Crisis-communications plans can be good examples of poet Robert Burns’ ’best laid schemes o’ mice and men.’ They often go awry, maybe because mice naturally tend to scurry and men instinctively defend themselves with big traps.
Crisis-communications plans can be good examples of poet Robert
Burns’ ’best laid schemes o’ mice and men.’ They often go awry, maybe
because mice naturally tend to scurry and men instinctively defend
themselves with big traps.
A good crisis plan won’t presume to predict the future, but it can help
CEOs resist the urge to go to the mattresses, and it can give underlings
a framework upon which to act with calm and purpose.
Most major American companies have crisis plans but don’t necessarily
use them, notes Al Tortorella, managing director for Burson-Marsteller
in New York. ’I have counseled hundreds of companies in all levels of
crisis,’ Tortorella adds. ’Not once did a single one of those companies
follow their own plan.’
Experts agree the main reason crisis plans never leave the shelf is
because they aren’t the CEO’s idea. ’When bad things occur, they often
can be executive-career-defining moments and therefore (CEOs) like to
take charge,’ says White Plains PR pro James Lukaszewski. An alert
system is dead in the water if the big boss and his trusted advisers
don’t support and understand it. Some PR pros use scare tactics to sell
crisis planning, but Lukaszewski warns against ’Chicken Little’
syndrome. Worst-case scenarios must be realistic and potentially harmful
enough to raise legitimate concern.
BSMG didn’t have to paint a picture of panic for the Bahamas Ministry of
Tourism before developing the program that won PRWeek’s recent crisis
communication campaign award. ’Hurricane Andrew gave everyone an
extremely healthy respect for what Mother Nature can do,’ concedes Rene
Mack, head of BSMG’s travel practice.
Among the first steps in developing an effective plan is setting up a
team of high-level executives. Lawyers should be brought in up front
since most crises carry legal repercussions, notes Howard Rubenstein. PR
pros must play key roles but Tom Preston of Preston Global says they
should view communication as part of a larger crisis-management mix. The
team should meet at least quarterly to keep the plan up to date and to
identify emerging risks, advises Jeffrey Caponigro, author of The Crisis
Spokespeople also should be identified at this stage. To what extent and
at what point CEOs should take the lead publicly is a topic of much
debate, but a least one primary spokesperson and a few backups should be
trained to handle media pressure.
A risk-assessment phase often follows team organization. Brainstorming,
conducting employee interviews, gauging brand loyalty and monitoring the
competition help uncover vulnerability.
SeNet, an Illinois software firm, markets a reputation management tool
that organizes questionable incidents into a database that can be
analyzed for risk potential, says president Jim Kartalia. Inevitably,
the risk-assessment process reveals operational or procedural problems
that, if fixed, can prevent crises. If communicators lead the crisis
team, they should point out such concerns clearly but
A strong crisis plan also addresses logistics. The team should decide
where to set up a ’war room’ and press facilities. Tortorella says
strategy will be directed from the CEO’s office or meeting room, so make
sure necessary equipment and supplies are on hand.
An emergency call list also is a vital tactical tool. Such a list should
include contact information for team members and for key journalists -
who will call you if you don’t call them. Customer service reps should
be in the loop since they often are the first to field customer
complaints, and a Webmaster should be poised to update the site at a
Company backgrounders also should be kept up to date.
’When a crisis hits, you don’t want to go through the process of getting
legal sign-off on materials,’ says Stephen Aiello, CEO of Cohn &
The ultimate document produced through crisis planning should be short
and flexible. A three-inch binder will only collect dust. If an
organization has a strong communications staff that regularly deals with
reporters and other audiences, the written crisis plan should closely
reflect its daily activity, advises Douglas Ward, former public affairs
director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. ’If your staff has to stop and
say, ’How do I behave?’ the whole operation will be paralyzed,’ Ward
Periodic, and preferably unannounced, mock crises are like fire drills
for corporate reputation. But your system won’t get used if real-life
calamities bear little resemblance to drill scenarios. Hill & Knowlton
uses its Virtual Crisis CD-ROM to simulate the real thing. Northwest
Airlines hired actors and called on colleagues from competing airlines
to pose as reporters for drills, recalls Marta Laughlin, who recently
left Northwest for Edelman. Companies should evaluate carefully the
outcomes of drills and actual crises and constantly adjust their plans
accordingly, Preston notes. A change in CEOs also calls for revisiting
A well laid-out crisis plan won’t necessarily be followed to the letter
when things go awry, but it can dispel management’s ’it can’t happen to
us’ attitude and mitigate bunker mentality. ’A plan limits the number of
decisions that inevitably have to be made, assigns responsibilities and
enables the company to be proactive during a crisis,’ says Oliver
Schmidt, senior partner at C4CS.
DOs and DON’Ts
1 Strive to build the CEO’s trust in the communications staff and its
2 Train spokespeople who will step out front in a crisis.
3 Decide where your organization’s ’war room’ will be.
4 Create an emergency call list of team members and key journalists.
5 Evaluate crisis drills and actual crises, and adjust the plan
1 Write your crisis plan in a vacuum - involve key executives and
personnel and especially the boss.
2 Assume a new CEO will embrace an old crisis plan.
3 Create a huge crisis-plan document - it will just be ignored.
4 Think a reporter won’t write a story if you don’t return his or her
5 Develop a plan and then, when the crisis hits, ignore it.