Business leaders, almost by definition, are a perturbable breed, so
it was to be expected that some of the respondents to the 2001
PRWeek/Burson-Marsteller CEO Survey - conducted after the events of
September 11 - would express dissatisfaction with the crisis plans in
place at their companies.
The precise level of unease, however, was surprisingly high. Only 19%
felt they had the right protocols in place at the time of the terrorist
attacks. Which means that roughly four out of every five corporate
communications executives has since been charged with building a
strategy capable of making their CEOs come across like Rudy
That's easier said than done, and not just because the former New York
mayor's now legendary coolness under fire isn't something that can ever
be learned from a media trainer. Even with the complete backing of upper
management, devising a cogent (but not cumbersome) blueprint for
communicating during a crisis takes a significant investment of time.
UPS, for example, has been tinkering with its plan for a year, and is
not expected to finish the project until sometime this spring. Once a
strategy is in place, it must be constantly updated to reflect the
latest developments within the corporation. And then, with its playbook
perfected and practice runs completed, the in-house communications team
has to be able to execute under pressure; during an actual calamity, it
is more important to read the situation expertly than it is to
robotically follow a preordained (and therefore possibly inappropriate)
course of action.
Management's support is key
The first step in developing an in-house crisis plan is the same as it
is for launching any major communications initiative: Get the honchos on
In the post-September-11 landscape, this shouldn't prove too
Every source consulted by PRWeek echoed the sentiment expressed by Bob
Godlewski, national media relations manager and designated "crisis
coordinator" for UPS. "If you know of a top management layer that
doesn't want a crisis communications plan, and you've got stock in them,
I'd cash out," he says, "because that's a bad situation." And what about
CEOs who are willing to get behind a crisis plan just so long as they
don't have to make room in the budget? "Ask them if they're okay with a
30%-40% drop in their share price, or with alienating 30% of their
prospects, or jettisoning 10% of their customers," Godlewski
Adds GE manager of public affairs Gary Sheffer, "Take a look at the
market value of corporations that haven't planned well for crises -
that's your ROI right there."
Once resources are made available, the challenge - both for firms trying
to enhance their plans, as well as those building from scratch - is to
brainstorm possible vulnerabilities. Clearly, in-house PR staffers have
an advantage over hired agency help when it comes to spotting potential
trouble spots. But there's also a danger in trying to come up with an
exhaustive list. Think of the crisis plan as being like a suit of armor:
It has to cover all the obvious targets, but if constructed too rigidly,
the company will lose the flexibility it will need when reacting to
problems on a case-by-case basis.
"If I had a script written out for everything," explains Tony Cervone,
GM's executive director of communications, "then I might miss a nuance
that might be the most important part of a message in a given
Many multinational corporations maintain separate crisis strategies for
each division or site, which then dovetail into a broader,
organization-wide plan. UPS' Godlewski calls this the "different recipes
for different cooks" approach, and points out that it allows offices to
devote the greatest amount of advance preparation to the threats they
are most likely to face.
"The California units better have a plan for earthquakes," he says.
"What they need in New York, on the other hand, is ideas on how to deal
Along with its dexterousness, the speed of a crisis response stands
As such, the in-house PR squad should also take measures to compress the
approval process on the communiques it will need to release during times
Then, when all contingencies and related to-do lists have been signed
off on, it becomes vital to fit them into a streamlined document - one
that would actually prove usable during the throes of a practice
exercise or catastrophe.
"The big joke," says Nancy Lovre, head of corporate communications at
Baxter International, "was that the first thing you do in any crisis is
throw out the manual." Godlewski, hoping to avoid a similar fate for his
protocols when they're finalized later this year, reports that efforts
are underway to winnow UPS' crisis binder down to 10 pages or less.
Practice makes perfect
"You can't buy fire insurance in the middle of a fire," says Sharon
Gamsin, VP of global communications at MasterCard, "and if the first
time your crisis team meets is in the middle of a crisis, then you have
a problem." That comment points to the second major area of
responsibility for a corporate crisis coordinator: practice, practice,
"We do regular drills," says Linda Rutherford, director of PR for
Southwest Airlines. "We get all our employees to be actors and actresses
- which they're very good at - and they call in to the hotlines we have,
set up and pose the sorts of questions we might be hit with in a given
crisis." Cervone ascribes a similar eagerness to workers at GM. "I've
found people more than willing to brainstorm, even role play," he says.
