Putting Out Fires

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2004

It's almost guaranteed that your business will face a crisis that will force it-and you-into the public eye. How you respond-quickly, confidently and empathetically or defensively and way too late-can cement your public image and dictate the failure or success of your business. We assembled a panel of local media experts in a cyber roundtable to discuss the sensitive and emotional world of crisis communications.

The Panel: Mel Klein is FPL external affairs manager for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

Joan Lowery of Lowery Communications specializes in communication skills training and works with Fortune 500 companies.

Kristine Nickel is vice president of program development and community services at Hospice of Southwest Florida. Formerly, she headed the communications and public relations functions at Tropicana Products, Inc.

Ken Plonski is vice president public relations and spokesperson for WCI Communities, Inc., one of Florida's largest developers.

Heidi Smith is president of Heidi Smith Communications, Inc., specializing in public policy, issues management and corporate image development.

Mike Vizvary of Mike Vizvary Communications, Inc. is an independent consultant specializing in corporate communications, marketing and journalism.

Here's what they had to say.

Which businesses should include a crisis communication plan and why?

Kristine Nickel: All businesses, when you consider that a crisis is any event that requires resources beyond the company's day-to-day capabilities.

Mel Klein: A business without a crisis plan will end up losing customers to those that are functioning under a practiced plan. A major crisis starts the clock all over with customers. Fail them in a crisis and your credibility is gone.

Mike Vizvary: It's a probability rather than a possibility that many organizations will confront a crisis. The meteor hits your factory or Canada bans your product because of its political squabble with Tobago. Why have a plan? Because it's a crisis. Your mind is trying to absorb what happened and you can't focus on what to do. People either freak or they rise to the occasion. With a written plan, you can sit, take a deep breath, open the book and start solving the problem. A plan will keep the organization out of "the bunker." When organizations go there, sealing themselves off from the world with "no comment," the trial of public opinion ends quickly. The verdict is "guilty," regardless of what really happened.

Joan Lowery: Ample recent examples in the area illustrate why all organizations need crisis planning. Take Sino-Fresh, the manufacturer of a much praised, over-the-counter allergy relief medicine, which went from being a local media darling to being accused of buying gifts with company money and illegally holding patents secretly. Then we have Infinium Labs, an up-and-coming game console developer, which suffered great potential loss at the hands of a Web site that accused the company of an incompetent management team. Sarasota Memorial Hospital could easily have tainted its award-winning image. The wrong patient was taken in for a diagnostic heart procedure. In this situation, CEO Duncan Finlay initiated what was obviously a planned and proactive crisis plan by calling the media in order to let them know what happened. This strategy is much more effective than waiting to be found out and then suffering the reactive negative consequences of being perceived as withholding information from the public.

What are the key points a crisis plan must include?

Klein: Advance preparation, teamwork, plus details, details, details. Who do I call for what? Are phone numbers up to date? And, it requires what is missing from so many plans: exercise. Any plan gathering dust on a shelf is useless. People and positions come and go, both internally and externally, technology evolves, and people forget-what's my role, who do I call, where can I get.? FPL's entire storm team goes through an annual drill with almost the entire company.

Nickel: At the most basic level, it should evolve from a "what if" scenario session at the very top of the company. Concern yourself with the characteristics of your business and the kinds of crises that could erupt. Do you have delivery trucks? What if one was involved in a fatal accident? Do you have any opportunities for production facility disasters? What about alleged wrongdoing by an employee? Just going through this exercise will motivate you to create a basic crisis communication plan.

Ken Plonski: You should not overlook the importance of your business' key stakeholders, those people who are important to your business, be it customers, suppliers or government officials. When a crisis strikes, you want to be strategizing and planning, not gathering lists. A list of stakeholders will allow you to communicate your side of the story to these key audiences quickly.

Heidi Smith: One element that is frequently overlooked when an organization doesn't have a plan is the internal audience-employees, members, even family members. Often they, not the media, deserve the first response.

Vizvary: The plan must identify the four or five senior people in the organization who would deal a crisis. The CEO is team captain. Determine how the team members can be reached in 30 minutes or less, where they will work together near the site of the crisis, and what support equipment and people they will need. Develop a tactical plan to communicate first with internal audiences: board members, trustees, employees, customers, investors, donors, lenders, etc., and second with external audiences: media, government, vendors, neighbors, etc.

Prepare a strategy about how to create a fact sheet and CEO talking points. Both will be continually updated, growing in greater detail, as the crisis unfolds. The fact sheet and talking points should be distributed to the media. "Here's what we know is true at this time." Any information released has to be indisputable fact-copper-riveted, steel-plated true facts.

Lowery: Inform all employees about the company's expectations about their behavior. During crises, rumors abound. Any employee can be the "unidentified spokesperson" who gets quoted in the press. It's critical for employees to understand why confidentiality is critically important during a crisis and to understand that they should avoid serving as informal, undesignated spokespeople for the company.

Develop a process to debrief after the crisis is resolved, so the crisis team and others can make suggestions for modifications and improvements to the plan.

How have you personally had to respond to the media in a crisis?

