Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Be Ready for a Crisis... Or Else!
Crisis communications and crisis management should be the crowning achievement of the PR world – it shows the ability of the PR professional to take charge of a potentially explosive situation and effectively defuse it. And, indeed, there are many sterling examples of crisis communications efforts (the most notably being the 1982 Tylenol tampering crisis).
But at the same time, too much crisis communications is reactive and not proactive. The PR person is often the last to know something has gone very wrong – and the reason for that is because of what was stated earlier about the lack of access to the C-Suite. In this case, it is a double-edged problem.
For the PR professional, who is not considered an equal to the others at the C-Suite table, it means having to work overtime (literally and figuratively) to put out the fires created by a crisis. And for the executives in the C-Suite, who are unaware of what the PR professional can provide to their mission (see last week’s Gospel), it exposes them a multitude of problems (ranging from tarnished images to criminal investigation and all points in between).
"PR professionals need to convince the C-Suite, especially the General Counsel, that they must understand that news is controversy and controversy is news,” says Steve Ellis, senior vice president with Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. “Crisis management to a large extent is news management. If you do not understand news, you cannot manage a crisis. To extrapolate: if a company, organization or country does not understand news, the people running these entities will fail. It’s that simple.”
Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates in New York, believes that most corporations only consider reputation management as a reaction to a crisis, rather than as a proactive process to stave off potential problems. “Indeed, crisis preparedness is not usually at the forefront of corporate communications planning,” he says. “Ironically, it should be because more and more corporations are facing reputations in crisis because of unethical, immoral and legal behavior of executives within the corporate world. Just open your daily newspaper and count the dozens of stories highlighting corporate misdeeds.”
Paul continues: “Truth, transparency, accountability, humility and consistency are the building blocks or reputation bricks for a corporation. A corporation is made up of many individuals. These rules are for executives, employees and support staff. They are easy to talk about, but difficult to consistently put into practice because of deceitful human behavior.”
At the New York agency Peppercom, an in-house crisis communications program called CARES is used for crisis in need of such assistance. The CARES acronym stands for Composure and collection of information, Assessment, Reaction, Evaluation and Success (okay, we’ll forgive them for stretching that “C” a bit).
“CARES has been effectively implemented for Peppercom clients of all sizes to create realistic and logical processes to follow during and after the onset of a crisis,” explains Ted Birkhahn, managing director at Peppercom. “CARES also provides a true measuring stick by which these crisis management processes and actions can be continually improved after a crisis takes place, allowing for quick modification, if necessary.”
Birkhahn points out that his agency delivers a three-part crisis training-drill-assessment program to prepare senior executives and crisis teams for any crisis situation. This includes a mock-crisis situation (which creates a two-to-three-hour imaginary crisis scenario that is captured on videotape), which is then followed by a diagnostic review of that mock-crisis that results in a professional assessment and recommendation of where improvement may be needed.
“We carefully review the video, process, notes taken by the team, their assessment of how well they did and our own ongoing assessment,” explains Birkahn. “This would showcase a gap that might exist on how well they think they are prepared but really aren’t. Through our assessment, our deliverable is to present ‘the good, bad and ugly’ of how well the team did and to provide detailed recommendations (being consistent with client procedures) to the team the next day. These recommendations would actually be presented in a three-ring binder. Based upon the crisis team’s actual handling of the simulated crisis, we will also present them with a fictitious end-result that occurred (i.e. an article, directive from within the company, etc.), so they can truly understand how their actions led to something good, bad or nothing at all.”
The day after that mock-crisis, Birkhahn and his team holds a strategic training session to review specific findings, offer recommendations and then offer training tips on how the crisis should be handled the next time around. That can last from three to four hours.
As you may gather, that level of in-depth crisis training requires time, energy and the full cooperation of senior management. For the PR professionals who can obtain all of that, the end result could be invaluable. For those who cannot, however…well, let’s just say it might be helpful to have a clean rag ready in the event the fan gets hit with you-know-what.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
Display comments as (Linear | Threaded)