"We set up simulations where the information comes in fast and furious,
just like it would during a real crisis. Exercises like that are great
for working out the kinks."
It is after such exercises that checklists can be tweaked to reflect on
any unexpected wrinkles that arose during the run-through. Other, more
mundane stumbling blocks - the sort that loom the largest during an
emergency - can easily be taken care of when everything is business as
usual: Contact lists can be pruned of outdated entries, batteries added
to dead flashlights, special crisis communications websites can be
switched on to check if they function properly, and backup systems can
be tested for readiness.
"You have to try to control as many variables as you can when things are
normal," Godlewski explains.
Gaining the boss' trust
One variable the corporate crisis communicator should definitely attend
to during periods of relative calm is his standing with the CEO. When a
company is impacted by disaster, it's often necessary to deal with
reporters while answers to their toughest questions remain unavailable -
not a situation relished by the average executive. But management will
be more eager to address the press conference if they trust their
communications staffers in the first place. "A lot of it comes down to
your relationship with the CEO," says Cervone. "If it's natural to be
communicating to people, then you find the leadership quite willing to
do what needs to be done."
From the moment a crisis plan is finally pressed into use, a corporate
communications department enters a 60-minute period, sometimes referred
to as "the golden hour." As that block of time ticks away, the response
team makes what often becomes its most important reads, determining
damage levels, and deciding what level of executive needs to be put
before the television cameras.
The 2001 PRWeek/Burson-Marsteller CEO survey revealed that half of those
surveyed felt it was "absolutely vital" that a company's chief executive
act as its spokesperson during a crisis. In the 2000 survey, only 42%
percent of respondents held that view, perhaps indicating that corporate
PR professionals who confront tragedies in the future will find
themselves working with bosses who can't wait to unveil their Giuliani
They won't all succeed in coming across as Rudy-like, and for many
less-serious problems, it doesn't even make sense to try. "Depending on
the situation, the presence of the CEO could sort of elevate a minor
mistake into a full-blown crisis," says Gamsin. "I don't think people
should always rush to put their top people out there before assessing
whether that would be appropriate."
Review in the aftermath
After the turmoil has passed, a crisis-response crew still has clean-up
work to do, and can often benefit from calling in some outside
By retaining a PR agency to help sort out what went wrong, members of
the in-house communications office avoid jeopardizing their ties to the
business managers they'll need to continue working with. Agency experts
are also often more capable of completing the tough inquiries, because
they lack an emotional connection to the incident.
Of course, sometimes it's not necessary to commission a case study to
know that a crisis plan needs a new component. In the weeks following
September 11, Eric Rabe, Verizon's VP of national media relations,
realized that his company had not decided whether it should put all
internet-based crisis communications under the authority of a single
employee. "The other big change," he says, "is that we now have a couple
of remote setups in place, so that if we lose our headquarters building,
we have a couple of places the response team could go and still have
almost all of the communications capabilities we have there."
MasterCard's Gamsin, for her part, felt that she needed a smaller -
though no less essential - hardware upgrade. "I got a new two-way
pager," she says.
But no matter how insights are gained, it's important that they are
formally incorporated into the existing protocols, thereby making the
overall strategy that much stronger. After all, as Rabe points out, it's
those little revisions that allow an in-house crisis coordinator to look
like a cool-headed hero when the heat is on. "The process of thinking
through what I would do if something bad happens, and how I would handle
it," he says, "is the process of preparing to perform well in a
CRISIS PLAN CHECKLIST
- Invite individual sites to develop protocols for the distinct problems
that may arise at their locations. Then check that those strategies are
in sync with a broader, company-wide crisis plan.
- Share crisis communications success stories with different units of
- Stage surprise drills to test responsiveness of designated crisis team
members.Schedule tests of all emergency communications equipment, and
make sure to regularly update all relevant contact lists.
- Earn the CEO's trust during periods of calm so that he or she will
have confidence in your instructions when called upon to issue
statements in the middle of a calamity.
- Resist the urge to send the CEO out to address a minor mishap; in some
situations, a statement by an upper manager can cause a problem to seem
more serious than it is.
- Always conduct a postmortem review to ensure that communications
mistakes made during a crisis aren't swept under the rug, only to be
repeated when the next disaster strikes. Consider retaining an outside
agency to conduct the inquiry; consultants can often bring much-needed
objectivity to the learning process.
- Avoid drafting rigid crisis-response scripts; each incident requires
its own unique, carefully nuanced message to suit the problem at hand.