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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
The unit musters top Burson crisis talent in quickly deployed task
Since its launch this summer, the team has handled a labor issue for an
East Coast company, and legal communications for a West Coast
"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
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.