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How to manage a crisis by planning ahead.

Crisis. We all know it could happen to us. We think about it. We live in fear of it. But few of us ever do anything about it - that is, until it's too late.

What could we be doing? More and more, smart managers are working with their PR consultants to prepare crisis management plans. The old "it could never happen to me" attitude is behind us. Today, business professionals understand that since they are responsible for profit, they simply cannot afford to be caught by surprise, scrambling to maintain some sort of control and credibility. And while they recognize they can rarely predict a crisis, they also realize that there are a number of basic steps that they can go through ahead of time in order to ease the situation should a crisis occur.

First of all, what is a crisis? They come in all forms. It could be something as dangerous as a toxic leak or as damaging as a product recall. Sometimes financial problems are crises: huge losses, layoffs, plant closings, buyouts or even bankruptcies. Your competitors could be cutting prices or introducing superior products. Your top level staff could be joining your competitors and taking their knowledge of your company and its plans with them. Salespeople quitting en masse. Distributors resigning. Advertising campaigns backfiring. Products late. Products that don't work. Lawsuits. Government intervention. The list goes on.

Whatever your particular crisis, public relations can rarely fix it completely (no amount of PR can fix your product if it doesn't work), but strategically planned public relations activities can often minimize the problem and prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. The crisis may not be averted, but its effect will be minimized and your company's reputation will be left intact. In fact, if you handle your crisis really well, your reputation can even be improved.

The First Step

So what's the first step? You should begin by identifying the people who will make up your crisis team and assigning areas of responsibility. Then develop a list of possible crisis scenarios and step-by-step contingency plans. Your public relations consultants should be key players on this team because they can add a third party, unbiased, point of view.

You probably don't know beforehand what kind of crisis you will be facing, but you should ensure you have some sort of corporate public relations program ongoing. If you already have a public image as a responsible corporation, you will be much more likely to be trusted and believed in a crisis.

As a matter of course, your top executives should receive media skills training so that they are familiar with how the media work and how to maintain control when talking to journalists. Your public relations consultants can help identify these spokespeople and arrange training for them. If you already have an ongoing corporate public relations campaign, your executives will be more comfortable with the media and may even have developed some good relationships with certain reporters. This can help tremendously in a crisis, although you should never expect favors or undue loyalty from a journalist.

Your employees should also be trained to respond properly to media calls. Every company should have a policy of insisting that only certain designated people speak to the media. Everyone else (especially receptionists and secretaries) should receive telephone inquiry instruction (take their name and number, ask the nature of the call, find out what their deadline is, etc.).

You may also want to identify unbiased, third party experts who can act as spokespeople for your company in a number of areas. Their third party relationship will add credibility to your messages, but they must understand your communications objectives and should have some media experience under

their belts. Their effectiveness as spokespeople is absolutely crucial.

Who To Notify

You should prepare lists of all the people that might have to be notified in a crisis. For instance, this would include your head office or owner, your affiliates, your shareholders, your employees, distributors or retailers, customers (they will all want to know how they will be affected), your legal counsel, insurance personnel, government officials, industry associations and groups. All of these groups may have to respond, whether actively or verbally with the media. It is essential that you give them the information that they need as soon as is humanly possible. Otherwise they'll answer the media with speculation.

Communications Tools

You must ensure you or your public relations consultants have a comprehensive and current media list, including the news wire services. If you don't already, you will want to set up media monitoring immediately so that you can follow the media coverage, as it happens. One wrong story, if not corrected immediately, can snowball out of control, with every newspaper, radio station and television news report repeating the incorrect information.

Next comes the communication of information. Make sure you have a good corporate media kit on hand with all the company, personnel and product information the media might ever require. Every company should have such a kit at all times and ensure that it is updated regularly.

The key is to be absolutely honest, open, articulate and sensitive to all of your audiences, but especially to those directly affected by the crisis. Your sensitivity and willingness to respond will win you points. You will be seen as a responsible and responsive corporate citizen.

And you must respond immediately. If you don't have all of the information you need, at least communicate what you do know without delay. Then ensure that a system has been set up to feed additional information to the media and your other audiences in a timely manner.

Never try to cover up or minimize a crisis or to mislead the media. They'll get you in the end if you do. You must be seen to be taking it very seriously.

On the other hand, you should not feel that you must volunteer information unless it is relevant or vital. Work with your lawyers as well as your public relations people to determine your statement and then stick to it. Your statement should be written and distributed to anyone who may be talking to the press in order to ensure consistency. But it should not be read verbatim. It should sound natural and relatively spontaneous.

With this kind of approach, you can minimize the risk of a crisis. It takes time and effort, but there are few communications programs that are more worthwhile.

The Kerbel Communications Group, based in Toronto, is a full service marketing communications agency offering comprehensive marketing public relations and advertising services.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Canadian Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Spencer, Jennifer
Publication:Canadian Manager
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Words:1103
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