Crisis Communications: When 'It Can't Happen Here' Happens Here

How to develop a plan for effective crisis management and communications.

Does this approach to crisis management sound a little too familiar? You tell the CEO, "It can't happen here." The CEO tells you, "It just did happen here." You frantically search for emergency response documents and telephone lists. Just to be safe, you also check the classified ads, in case the hastily arranged emergency response and crisis management programs do not work. Failure occurs when a workplace accident, fire or environmental release causes more damage (to your people, equipment, productivity or reputation) than it should have.

Fortunately, there is a better way through effective crisis management planning, and, if an incident does occur, crisis management and communications. Every organization needs a solid plan, an opportunity for drills and simulations, and a core crisis team that reports directly to the CEO or some other person in senior management.

The formation of a core team should occur at the crisis prevention and planning stage, although other members can be added to the team to deal with certain types of incidents. Disciplines that should be involved include senior management, the EHS profession, operations, community and government relations, legal affairs, human resources and, for a public company, investor relations.

What Is a Crisis?

A crisis is anything that threatens significant damage to an organization and its employees, products, services, financial condition or reputation. Crises come in a variety of forms:

  • Organization is victim -- product tampering, natural disasters, protests boycotts or terrorism.
  • Organization is at fault -- product recalls, environmental spills, discrimination.
  • Responsibility unclear -- fire/explosion, harassment, product liability.

Characteristics of a crisis, which make dealing with them difficult, include:

  • They are a surprise, often in timing and in scope.
  • There is little information and precious little time for thoughtful analysis due to the quickening pace of events.
  • The company, industry and operations in question are under a magnifying glass.
  • First impressions drive people's feelings and actions for at least a while.
  • Confusion reigns; no one is in control of the whole situation.
  • People quickly lose trust and doubt "the company line."

A Crisis Management System

There are seven phases of crisis management, all of which require the EHS professional's participation. The seven phases are: prevention, preparation, detection, containment, recovery, measurement and continuous improvement.

Prevention: This includes the area where many EHS professionals already excel -- providing safe and healthy workplaces, safety training, and environmentally sound operations to minimize risks.

However, this area also includes involvement in community outreach programs such as plant tours, emergency drills and public committees. Such public and community relations strategies build up goodwill in the "perception bank," which can pay off later in a company getting the benefit of the doubt before all of the facts are in. People will not "assume the worst" or worry about "what you're not saying." Of course, once the facts are in, if the company's performance is found wanting or its reputation damaged, it should be an easier road to recovery.

Preparation: This includes developing a crisis management plan containing detailed operating instructions, evacuation procedures and emergency staffing requirements. In addition, a crisis communications plan should include a risk assessment of the likelihood and severity of all potential crises, as well as identify key audiences and who should address each of them.

Detection: Most crises send off early warning signals. For example, past accidents, injury data, employee/community complaints provide clues as to what types of crises to be prepared for. News coverage, online publications, Internet chat rooms and forums are other places where detection can start. In fact, an Internet rumor about unsafe equipment or procedures can become a crisis quickly, even if no accident has occurred.

Containment: The goal is to limit the crisis' duration and impact. Just like containing a fire, containing an incident involves not allowing it to spread to other work areas and locations, or to spiral out of control. This is the stage where credible risk assessment and control procedures can demonstrate that a particular crisis is an isolated incident.

For example, in 1993, when a customer found a hypodermic needle in a Diet Pepsi can, the bottler and Pepsi-Cola responded with a careful explanation of its quality control procedures, and demonstrated early on that the process was so automated that it was impossible for the needle to come from the plant. Ultimately, a thorough investigation revealed that the initial tampering and numerous copycat incidents did not occur at the plant, but were schemes to win publicity and large settlements. Pepsi survived "The Great Pepsi Hoax" and improved on an already-strong market position.

Recovery: Restore confidence among key audiences as soon as possible. Prove to them that everything has returned to normal, or, in some cases, better than normal. Where possible, work with third parties to help validate your claims that all is well. Sometimes, for example, a local fire chief, OSHA official or community leader will reveal that "the company did everything it could do, and management should be commended for that." The third party has to feel that way on his or her own, after working with you. Do not try to talk outsiders into helping you with your recovery; more often than not, aggressively soliciting help will backfire.

