ANALYSIS: Crisis Communications - Agencies helping clients keepdrama out of a crisis

A crisis can throw the reputation of a business into turmoil, so

how it's handled is of paramount importance. Anita Chabria looks at the

measures PR agencies are putting in place post-September 11 to prepare

for such events.



Crisis communications has seen a spike in business since the events of

September 11, focusing attention on special units at some PR firms and

renewing interest from clients who only a few months ago placed a low

priority on disaster planning.



"This is an opportunity for the industry to show a lot of our value at

the most strategic level in terms of providing counsel and partnership

with our clients," says Matt Harrington, president and CEO of

Edelman.



New York's PR firms jumped into action to aid distraught and devastated

clients within hours of the terrorist attacks. In scenarios beyond most

people's imaginations, PR people found themselves struggling to target

their expertise and manpower to problems that seemed more likely to

occur in war zones than in Manhattan. Since then, crisis management

practices have risen to the forefront of public relations, taking on

challenges that can make or break client-agency relationships.



For Dan Klores Communications (DKC), the client in need was St.

Vincent's Medical Center - the trauma facility closest to Ground Zero.

DKC team members helped set up emergency communication centers and

liaisons with city government and emergency workers there - even

arranging city transportation to shuttle blood donors to other

facilities when St. Vincent's became overwhelmed by the turnout of

volunteers.



Edelman assisted securities firm Cantor Fitzgerald by quickly creating a

three-point communications plan aimed at gathering relief funds for the

families of lost employees, and rebuilding the company's

capabilities.



The implementation of that plan raised $5 million in the first

week for healthcare and education of surviving family members, and

initially, at least, earned Cantor Fitzgerald much praise in the

media.



For companies outside New York, the call to action came from clients

seeking to protect their own companies from future crises by creating or

updating their crisis plans, building in scenarios that only a few weeks

ago seemed fantastical.



We've got the tools



In its multiple forms, crisis management suddenly has the attention of

most American businesses, and is filtering down to requests for help

from PR firms. While no PR firm wishes to capitalize on current events,

the need for crisis experts has created an unusual opportunity for the

PR field to step up and prove the depth of its abilities.



"Nobody likes somebody trying to take advantage of misfortune," says

Andrew Gilman of Washington, DC-based Commcore Consulting Group. "On the

other hand, we have tools that can help, and that's what we want to

do."



Jerry Murray of Minneapolis-based LaBreche Murray Public Relations adds

that the events of September 11 "have been a catalyst for clients to

contact us, review their (crisis) plan, and update it."



Companies need guidance with the Sisyphean labor of imagining what

disasters could strike their businesses and their industries, and

creating procedures for dealing with those mountains of possibility.

While few corporations are ready or able to start practicing disaster

scenarios, they are making it a priority to identify and preempt

them.



"What our clients are asking for at this specific moment is logistical

help - a tactical plan in the event there is a disaster," explains DKC

partner Sean Cassidy.



PR firms are now being asked to handle everything from new mail room

protocols to creating backup technology plans in case a facility is

bombed.



They are also being asked to provide personnel and experts to take over

communications duties in the event of a problem. SVP Robert Leonard of

DKC points out that "in addition to their skill sets," crisis managers

are in demand for the government and emergency agency contacts they can

bring to the table, often making them key players in crisis plans.



Preparing for the worst



Even in everyday proposals for special events and campaigns, crisis

planning is becoming a standard component, and crisis experts are

brought in to evaluate the most mundane of schemes.



Those kind of far-flung challenges create a "unique opportunity under

difficult circumstances to come out with a much stronger relationship

with clients," says Harrington.



While September 11 provided extreme examples of the changing nature of

crisis communication, it was a field in flux before the national

tragedy.



Since the haze of the new economy dawn began to burn off last year,

companies have been searching for ways to communicate financial declines

and changing fortunes to employees, stockholders, and the public. Many

companies have increasingly turned to their PR firms in recent months to

help deal with those economic problems. But financial stresses have also

meant shrinking PR expenditures.



"The conflict for a lot of US companies in working with their PR firms

has to do with the economy and being able to maintain a certain activity

level," says Murray of LaBreche Murray. "Client spending is tight. It's

down."



Many agencies began to focus more attention on their crisis management

offerings earlier this year as a way to tailor their propositions to the

realities of the business community, and provide services that

corporations could justify adding to their budgets.



At Burson-Marsteller, the "specialty work action team" (SWAT) was

created to address monetary crises such as bankruptcy and related issues

such as labor disputes, according to company president and CEO Chet

Burchett.



The unit musters top Burson crisis talent in quickly deployed task

forces.



Since its launch this summer, the team has handled a labor issue for an

East Coast company, and legal communications for a West Coast

corporation.



"It became increasingly obvious that the economy was not going to see a

quick bounce," says Burchett. "We wanted to see where the greatest value

lay in terms of what we could offer. Crisis communications is a crucible

for relationships if handled successfully. It can create some deep

bonds."



Reconsidering what's important



The attacks on the Twin Towers crystallized the significance of a

recession for US business, but also made fears of economic turmoil pale

next to the threat of terrorism in the workplace. Discussions on

handling the continuing economic decline now compete for space on

boardroom minutes with talk of threats of sabotage and bioterrorism.



Despite rising to the occasion when lower Manhattan was turned into

Ground Zero, most PR people admit that the enormity of the events was

beyond anything they - or their clients - had envisioned. While that did

lead to some missteps, such as the Starbucks flap over charging for

water at Ground Zero, most companies have gotten by on common sense and

compassion. But few want to rely solely on those basic skills in the

future. Instead, they will continue to place their trust in PR firms'

ability to foresee and forestall future disasters - creating the

opportunity to change clients into long-term allies.



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