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The 10 steps of crisis management.

A security guard commits a crime while on duty.

An alarm system fails, resulting in properly loss.

Employees go on strike, accusing you of unfair labor practices.

Your company is acquiring another firm. Almost all employees will be retained, and everyone will profit. FOR COMMUNICATIONS PURPOSES, these situations-all real-life examples from the security industry-are crises. The negative impact of the first three is fairly obvious, but even in the last, good-news situation, the following crisis management reactions are warranted:

* ensuring simultaneous, accurate communication of the completed deal to employees of both firms involved, assuring them of their future job status

* assuring all clients of both firms that their service will not be disrupted

* ensuring that the media reports the news as a positive development

* countering competitors' attempts to steal business by claiming that this particular merger stretches the firm's resources too far

The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a business without crises. Perception is as damaging as reality. If any of your internal or external audiences think-or might think-you have

a problem, then your communications program needs to address their concerns.

You have two choices: prepare for crisis or just react to crisis. The longer it takes to react effectively, the greater the potential for damage. This is increasingly true in our world of instant communication, a world where bad news is a favorite of sensation-hungry American media audiences.

"We had our crisis planned to the gills, " says Tom Wathen, chairman and chief executive officer of then-CPP Security. His company's acquisition of Pinkerton's Inc. created one of the world's largest suppliers of security services.

How many of you have sold your services with the "prevention is far less costly than crime" pitch? Well, proactive preparation for crises will cost you less than postevent reaction. Yet the vast majority of American businesses do not include crisis preparation in their business or marketing plans. This article is intended to facilitate that preparation, as most of these management steps can be done well in advance of any crisis.

While any individual crisis mandates some customized responses, preparation can be divided into 10 basic steps.

1. Identify your crsis management team. A small team of senior executives should be identified as your company's crisis management team. Typically, the team is led by the company CEO, with the firm's top marketing or public relations executive as his or her chief adviser. Other team members should be the heads of major company divisions, including legal, financial, personnel, and operations departments. The same principle applies in a small firm, but some individuals may wear several hats. If your in-house resources are not sufficient to handle the work a crisis may generate, you should identify outside consultants such as law firms, accounting firms, or public relations agencies that can supply senior executives for your crisis management team on short notice.

"The team leader doesn't just lead meetings," stressed Wathen. "He or she is also responsible for monitoring how the plan is executed to ensure details are carried out and to adapt to changing situations as necessary."

2. Identify spokespersons. Within each team, individuals should be authorized as the only ones to speak for the company in times of crisis. The CEO should be one spokesperson, but not necessarily the primary one. The fact is that some chief executives are brilliant business people but not very effective in-person communicators. That doesn't matter in written communication and may not matter for some audiences. Often, however, image communicates as strongly or more strongly than facts, as politicians know well. Hence, communication skills are one of the primary criteria in choosing a spokesperson.

3. Train spokespersons. These two typical quotes from well-intentioned company executives show why your spokespersons should receive professional training in how to speak to the media: "I've done a lot of public speaking; I won't have any trouble talking to the press" and "I talked to that nice reporter for over a hour, and he didn't report the most important news about my company.

As for the first example, a good number of Mike Wallace's 60 Minutes victims thought they knew how to talk to the press. In the second case, most of the time executives have not learned how to ensure that the most important news does get across to an interviewer.

Spokesperson training is the Boy Scouts of media interviews. It teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that maximizes the chance of a story being reported the way you want it to be. Expert spokesperson trainers can be found in most major metropolitan areas, working either as independent consultants or in public relations agencies. Contact your local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America or International Association of Business Communicators for a referral.

4. Establish communication protocols. Initial and developing crisis-related news can be received by anyone in a company. A guard on outpost or someone in personnel may be the first person aware of a problem. Word could come by way of a midnight phone call from an out-of-town salesperson. Who should be notified, and where do you reach them?

An emergency communication tree should be distributed to all company employees telling them precisely what to do and whom to call in case of a potential or actual crisis. In addition to appropriate supervisors, at least one member of the crisis management team and an alternate member should include their office and home phone numbers on the emergency contact list.

