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Public Relations 101 – Lessons Five B – Dealing with an outside crisis

In Media relations. on March 23, 2009 at 12:26 pm

In 1984 the small village of Barneveld, Wis. was almost destroyed by a tornado. Nine people were killed as the monster storm swept most of the village away. It looked as if someone had a taken a giant sponge and wiped away 80 percent of the houses and businesses. This was crisis of major proportions.

What does this have to do with your company? How the people of the village, and all the various emergency personnel, dealt with the dozens of reporters and cameras that descended on their community is the best example of I have ever seen of crisis communications. Did they have a crisis communications plan? I am sure some of the emergency responders – the Red Cross, the Wisconsin National Guard, and other agencies did. I am just as sure that Barneveld’s residents – and the hundreds of their neighbors who rushed to help – did not. Yet, they did a masterful job.

By the way, it is still better to have a plan. It is even better to rehearse that plan at least once a quarter. The people of Barneveld were extraordinary under pressure. Don’t ever count on that. Be ready instead.

I speak from personal experience. I was one of the first reporters on the scene. I spent almost week there, doing story after story.

I learned a lot there about dealing with a crisis. The things I saw put into action apply to how your company should deal with a natural disaster or some other crisis caused by an outside agent. The people who dealt with us media types did a fantastic job under the worse of conditions. As a result, the story turned from a village destroyed to a village rebuilding. It went from a negative to a positive.

That’s the goal in a crisis. This is your chance to show how your company functions in extreme conditions. It’s simple really: anyone can function when things are easy. The real test comes when things are tough. That’s the true measure of a company.

 A side note: when I was in Barneveld, I had no thought that one day I would be doing public relations and marketing. But, for some reason, I kept some of my notes from that story. There’s a lesson in that for all of us – you never know when a piece of knowledge will be useful.

Remember, crisis communications is like a battlefield. A badly handled crisis can severely wound, even kill a company. There are no do-overs – you have one chance to get it right. Get it wrong, and if you’re lucky, you might restore a reputation in a decade or so.

As I said last week, the overriding rule in any crisis is to immediately communicate your concern – for the stock price, the injured people, the effect on the environment, whatever. It is also important to communicate as fast and as accurately as possible.

I saw that those two rules put into action in Barneveld. A command post/media center was set up in one of the few buildings left standing – a farm implement dealer’s storage shed. The various agencies coordinated their press relations so they spoke as one. The information was always timely and accurate. Besides regular press briefings, there was always someone on hand to provide whatever information the press needed.

That is key. Make sure everyone is informed, especially your employees. If there’s an accident in a factory, make sure your employees have the full story. They should because they are most affected. Your employees should always be the first one told about what’s going to happen next. They are going to be understandably concerned about their injured friends and the company’s future. Make sure you do everything possible to quell their fears.

Also, it is inevitable the media will interview some of your employees. That cannot be prevented. So, it’s better they have the entire story.

A note about that: the media demands first person accounts of any disaster. Their viewers or readers expect it. It adds immediacy to the story. So, they are going to try and talk to employees. If the company has done its job in taking care of those employees, those interviewed will say so. That kind of third party endorsement of the company is the best kind of public relations.

Do not try to control an employee interview. If you feel the interview should be done in a controlled circumstance, such as the company’s offices, go ahead. If you want a public relations person in the room, that’s fine also. But, let the employee talk. The public relations person should be there as a resource, not a controller. The media is very suspicious of anyone who appears coached or appears not to be saying anything. It will look like you have something to hide.

As for empathy – every leader from the governor and a U.S. Senator down to Barneveld Village President did two things: walked around the village to talk and hear stories; and saw to it every kind of assistance needed was provided. All those leaders demonstrated something else: actions speak louder than words. Yes, it is a cliché, but it’s true. They were not there just for photo opportunities; they were there to offer genuine assistance. That made a big impression on those directly affected.

Here are other lessons I learned:

  • Be as open as possible with the media. Do not hold anything back. Of course, you do not want a victim’s family to find out from a news report that a family member is dead. But as soon as possible after the family has been informed, release the names. The media will find out eventually anyway.
  • Give the media has much access as possible. Provide updates as soon as you have new information. It is human nature to try and fill a vacuum. That’s how rumors start and spread. The media can be your ally. If they are reporting the facts, rumors will get quashed.

Next week, I will be discussing what happens when crisis is caused by something a company does. That’s the most difficult of all crisis communications.

My background: I worked as a reporter for 25 years in central Illinois, upstate New York, suburban Detroit and Milwaukee. I now help companies with marketing communications through my company – JJC Communications LLC. If you want to know more about my company, and myself, click the link.

I am available for speaking on media relations, or counseling your company on that or on your other public relations needs. I can be reached at 414-763-8310 or jjccomm@wi.twcbc.com.

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  1. Jeff, I think this is relevant. We had a fire in a recent comapny I worked for and several people refused to leave the building because they were not convinced it was real. It was an hour before we could find someone with the authority to change their mind. As their manager I was appaulled that no one knew what to do. It did not have serious consequences but short of telling fire officials and my Director I was at a loss how to handle this.
    Jim Wesley.

  2. I handled crisis communications/media relations for a company accused of causing a commercial airliner to crash in the Florida Everglades. The most important note of caution I can offer is to have good legal counsel advising or speaking for the company if you want it to survive. Many lives were lost that day and the horror of such an event cannot be minimized. The best you can do is to see that those remaining at the company still have jobs in the future by doing a good job handling post-disaster communications. Our hearts went out to the families and our heads worked for the rest of those who could easily have been additional victims had the company closed. Fortunately it was acquitted of all wrongdoing. Unfortunately, the company subsequently closed because of the cost of litigation to defend it. Have a crisis plan, as Jeff recommends. Practice crisis plans and think about every possible thing that can go wrong. It likely will. But keep in mind that litigation can cost a company its life just as much as a crisis and plan and communicate accordingly.

  3. Jeff, i think you’ve mentioned good features for “crisis-fighters”. There is only one thing I’d like to argue 🙂 in a good way! You’ve mentioned that “…restore a reputation in a decade or so.” If You ment decade that “10 years” – its OK! If decade is “10 days”…. Reputation is something you can easily built or restore in 10 years. On the other hand, the only thing one can do in 10 days is to create an short-time image!

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