Everyday PR

Did Titanic Folks Have a Crisis Plan?

As the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking has been commemorated in recent days, one can’t help but be reminded of the magnitude of this tragedy. Hundreds lost their lives, some families lost their lineage, and others survived, but barely.

As a public relations practitioner, I can’t help but wonder what, if any, crisis communications plans were prepared before that fateful day. I wonder if architects and engineers involved in the project, but not taking part in the voyage, contemplated a worse case scenario. What about the project’s investors? Then there are the industry leaders and elected officials of that era. Were any of them prepared on how to deal with victims, families, lawyers, manufacturers and countless others following the sinking of what was promoted as unsinkable?

While business leaders are more aware of crisis headlines, being prepared for them is another thing, especially when crisis situations can change by the hour. A politician is caught doing something stupid; a company unexpectedly files for bankruptcy; a community leader is busted; a natural disaster strikes; the list of potential crises is endless.

Recent research shows that the traits of a good crisis manager just happen to coincide with the traits of a good leader, not a surprising thought for PR war horses like myself, but perhaps a heads up for those making decisions about leadership positions.  Fortune recently published an article called What Makes an Ideal Crisis Manager? that cites Justin Menkes, author of the recently published book Better Under Pressure. He concludes that the people who are going to thrive in the future “are those who can use the pressure (of a crisis) to excel and who have translated very difficult circumstances into opportunity.” Hmmm….

Per the article, the three key characteristics of a good leader and crisis manager are:

* Realistic optimism. Exceptional leaders demonstrate an ability to understand the actual circumstances of a crisis and see a chance to excel.

* Finding order in chaos. This combines calmness, clarity of thought and a drive to fix the situation. It requires practice to stay clear-eyed and fearless when the world is tipping. It also requires zeal to solve a puzzle by engaging your staff.

* Subservience to purpose or corporate goals. The commitment to the higher calling or the greater good can make a huge difference. By encouraging a team to come together around some important goal, it cultivates tenacity and encourages collaboration.

Some execs will still avoid the topic of crisis preparedness, which makes a crisis communications plan all the more important. However, those managers who prove themselves to be exceptions to the rule by working well under pressure will survive – and thrive.

What other traits are there of a good crisis manager?

 

Traits of a Good Crisis Manager

When I worked in corporate America, I had many sleepless nights waiting to see the first headlines of the day as my employer was often the subject of less-than-flattering news.  By the time I got to the office, senior executives were running around like their head was on fire - like that would be helpful.  Sadly, managing the crisis du jour often was determined by what the media said or didn’t say on the morning news, which became exhausting. After a few of these, I finally realized what a bad crisis management strategy that was and changed my ways.

A crisis means some will run around as of their head is on fire. Sadly, they can't help themselves.

 Today’s crisis situations can change by the hour.  A politician is caught doing something stupid; a company unexpectedly files for bankruptcy;  a community leader is busted; a natural disaster strikes; the list of potential crises is endless.  Recent research shows that the traits of a good crisis manager just happen to coincide with the traits of a good leader, not a surprising thought for PR war horses like myself, but perhaps a heads up for those making decisions about leadership positions.

Fortune recently published an article called What Makes an Ideal Crisis Manager?  that cites Justin Menkes, author of the recently published book Better Under Pressure.  He concludes that the people who are going to thrive in the future “are those who can use the pressure (of a crisis) to excel and who have translated very difficult circumstances into opportunity.”  Hmmm….

Per the article, the three key characteristics of a good leader and crisis manager are:

Realistic optimism. Exceptional leaders demonstrate an ability to understand the actual circumstances of a crisis and see a chance to excel. 

*  Finding order in chaos. This combines calmness, clarity of thought and a drive to fix the situation. It requires practice to stay clear-eyed and fearless when the world is tipping. It also requires zeal to solve a puzzle by engaging your staff.

*  Subservience to purpose or corporate goals.  The commitment to the higher calling or the greater good can make a huge difference.  By encouraging a team to come together around some important goal, it cultivates tenacity and encourages collaboration.

