PR TECHNIQUE: CRISIS PLANS - Putting together a crisis plan that sticks. Most companies have crisis plans, which, when the crisis hits, they ignore. Sherri Deatherage Green explores what goes into a good crisis plan - and how to develop one that people wi

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.

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

moment’s notice.

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

your program.

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.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in