Vizvary: Four people who thought they had been exposed to anthrax drove themselves to the Emergency Care Center at Sarasota Memorial. This was the week following the fatal tainted letters episodes in the United States. Within three hours, about 12 television stations had arrived. In a 24-hour period, we fielded contacts from 67 news agencies around the country.

Nickel: About five years ago, Tropicana learned that a site it had used 30 years ago for a landfill was contaminated with trace elements of arsenic. That site was currently the home of a Head Start school. The media had to be our partner in communicating the facts and how those facts impacted the children who could have been exposed to the arsenic. That entailed lots of education, lots of testing and lots of handholding.

Klein: Everybody knows the key question for FPL: "When are my lights coming on?" During Tropical Storm Gabrielle I was on television, radio and in newspapers for consecutive days. My job was to be available, informed and responsive. Naturally, I felt pressure, but it's important to understand there's pressure on news media, too; know how they function, what they need. In my experience when you try to work with news media they'll play fair and be helpful. I try to take the initiative as much as possible, to keep news media up-to-date before they call me.

Plonski: At one of our gated communities here in Florida, a construction worked fell into a trench and was trapped. The media constantly monitors EMT communication so they knew about this situation and sent crews to the scene immediately. Our policy is that the media cannot enter a WCI community without my approval, so when they showed up at the gate, the guard gave me a call. We had our local PR representative on the scene immediately and he worked to keep the media informed about the situation. The EMT crews were very grateful that we could manage the media outside the gate and allow them to rescue the worker. This policy is not a favorite of local TV crews, but it allows us the opportunity to manage the situation on our terms. We do our very best to be accommodating.

How does it differ being a spokesperson in a crisis situation vs. a non-crisis situation?

Klein: In a crisis, deadlines are constant and phones are ringing nonstop, and information inside may be slower than we'd like. There's a temptation to go out with incomplete or unsubstantiated information. You can't do it. Sometimes the response has to be "We're working on it, we don't know yet, I can't confirm that, I'll call you back." For the spokesman and news media, fatigue and frustration can be problems. Don't abandon your guidelines; stay on message. A couple of functional tips: Keep a bottle of water handy; there's nothing like getting dry mouth when the camera is rolling; and have a cell phone battery "cooking" in recharge because you're going to deplete the one you're using.

Vizvary: A crisis is kind of like running a marathon-it wrings the energy from you during several days. Your mother was right: You need to eat and drink plenty of water to keep your mind clear. You'll lose weight anyway. You need to sleep occasionally. You might get cranky, but resist the urge to smack a reporter. The crisis demands your complete attention. All other work stops.

Smith: Remember everything's on the record, be factual, stay on message. It's important to acknowledge feelings, and that doesn't often come up in day-to-day business. One of the most powerful spokesmen I've seen was a local business executive whose company suffered the tragic death of an employee in a work-site accident. The executive met the TV cameras at the property's entrance, and spoke first about the loss felt by the family and the company's employees.

How important is it for a company to have a single spokesperson and how should a company decide who that should be?

Plonski: Conventional wisdom says put your CEO in front of the camera. I have also been involved in crises at other points in my career where the CEO was a rather volatile individual. Putting him in front of the national media would have only made things worse. In that case, I served as the spokesperson. Subject matter experts are also very handy in a crisis.

Smith: I like to have a primary and a secondary spokesman. I try to use just one for the entire situation, but that's not always possible. Communications skills and availability are key factors in making the choice. I believe in the buck stopping with the CEO, so that is always my preference.

Klein: We tend to say a "single voice" rather than literally a single spokesperson, one individual. Sometimes a designated single spokesman may not be available, especially in a prolonged crisis. Having media-trained backup is a must. During Gabrielle I could count on other FPL people, some locally and some sent in by headquarters, to at least hold the fort if I was unavailable.

Nickel: Having a single spokesperson is most applicable for a larger company that is frequently in the news or a public agency or politician. In a crisis situation, the rule is once you have designated a spokesperson, stick with that person even if that is not a regular role for that employee. Be objective about the selection; don't let egos get in the way.

Lowery: It is my opinion that more than one person should be designated. However, there should be a clear "pecking order" set out in the crisis communications plan as to who speaks to which audiences and under what circumstances. For example, in a large company, there may be a designated financial person to address financial issues; a public affairs person to address site-specific issues; a safety, or security executive to address safety issues; the CEO to speak for the company as a whole and a public relations professional to address image-related issues.

Vizvary: In a crisis, it's the chief executive officer. No doubt. Her or his physical presence shows how seriously the organization considers the situation and that the CEO is at the helm and in control. The CEO is not alone, however. Two members of the crisis team-experts in the operational details of the crisis-should accompany the CEO during all press conferences and interviews. Your attorney is the last person you want out in front of "the sticks and the pencils." It immediately defines the crisis as a legal problem, declares management AWOL and projects the perception that the organization assumes it is in the wrong. Don't let the lawyers stop the flow of information or send management into the bunker. As one CEO told me: "I assume we are going to get sued. That's the least of our worries. Let's get on with the real problem."

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