Some execs will still run around with their head on fire as they can’t help themselves, which makes a crisis communications plan all the more important.  However, those managers who prove themselves to be exceptions to the rule by working well under pressure will survive – and thrive.

Are there other traits of a good crisis manager and leader?

OBL Crisis: What Not to Do

Being childless, I’m hardly qualified to offer parenting advice so I’ll do the next best thing – share what a friend recently told me.  Whenever she or one of her siblings got sick as a child, her mother would make them all sleep in the same bed, wallow in all their cooties, and not come out until they were back to normal germ levels.

Is Secretary Clinton showing signs of horror or allergies?

The White House, the CIA, the Department of Defense and whoever else was involved in the plan to kill Osama bin Laden should take the same approach.  Everybody should have hunkered down in the same room, wallowed in all the details surrounding the operation and not ventured out until key questions could have accurately and consistently be answered regardless of who was doing the speaking. 

Finite things like time and location shouldn’t be fodder for ambiguity.  Either the guy had a weapon or he didn’t; he was either on the first floor or the third floor; his wife was either used as a human shield or she tried to shield; combat either lasted four minutes or 40 minutes and the indiscrepancies go on.  You’d think that officials would know what was and wasn’t factual if they were watching the assault in real time as was initially promoted, especially after seeing Secretary Clinton’s infamous hand-covering-mouth photo.  Turns out that she was reacting to allergies.

In a crisis communications, accuracy is imperative. Crisis situations demand facts AND fact checking, followed by double and triple confirmation of those facts. I don’t care how many reporters are chomping at the bit for a grain of information, the reality is they don’t want to report inaccurate information because it affects their credibility, not to mention their chances of a future journalism award.  Nobody accessorizes their office or mantle for almost getting it right.

In the adrenaline of a crisis, nearly all plans and logic go AWOL.  Emotions override. Competition trumps. Speed wins.  If you want to handle or respond to a crisis like most, then bow to hysterical higher-ups and antsy reporters, stay the course of ambiguity and inaccuracy, and follow up with apologies and explanations. 

However, if you want to prevent the egg-on-face outcome, keep yourself and/or your client hunkered down until you’re confident that undisputable facts can be released, even if it’s one fact at a time.  Explain that you’d rather be right than quick.

Granted, the approach requires unbelievable patience, confidence and fortitude. The story will eventually be overshadowed by the next crisis, but your credibility, including your accuracy, leadership and demeanor, will long be remembered.

Any other crisis management tips?

Tucson Reminds of Need for Current Crisis Management Plans

When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords woke up on Saturday, I’m confident it didn’t occur to her, her staff, area law enforcement and local media that she and others would be fighting for their lives in a matter of hours, with some losing that battle.  The tragic event prompts us to question many things, and for public relations professionals, one question should be whether or not our crisis management plans are current.

What kind of crisis communications plan does your organization and/or clients have?  This isn’t a “yes” or “no” question – it’s a question of depth of preparedness to act expediently, responsibly and accurately – a component that vacillated all day in Saturday’s media reports.  And this question is no longer about the fundamentals – it’s about the ability to be able to communicate and disseminate information with today’s technology that has likely advanced since you last worked on your plan.

Review the following checklist. If you can answer “yes” to most, if not all, of the statements, then you’re ahead of the curve. If you can’t check “yes” to most of the statements, then do something about that.  As Saturday’s tragedy shows, nobody is immune to a crisis.   

____  We have identified potential crisis situations within our organization, and we have developed a communications strategy for responding to each.

____  In the event of a crisis, we are prepared to quickly communicate with all our target audiences, including but not limited to, staff, volunteers, consumers, constituents, donors, shareholders, elected officials, media and the general public.

 ____  We have established a crisis team and a formal notification plan to key audiences.

____  We have secured domains reflecting or related to our organization’s name (such as UPDATE @ NAME OF ORGANIZATION) to activate in the event of a crisis, as well as other potential communications tools like a designated web page for media use.

____  We have accounts with appropriate social media tools to use for crisis communications purposes as necessary.

 ___   Our management team and key board members/stakeholders/decision makers are familiar with the crisis communications plan. 

