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Jul 18, 2008

How to Prep for and Survive a PR Crisis: 7 Steps From a Pro

SUMMARY: A PR crisis can strike your company at any time - from an E. Coli outbreak to a medical malpractice lawsuit to a chemical spill. Having an emergency communications plan to cope with a calamity can limit the damage and safeguard your company's reputation. We talked to a crisis management pro who offered 7 steps you should take to prevent a possible disaster.
Contact Information

Jonathan Bernstein
Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.
180 S. Mountain Trail
Sierra Madre, CA 91024


Bernstein has worked more than 25 years in crisis management. He publishes and edits the Crisis Manager newsletter. He started his career in the Army doing counter-intelligence work in Europe during the 1970s. The stint taught him the roots of crisis communications.

Bernstein worked as an investigative journalist for five years after leaving the Army. He got into PR in 1982 as a corporate communications manager for Playboy Enterprises and moved to an agency a year later. In 1989, he was named a senior vice president and head of Ruder Finn’s Crisis Communications Group, which he founded. He started his own firm in 1994.

How to Prepare for a PR Disaster: 7 Steps

The key to crisis preparation? You need a system. Everybody should know exactly who’s doing what, says Bernstein. All communication with internal and external audiences needs to be uniform, and it needs to happen as quickly as possible. The longer you wait, the more damage occurs.

->Step #1. Identify a crisis communications team

You need a crisis management team – led ideally by the chief corporate officer. Team members should include the PR chief and a legal counselor who serve as top advisers. Heads of all other major organizational divisions – like finance, HR, and operations – should also be on the team.

TIP: Listen to the PR exec when a conflict arises over recommendations from the team’s legal counsel and PR chief, Bernstein says. Legal counselors might advise you to keep quiet when a crisis occurs; PR execs say no response can damage a company’s reputation even more.

->Step #2. Anticipate crisis scenarios

After the crisis team is in place, sit down for a brainstorming session about all the potential emergencies that could occur in your business. Brainstorming also will help you determine the proper response for each scenario.

On the agenda:
o Make a list of the different scenarios that could occur (breach of security, fire, chemical spill, accidental death of an employee, etc.)
o For each scenario, determine a list of actions your firm must take. These actions, such as evacuating the building, assessing the damage, and getting the company back up and running, should be handled by an emergency operations team working in parallel with the crisis communications team.
o Determine who on the team is responsible for which actions. For the communications team, for instance, decide who is the spokesperson. For the operations team, break down responsibilities by the actions that need to get the company back up and operating normally as soon as possible.
o Draft holding statements that relate to each scenario – pre-written statements for the press, employees and stakeholders.

Here are examples of holding statements a hotel might release after a natural disaster:
-“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
-“Our hearts and minds are with those who are in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”
-“We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”

TIP: Keep statements simple – no more than three main messages for all stakeholders. Add audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders as necessary.

->Step #3. Identify your vulnerabilities

Identify the weaknesses in your organization that could spawn crises. You might find a vulnerability with this audit that will prevent a crisis in the first place.

“There’s more than a few times when I’ve spotted basic security practices that are so poor that it would take very little other than training to improve them and therefore reduce the risk of certain types of security breaches,” Bernstein says.

Make sure that you ask your staff the questions outlined in the sample vulnerability audit in the creative samples. Another option is to hire someone to come in and do a vulnerability audit for you.

->Step #4. Identify appropriate spokespersons

You’ll need spokespersons to handle different forms of communication, including an on-camera spokesperson for broadcast media, a spokesperson for public and employee meetings, and a spokesperson who can answer reporters’ queries. They would be the only reps authorized to speak on behalf of the company. All other employees should be notified to send media queries to the appropriate spokesperson.

“The CEO should be one of the spokespersons, but not necessarily the primary spokesperson,” Bernstein says. “Some chief executives are brilliant business people but not very effective in-person communicators.”

All spokespersons should be trained by a professional how to speak to the media.

->Step #5. Compile a list of all stakeholders

Employees are your most important audience in a crisis, Bernstein says. Immediate communication with them is crucial. Make sure you have a database with every available method of reaching them. That goes for other stakeholders as well, including key customers, clients, board members, public stakeholders, vendors and suppliers.

Stakeholders should hear of a crisis first; they will be talking to others not on your contact list. If they don’t hear about a crisis from you first, they might feel unimportant, which worsens the impact.

->Step #6. Establish a notification system

Create an instant notification system for all key stakeholders – internal and external.

For larger companies, Bernstein suggests investing in one of the many prepaid services out there that notifies all your audiences for you. You supply them with a list of stakeholder names and contact information. They will send your messages using every possible method of contacting the list. They won’t stop until they receive a confirmation that a message have been received.

For smaller companies, a traditional phone tree of people assigned to call stakeholders is the next best thing to investing in a costly service. Email can also be an effective form of communication, but it should not be the only one. There is no guarantee that emails will arrive or be opened before a stakeholder sees the story in the news. And it’s difficult to get an immediate confirmation of delivery for an email.

->Step #7. Periodically update your emergency response plans

The communications and operations teams should periodically sit down to revisit the emergency response plans. Look over the scenarios to determine if you should add any more to the list. Analyze the actions and holding statements to make sure you still want to respond the same way to a crisis.

Useful links related to this article

Sample list of questions asked during a vulnerability audit:

Bernstein Crisis Management:

Send Word Now

See Also:

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