September 11 changed just what constitutes a 'crisis,' but the need for crisis plans remain. As a result, the response could be more telling than the crisis itself.It's become a cliche to say that America has changed since September 11, and to talk of the "new normal.
One needs only to have seen last week's two-hour CBS documentary about that day to be vividly reminded of how profoundly it transformed this country.
But moving beyond the cliche to look at how September 11 changed crisis communications is a bit trickier.
Some crisis experts are quick to say that their work has boomed since September 11, as companies rush to either review existing crisis plans or create new ones that include the element of terrorism.
"There are a hell of a lot more people interested in crisis planning than there were before,
says Tom Joyce, a partner with Carmichael Lynch Spong (CLS) in Minneapolis, who until recently ran communications for American Express Financial Advisors. "Before September 11, we addressed the usual crises. But September 11 forces us to imagine the unimaginable."
In an informal poll of its client advisory committee last November, the Council of PR Firms found crisis communications the number-one concern for that group of roughly 30 corporate communications people.
Commensurately, Fleishman-Hillard's special situations group in New York has seen business rise 25% since September 11.
Helene Solomon, president of Bishoff Solomon Communications, a midsize Boston firm, says her agency is usually handling one major crisis assignment at this time of year. Today, it has one major crisis client and four to six others who fear they have smaller crises to deal with.
Not everyone has seen crisis work increase, though. Some say the change has been more talk than action in some sectors of corporate America.
"I think September 11 changes everything - and it changes nothing,
says Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. Levick works with law firms, and says he hasn't seen a dramatic change in their concerns about crisis planning.
But regardless of volume, most agree that the nature of crisis PR has changed. Most also concur that a new focus on preparing for terrorist attacks and massive business disruptions has diverted crisis planning away from more run-of-the-mill business scenarios that could damage companies' reputations.
That isn't to say, however, that culpability has been taken out of the companies' hands. "The majority of executives find it easier to accept this new world than to realize the old world is still there too,
says Larry Smith, president of the Institute of Crisis Management. "Some good has come out of September 11 in terms of communications planning, and there's been some frustrations on my part."
Tom Barritt, global director of Ketchum's issues and crisis management area, agrees: "I think it would be a mistake for companies to think that crises were now only about situations that affect them. There is a great deal of mistrust of corporations in the post-Enron environment that will continue to impact corporate reputation in a crisis."
Changes in crisis communications
Among the many changes since September 11 is that the very definition of a corporate crisis has expanded. "The key issue is what is foreseeable, and that has definitely changed dramatically. If you own a business, you have to foresee the possibility of tragic events or terrorist acts you could not foresee six months ago,
That means companies need to shift their crisis planning focus from situations in which the company may be the villain, to one in which the company is victim, says Peter McCue, SVP and director of Fleishman's special situations group (which counts United Airlines, one of the companies directly impacted by September 11, as a client). Furthermore, Ogilvy PR last week launched Counter Threat, a crisis service designed to help clients anticipate emergency scenarios that go beyond the typical crisis of yesteryear, in which a client would make a major error and have to deal with the consequences.
Solomon agrees: "There is a higher sensitivity to external issues to the organization that might have a ripple effect on the company."
United did a masterful crisis job on September 11 by quickly realizing it couldn't handle the situation with the same crisis approach it would take for a crash of one of its jets, McCue argues. Rather than trying to be the center of information and handle the matter on its own, United reached out to American Airlines, and they worked together, deciding to let the government be the information clearinghouse on the events of that day, McCue says.
The duration and scope of crisis planning is also changing. Companies that once thought of a crisis as lasting perhaps a week are now planning for months and years of uncertainty.
Joyce says one of his clients has looked back to World War II to see how it should deal with ongoing issues regarding employee safety and rumors that arise in wartime.
"These are not one-time problems that will go away,
says Kamer Davis, an SVP with Ogilvy's Counter Threat, which has already dealt with such issues as safety at the recent Salt Lake City Olympics. "Historically, people like to talk about threats in crisis work. Now it's not the threat, it's the consequences. The terrorist threat you can't predict, but you can predict what happens if your phones don't work."
Taking that long view is also bringing crisis communications planning together with disaster planning and business continuity planning - areas that were once handled in isolation, CLS' Joyce observes. "There used to be contingencies where five of us would work from different locations," he adds. "But what if 500 of us were in different locations?"
What once was a technological nightmare, with the communications team issuing a release at some point, Joyce continues, would now be planned for, with systems in place for employees to work remotely, aided by strong internal communications.
Ed Moed, who runs seminars and workshops under Peppercom's CARES crisis program, says companies want to look at "all-around crisis management communications being one piece. There are organizations out there putting together as many pieces as they can."
Business as usual
Putting the pieces together for the post-September-11 crisis communications paradigm still doesn't change the more rudimentary aspects of the business.
"It all comes down to doing the right thing for the audiences who are most important to you,
says Fleishman's McCue. Organizations affected by tragedy will be seen as victims worthy of public sympathy until they forget that rule, he argues.
"On September 11, I don't think anybody was considered guilty, but by September 14, I think you were guilty if you were not doing the right thing,
he says, pointing to the controversy the Red Cross brought on itself over its use of funds donated for September 11 relief efforts.
Companies that are victims of future terrorist attacks will need to assure their key audiences that they were doing what they could to prevent such events, contends Daren Williams, a Fleishman SVP in Kansas City, MO, who oversees crisis work there. "I believe you need to be prepared to answer the questions, 'Did you assess your vulnerabilities to such an attack and put measures in place to prevent it from happening?' and, 'If not, why not,'
Some sectors, such as the energy business, are already planning for the new world of such questions, says Davis. Other companies would be well advised to follow suit. Otherwise, they could find future crisis situations in which they get skewered not for what they did, but for what they failed to do.