____  At any hour of the day, our crisis team knows how to contact each other. 

____  Each member of our crisis team has a copy of the crisis communications plan at home and at the office. 

____ If an incident occurs, we are confident the employee or volunteer on duty will know what to do to alert the crisis team.

____ Our plan defines our communications boundaries.  We understand when we speak as an organization; we understand when other entities such as law enforcement, medical personnel, expert leaders, etc., are to speak on behalf of the situation, and we continually communicate among all parties during a crisis to ensure consistency and accuracy of information.

____ Our organization has established a formal communications policy on providing the media with full and accurate information in a timely manner.

____ We have a current media policy that specifics designated spokespersons and how employees should respond if questioned by media.

____ The spokesperson for our organization has received professional media training and is an integral part of our management team.

____  We have an ongoing communications effort in place to maintain a foundation of goodwill in our community BEFORE any crisis occurs.

How many can you confidently and positively answer? What else would you add?

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PG&E vs. BP: No Contest in Crisis Response

The corporate reaction regarding last week’s gas explosion in San Bruno, CA, is the antithesis of what Americans witnessed from BP in the beginning months of the oil spill disaster.  Within hours of the pipeline explosion that killed four, injured more than 50 and destroyed dozens of homes, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) began communicating via its website its action steps, including hosting community meetings and establishing a $100 million fund to help the city and residents begin immediate recovery efforts.

A fireman at the scene of a natural gas explosion in San Bruno. Photo credit: Brant Ward /SF Gate

Comparatively, two days after the April 20 Gulf Oil Spill, BP uploaded a press release that actually used the word “initiates” as opposed to “established” or “accomplished” or some other action verb indicating a successfully completed step following the crisis.  A glaring difference in the information is the tone.  In other words, PG&E speaks to its audience like it knows them; the tone appears authentic and personal; and there’s no underlying legalese that screams “we had to run this by in-house counsel before we could officially say something.”  Conversely, BP’s tone smacks of “it’s not our fault”, “we’re going to think about doing something” and we’ll put our resources into a solution “if required”.

As with most crises, it’s no surprise that attorneys are lining up to file suit against California’s PG&E.  Also expected are independent investigations of the cause of the explosion.  And without question, the state’s Public Utitlities Commission will make immediate demands for change, solutions and new regulations.  The reality is that people died, suffered serious injuries and lost their homes.  But, at the end of the day, if and when jury pools are selected, public polls are taken, customer service is measured or pipelines are re-worked, PG&E has laid a foundation of concern, action, assistance and good will. That goes a long way in crisis management and brand recovery.

What other thoughts about this crisis management situation do you have?

You Can’t Manage a Crisis Off Site

In the film “Up in the Air“, George Clooney’s character rightly explains to his boss that bad news is something to be communicated face to face.  He explains the importance of one-on-one human interaction and how the impersonality of technology negatively impacts an already negative situation.

In "Up in the Air" Clooney's character understood how to communicate bad news - in person.

Exactly.  You can’t effectively manage a crisis off site.  Case in point, the BP fiasco.  In one corner, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward immediately was on site at the areas affected, making himself available to the media and availing himself to the communities. In the other corner, the federal government dilly-dallied until the mess became a political sore spot, and President Obama finally went on site to see and touch the weeks-old problem.  Although Obama initially visited the area within days of the oil spill and sent other cabinet members to the southern coastline in the following weeks, the problem only worsened, gathering the attention of more target audiences (environmentalists, scientists, and of course, pundits) and creating the perception was that Obama was only giving lip service to residents and leadership in the southern coastline.  He didn’t want to get his hands dirty – literally. Meanwhile, Louisiana workers and officials are becoming hoarse shouting for help from the nation’s capital.

Whether it’s a man-made disaster or a case of food poisoning, the fact remains: you can’t effectively manage a crisis off site.  While Hayward’s will resonate for years to come in business and communications circles, nobody can ever say that BP publicly avoided the issue as the CEO remains on the ground for the foreseeable future.  My point is not about what’s being said (that’s for another post), who’s at fault, who’s in charge or who’s going to pay (we’re ALL eventually going to pay).  My point is that a catastrophic disaster calls for top leadership to make enough of a showing to indicate that management is listening and taking action.  If one showing doesn’t do it, go again.  If that doesn’t work, you still need to do something. I understand the legal ramifications of being on site; but I also understand that, at the end of the day, perception becomes reality.  And that reality can be felt far into the future, whether it be in a voting booth or in a jury box.

