Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight Eisenhower

                WMPRSA recently hosted a luncheon where the discussion centered on crisis communication and crisis management.  We were honored to have Kelly Rossman-Mc Kinney (Truscott Rossman), Craig Clark (Clark Communications) and Beth Dornan (Amway) share their knowledge of preparing for a crisis, handling the crisis, and preventing a crisis.   The program was a Q and A session with Craig, Kelly and Beth sharing their knowledge and past experiences.

                The main objective in crisis management is to try to mitigate the actions which could lead to a crisis while continually scanning the media outlets to find the warning signs of a crisis.  A crisis cannot be averted if one does not know what a crisis is.  Craig Clark described a crisis as anything unexpected, even if it is planned for, which can have an impact on a brand or company.  Additionally, a crisis is anything that can have an adverse effect on an individual or corporation.  Beth included that how you respond to the crisis is the most important component of crisis management.

Where do you begin when creating your crisis plan? 

Two critical components of crisis communication include an understanding of who your audience is and the full spectrum of events which could occur.  Even with thorough planning, inevitably whatever crisis occurs is something that was never planned for, additionally, crises never happen the way you think they will.  The level of crisis depends on how much of an impact the crisis has on the delivery of goods and services to your customer.  Those that have an immediate and direct impact on this delivery are the most critical and have the most resonance with current and future customers. They key to handling a crisis is not what is happening at the time, but how you respond to it as an organization. 

Where to you begin when you begin to build a crisis plan? 

Again, knowing your audience and how you can reach them when something happens, and knowing the spectrum of events which could occur is the start.  There needs separate crisis communications team and a crisis management team. The leader of the crisis communications team is at the table with the crisis management team, but is not responsible for managing the crisis.  The communications team is responsible for the communications during a crisis. The communications team needs to work lock-step with legal.  Additionally HR and other groups could be involved with the crisis management depending on the nature of the crisis.  Having a crisis management team in place is crucial to the crisis management plan.  The crisis management team can vary depending on the crisis, but the leadership must be clear, as well as each of the members’ responsibilities.

 How do you manage the expectations of the executives?

Often the executives expect that everything we do on a day to day basis will end up on the front page, which is not realistic.  Be sure to under-promise and over-deliver when explaining to your executives what they should expect from the outcome of any campaign, including your crisis management plan. In a crisis situation, a plan needs to be in place which explains what outcomes should be expected.  Be upfront with what you believe the impact is going to be and be honest – cut to the chase.  Kelly suggested that if you are a member of the organization experiencing the crisis, sometimes it is helpful if someone from the outside, such as a consultant, be the one to deliver a message regarding what outcomes to expect. This could have a longer lasting effect and hit harder when the message comes from an outside source rather than coming from someone they work with on a daily basis. This can be help protect your relationship with the executives and a second, or an outside opinion, may be more palatable to the executives.

When handling a crisis, how do you choose a spokesperson?

Craig explained that there should be a primary spokesperson in place beforehand as well as backups in case your first choice is not available.  The spokesperson chosen must be relative to the severity of the crisis.  Meaning, the more severe a crisis is, the higher up the executive ladder the spokesperson should be. It is your job to know what is happening and to determine who that spokesperson should be.  You must have someone who presents well, not necessarily the one who knows the most.    For example, your scientist within the organization may have a greater understanding of the situation, however may not communicate well.  Choose someone else who can communicate well, but also has a strong understanding of the situation.  The more you can plan for a situation, the more you can identify who your spokesperson should be.  Kelly added that in some situations there are other players at the table such as hazmat or members of a community emergency management team.   You need to be able to manage the entire cast and find out who is best to deliver your message. Often your best choice is someone from public safety who is able to reassure the public that all is well and safe.  Beth pointed out that in some situations the choice may not be yours.  Sometimes, such as the case with an aviation crisis, once the National Transportation Safety Board becomes involved, you can no longer say anything.  Know your restrictions and boundaries before a crisis occurs.

When do you determine how much information to release?

 Beth began by telling us to be as clear, concise, quick, and compassionate as possible when first relaying information regarding the crisis.  The initial statements do not need to be eloquent, but it does need to be quick.  Explain what happened, what you are doing, and what to expect.  Kelly expanded upon that by adding that legal does need to sign off on anything you say, however your attorney needs to recognize and appreciate the importance of getting messages out quickly.  Not saying something about a crisis does not make it go away, it in fact puts up a red flag  up saying that not only is it our crisis, but we do not know what to do about it. Develop a good relationship with your attorney because you cannot afford to have basic arguments in these situations. Craig recommended having a holding statement as part of your crisis plan ready such as ‘We are aware of the situation, and are aware that you are aware.  We are trying to confirm details and please interact with me.’  The details can be filled in per the crisis, but this allows you to have a statement out immediately.  This lets the media know you are going to be as transparent as possible, but you deal in facts and you are not going to speculate.  You can ask that the media reciprocates this and deals only with you and keep the lines of communication open.

How do you get ahead of the social wave?

This is where your relationships with the media are important as there are times they are more knowledgeable than you are.  If the relationship is there, you can ask questions such as where they a
re getting their information from, and is this information from someone on Twitter or from a different source, and do you have details that you can share with me, and where they are going with the story? Additionally, in the rare circumstance, you may be able to persuade the media to hold off on a story if there is mutual trust and they can count on you to offer the story when you are able to release information.  The consensus is that social media moves so quickly that there is no way to get ahead of it. One way to at least be able to ride the social media wave is to create a dark website to have ready to go in times of crisis.  People are going to go to your website for information so you want to make sure there is nothing that is inappropriate for the time and events.  The media follows us as for information as well. Make sure your posts on both corporate and individual accounts are accurate, and that other people are reposting for you.  When the media learn that you are accessible, responsive, and accurate, they will start relying on you for the information they would like to obtain.  Third party advocates can be your friend as well during a crisis. There are going to be organizations with which you have good relationships.  They can post and share ‘good things’ about your organization thereby advocating on your behalf.

What was your biggest crisis and how did you handle it?

Craig told a story regaling that anything that could go wrong will go wrong.  The take away from his story was that once the crisis ends, dissect the situation to determine what went wrong and how to avoid that in the future.    Kelly’s story also was one of an unanticipated situation.  The takeaway from her story was if your first choice of a spokesperson is not available; coach the one who will be speaking.  Conversely, Beth had prior knowledge of an impending crisis, and when the media would not work with her to tell the story; they decided to tell the story themselves.  The story took months to develop and in that time Beth and her group were able to put together responses for any situation they thought may come up. 

What do you do when the executives will not accept your recommendations, and how do you deal with the repercussions? 

If you are working as a consultant, you could walk away, but that is not recommended.  Your job is to keep relaying the message of ‘this is why I am so concerned,’ and keep trying to make your point.  You may come across someone else in the room who agrees with you that you can partner with to make your point.  If it is the CEO who disagrees with you, you do have to go with their decision.   Your job then becomes one which helps the company manage the repercussions.  You will need a team to manage the current crisis and one to work on the future ramifications.  You cannot do it all.  Consultants will need to be able to work closely with the communications team to be able to understand the crisis and to anticipate what happens tomorrow.   You need to have a team who understands the situation and the organization.  In Kelly’s experience they typically have 1-2 working on the crisis, one person monitoring the situation, and someone to anticipate what will happen after the crisis.  


                                Teresa Bennink