"We have about a one-and-a-half minute lag time between when a crisis situation occurs anywhere in our company and when a senior executive is notified," says Ray Boyd. He is president of the Los Angeles-based Boyd and Associates, a large regional supplier of security guard, patrol, and investigative services.

Some companies prefer not to use the term crisis with nonmanagement personnel, thinking it may cause panic. Frankly, using "potentially embarrassing situations" or similar phrases doesn't fool anyone. If you prepare in advance, your employees will learn that a crisis doesn't necessarily mean bad news but simply something very important to the company requiring quick action.

5. Identify your audiences. What are the audiences that matter to your firm? Most firms care about the media, employees, clients, prospects, and vendors. Private investors may be involved. Publicly held companies have to comply with Securities and Exchange Commission public information requirements. You may answer to local, state, or federal regulatory agencies.

"Some companies seem to think that they only have to worry about what people outside the company think about their decisions," says Boyd. He gave an example from his term as director of security for a large domestic airline that was having great financial difficulties. Failing to communicate with its own employees, the firm suffered massive employee theft on every level. Employee attitudes were "We're going under anyway-I might as well get mine," says Boyd.

For each audience, you need complete mailing, fax, and phone number lists for rapid communication in time of crisis. Ideally, lists are prepared in advance. You also need to know what type of information each audience is looking for and brief key personnel on your emergency communication tree appropriately.

6. Anticipate crises. Gather your crisis management team for a long brainstorming session or two on all potential crises that can occur in your business. This exercise provides two immediate benefits. First, you may realize that some situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation. Second, you can begin to think about possible responses and about best case/worst case scenarios-better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis. As a result of such anticipation, each watch commander at Boyd and Associates has a list of possible scenarios delineating which they can handle themselves and which they must notify a senior company executive about.

In some cases, of course, you know that a crisis will occur because you're planning to create it by laying off employees or making a major acquisition. You can proceed with steps seven through 10 ahead of time.

7. Assess the situation. Reacting without adequate information is classic shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later behavior. You could be the primary victim. But if you've done all the preceding steps first, assessment is simply ensuring that the crisis management team receives all incoming information and that the right type of information is being provided. Then you can proceed to determine your reaction. If you haven't prepared in advance, steps one through six can be accomplished fairly quickly with the help of professional crisis management counselors.

8. Identify key messages. You already know what type of information your audiences are looking for. Now, what do you want them to know about this crisis? Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages for all audiences and perhaps a few messages targeted for special audiences. In the "guard commits a crime" situation, for example, key messages to communicate may include the following:

* We are very concerned and are cooperating fully with authorities.

* This is an isolated case that in no way affects our ability to serve our clients fully.

* We are conducting an immediate internal investigation to find out how this situation occurred and who is responsible for hiring the individual and placing him or her in this situation. (This message would be aimed at private investors.)

* Decide on communication methods. You can use many different ways to communicate during an internal or external crisis. Employees, clients, prospects, and investors can be briefed in person or receive letters, newsletters, or faxed messages. The media can receive press releases and explanatory letters or attend one-on-one briefings and press conferences. Each of the many options available has a different impact. They must be evaluated by a professional who thoroughly understands the pros and cons of the methodologies as applied to your company's needs.

10. Ride out the storm. No matter what the nature of a crisis, no matter whether it's good news or bad, no matter how carefully you've prepared and responded, some members of your audience are not going to react the way you want them to. This misunderstanding can be immensely frustrating. That is the time to do the following:

* Take a deep breath.

* Take an objective look at the reactions in question. Are they your fault or a unique interpretation?

* Decide if another communication to that audience is likely to change that impression for the better.

* Decide if another communication to that audience could make that impression worse.

* Decide if additional communication is worth the effort.

While in some situations additional communication is definitely worth the effort, this evaluation process rules out further contact 90 percent of the time.

In conclusion, remember that crises not only can but will happen to you if you're in business for any length of time. How you react to them can determine whether you stay in business.

About the Author . . . Jonathan Bernstein is a vice president for Ruder Finn, a public relations agency in Los Angeles, CA.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bernstein, Jonathan
Publication:Security Management
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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