What do you think? 

Do I Really Need a Crisis Plan?

Nobody plans to have a crisis – it’s like planning to have a heart attack the day after your retirement.  So with recent headlines from financial malfeasance to natural disasters, public relations professionals like me just have to ask:  What kind of crisis communications plan does your organization have?  This isn’t a “yes” or “no” question – it’s a question of preparedness and responsibility to your employees, customers and shareholders.

No doubt this crisis negatively impacted revenue for this retailer.

Following 9/11, I thought businesses would be clamoring to make sure they were covered in the event of a crisis – manmade or natural.  I was in shock and awe at how many organizations didn’t have so much as a current employee list, customer database and/or functional website.  Most executives thought a crisis only happened in big faraway places (tell that to the thousands of businesses put out of commission because of tornadoes, floods, fires, etc.); some believed planning for a crisis was a waste of money (ask Domino’s about that); and one even chose to “ride the wave” of a national tragedy as his strategy (see news clips of executive stuttering to explain how donations were really used).

Let’s be clear about one thing: NO ONE IS IMMUNE TO A CRISIS.  Who thought a 500-year flood would really happen, putting some businesses out of business?  Who thought a pilot would have to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River?   Who knew that students would actually form a plan to kill their classmates?  The rescue services, airlines and school officials likely never dreamed of such circumstances on their watch, but that doesn’t mean that a nightmare can’t happen.

So for those organizations interested in making a responsible step toward crisis planning, see the checklist below. If you can check “yes” to all of the statements, then you’re ahead of the curve. If you can’t check “yes” to all the statements, then do something about that.

*   We have an ongoing communications effort in place to maintain a foundation of goodwill in our community.

*  We have identified potential crisis situations within our organization, and we have developed a communications strategy for responding to each.

*   In the event of a crisis, we are prepared to quickly communicate with all our target audiences, including but not limited to, staff, volunteers, consumers, shareholders, elected officials, media and the general public.

*   We have established a crisis team and a formal notification plan.

*   Our management team and key board members/stakeholders have reviewed and approved the crisis communications plan.

*   At any hour of the day, our crisis team knows how to contact each other.

*   Each member of our crisis team has a copy of the crisis communications plan at home and at the office.

*   If an incident occurs, we are confident the employee or volunteer on duty will know what to do to alert the crisis team.

*   Our organization has established a formal communications policy on providing the media with full and accurate information in a timely manner.

*   The spokesperson for our organization has received professional media training and is an integral part of our operations and/or management team.

How many can you positively answer?

Social Media Crisis? How Not to Panic

Recent brand attacks via social media reiterate what many organizations are lacking - little to no understanding, much less preparedness, on how to deal with an Internet-driven crisis.  But there’s no need to panic if your brand is authentic and if you’ve planned ahead just as you would with any other type of crisis communications process.

Southwest pounced to reduce its exposure in a social media crisis.

Look at Southwest Airlines and how they handled a recent disgruntled passenger who had more followers on Twitter than the airline did.  He’s told to get off the aircraft due to his large size, he fires off his displeasure via Twitter, yet Southwest responded in less than 20 minutes to his complaint, offering apologies and travel vouchers.  The airline could immediately respond only because they had planned ahead with steps like these:

1)   Anticipate Operational Issues - Brainstorm about operational issues that could go wrong from senior executive mismanagement and questionable finances to poor customer service and natural disasters.  You should have a detailed game plan on how to best address various issues and differing audiences with specific communications avenues. Now think about how and/or if to include social media in your plan. But the main reason the Southwest story had a short shelf life was two-fold: quick response, backed by its solid and reputable brand that began years ago.

