures of crisis situations. These are not the times to call upon amateurs.

Proving a company's green credentials may be the greatest challenge for corporations around the world in the new decade. But if they are to attract and retain talented employees, avoid major controversies, be able to execute new plans, and markets and sell new products successfully, corporations will have to be green and not just talk green.

Corporate responsibility and a green approach to doing business is ultimately not a communications issue but a behavioral one. Companies that will grow and flourish in the 1990s will be those that build environmental values and standards into the deepest core of their company culture. Successful companies will be those that prepare and plan in detail to meet the demands and challenges of the environmental age.

Table : Major Sources of Information on Environmental Problems and Issues
TV news (*)75%
Newspapers 65%
TV news magazine 61%
Radio 39%
Magazines 35%
Environmental groups 32%
Federal government 31%
State and local governments 27%
Friends and other people 26%
Local schools 18%
Your children 18%
Local civic groups 14%
Business in community 12%
Large corporations 11%

(*) Percentage of respondents in a Roper Survey affirming these information sources Source: "The Environment: Public Attitudes and Individual Behavior," a public opinion study by the Roper Organization, commissioned by S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.

Mike Seymour is a Director of Public Affairs at Burson-Marsteller/London with responsibility for political planning, constituency relations, issues management, and corporate preparedness. He was one of the co-initiators of CALM (Crisis and Linked Management) - a consulting group formed in 1990, composed of leading public relations experts, a global insurance group, and a London-based international law practice, to offer an integrated approach for crisis preparedness and planning.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; environmental awareness; Chairman's Agenda: Managing Environmental Responsibility
Author:Seymour, Mike
Publication:Directors & Boards
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Previous Article:The environmental audit.
Next Article:Planning for the cost of clean air.

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