For example, in helping a large warehouse operator recover from a devastating fire, Dix & Eaton worked with the company's top management and local elected and public safety officials to respond to concerns from customers, the community and the media. The company was positioned as a strong, long-term member of the community and industry leader. The company went out of its way to thank fire departments, paramedics and other community services, and quickly announced plans to rebuild and reinvest in its local operations. In fact, this company, despite facing a threat that was serious enough to have put it out of business, ended up with a "better-than-ever" story to tell.

Measurement: Ask yourself questions such as: How long did the crisis last? Did our messages get out? How effective were our spokespeople? What impact did the crisis have on key audiences? What was the financial impact? How did we respond operationally? Did our EHS procedures work?

Continuous Improvement: If you don't like the answers you get to the above questions, focus on getting better. Even if you feel good about the outcome, learn from the experience because, by nature, every crisis is different.

Working with the Media

Companies should decide who is going to be their primary crisis spokesperson, and provide him or her with public speaking/media training. In addition, depending on the incident, the plant manager, safety director or corporate EHS administrator may need to be available as subject matter experts for press briefings and media calls.

Having someone with a technical or operations background can lend credibility to the comments, as long as he or she stays focused on the big picture and is not too technical. In addition, companies must not create the impression that their best people are more interested in public relations than responding to and preventing crises.

When communicating about a crisis, remember to follow the ACTS principle of good crisis communications. You must be:

Accurate: Be truthful upfront, not just when pressed. Provide the facts without speculating.

Concise: Speak in short, digestible sound bites. Get to the point.

Timely: Be first on the scene, first to respond to questions. He or she who hesitates loses control of the communications process.

Sympathetic: Identify with the people who have been impacted. Empathize with their fear, anger or frustration.

In working with the media, it is important to determine the company's message and the reporter's angle. Try to bring the two together in a win-win situation. For example, if there is a fatal fall on a construction site, the reporter's angle is the victim, his or her family, the co-workers, and the job and job site in question. The company's message should focus on sympathy for the worker, family and co-workers; a commitment to cooperating with authorities and understanding what happened; and the overall importance of employee safety.

Later on, the media may focus on whether the job is going to be delayed or will drive up costs, especially if it is a high-profile project that is receiving public funding. Interviews should always bridge back to a company's key messages, which can be found in vision and mission statements and other documents that set the tone for an organization.

Do's and Dont's

The following are crisis interview tactics that have proven to work in a number of situations:

  • Develop key messages beforehand.
  • Develop a list of likely questions -- and know the answers.
  • Conduct a role-play rehearsal.
  • Do your homework on the reporter, especially reviewing past articles.
  • Stay calm -- watch "nonverbals" that might signal anger or worry.
  • Comment on verified facts but don't speculate.

The following are some temptations to avoid:

  • Don't say "no comment"; at the very least, answer early questions with your key messages.
  • Don't place blame before the official facts have been well documented.
  • Don't repeat negative questions, redirect them.
  • Don't think of a reporter as a friend or enemy.
  • Don't mislead the press purposely.
  • Don't say anything off the record.

For companies to implement solid, comprehensive crisis communications programs, EHS professionals must be part of the crisis prevention, planning and response efforts. Neglected or poor crisis communications programs have the potential to destroy companies' relationships with everyone from employees and customers to investors and the general public. Done well, crisis communications protects companies when they are most vulnerable and even provides an opportunity to enhance their positioning with key constituencies.

A former broadcast journalist, Kevin Donahue is senior vice president, crisis communications for Dix & Eaton, a Cleveland, Ohio-based full-service public relations and investor relations firm. Donahue works with clients on crises involving occupational health and safety, emergency planning and response, natural disasters, fires, legal matters,Y2K, labor relations, and mergers and acquisitions. He can be reached by calling 216-241-4632 or via e-mail at [email protected] .

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