2)    Social Media – Your overall communications strategy should contain various tools like media relations, stakeholder notifications, databases, etc. Adding social media tools is as simple as setting up accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SEO, and establishing static web pages and other tools to strategically use in the event of a crisis.  Going back to Southwest, when those tools are incorporated as part of your regular communications plans, consumers won’t see these tactics as just “they’re in trouble” tools as they will already be familiar with your brand.  Global brand Heinz did not anticipate a hacker claiming to represent the company to set up a pretty believable Twitter account with lots of followers.  Why?  They didn’t do the simplest of things like setting up an account, which takes less money than time. 

DISCLAIMER:  If your organization doesn’t understand how social works in its most basic purpose of forming communities and two-way relationships, and/or if your organization is unwilling to take its lumps and address its naysayers, you may be fighting an uphill battle (again, that’s for another post). Just keep in mind that it’s difficult to address a crisis initiated on and perpetuated by social media.  Ask Domino’s.

3)  Ninja Response – Social media communications works in real time. If you have any reason to believe something’s about to break, closely monitor activity; if your suspicion holds true, pounce on the situation like a Ninja.  Because you’ve already anticipated sensitive operational issues, you will have a clearer idea of what tactic to use with what audience (see Step 1).

Here’s the bottom line:  No organization is immune to a crisis. A respected brand, that’s often years in the making, can be undone in a matter of minutes. If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, get one.  If you have one that’s outdated, blow off the dust and rething your tactics in light of today’s social media.  

What are other ways to plan for a social media crisis?

Liars, Tiger and Stares, Oh My

Okay, who is advising Tiger Woods on his public statements?  Seriously, his handlers can’t be professionally trained in best practices of public relations.  If they were, they would have insisted on knowing the truth and the facts - without the prejudice of emotions or pride. Then they would have made the  decision of what, if anything, to say as the argument for “this is a private matter” has merit.  Any public statement would answer questions before they’re asked to significantly cut off the legs on this story.  They also would have a plan to address lies and speculation, which is pretty much all the quasi media need considering the vagueness of Tiger’s statement and his cancellation of all golf tournaments for the rest of the year.  As avid golf fans know, Tiger rarely plays  in tournaments in December and January.

What began as a car wreck has become a global inquisition regarding what led up to Tiger’s accident.  This slow-removal-of-a-band-aid approach is painful to watch, especially for experienced crisis managers.  And herein may lie the problem.  Until now, Tiger Woods has enjoyed a stellar reputation.  He’s the highest paid professional athlete in the world.  He’s an active supporter of several charities, including his own nonprofit foundation.  He really hasn’t experienced an actual crisis until now.  Considering his cadre of agents, publicists and managers, I seriously doubt there’s a professional public relations practitioner among his peeps.

While I don’t know the details, I do know that people can handle the truth and are gracious with their forgiveness.  But  you have to be willing to speak the truth, and make an informed decision that involves experienced public relations counsel and legal minds.  Thoughts?

It’s All About Semantics

President Obama recently declared the country to be in a national State of Emergency, a move typically reserved for natural disasters. New York Governor Patterson and New York City Mayor Bloomberg made similar declarations.  Both decisions had to do with expanding available health care sites and professionals to deal with patient care and vaccinations.  But how many people heard, much less understood, that part?

 Panic Button

My problem is semantics.  The President uses the “E” word (emergency) while Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius simultaneously says the swine flu continues to be “very mild” for most people.  What’s a parent to do?  They have to decide whether or not their child should be vaccinated because the government sends out an emergency message, their family doctor advises the opposite, and their pediatrician says something altogether different.  It’s like asking people if they believe in UFOs – everybody agrees UFOs are a definite maybe.

Make no mistake, I am not downplaying the fatal impact of the swine flu at all.  But I am suggesting to be careful about the choice of words. Instead of declaring emergencies, in which this country just seems to be in one perpetual state, how about announcing an Advisory of Temporary Health Care Waivers or an Alert for Additional Vaccine Resources?  Wouldn’t that better identify the purpose of the declarations?   

What do you think?

Susan Hart

Susan Hart, APR, is an independent public relations consultant with 25+ years of experience. Beginning as a journalist, she represents clients in health care, financial, technology and real estate. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, she serves as Co-Chair of the Ethics Committee for her local PRSA Chapter.

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