PR Briefing: Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

Bad news is around us. Everything, it seems, is in crisis.

Politicians and financial leaders tell us daily that times are tough. Layoffs, bank failures, the daily ups and downs of Wall Street, and the challenges our country hasn’t faced in a century are everywhere, including here in New Hampshire. Is your business prepared?

There’s never a good time for a crisis, and many crises occur suddenly and without warning. That’s why being prepared for a crisis – now more than ever before – is essential.

While you can’t necessarily plan for a precise crisis, you can prepare a general strategy for appropriate and thoughtful communication to important constituencies, including your customers, your employees, shareholders and the media, which will help your company’s leadership manage any crisis far more successfully than trying to manage and strategize at the same time.

Years ago, when I worked in the health-care industry, I attended a conference for health-care marketing professionals and heard a firsthand account of how preparing in advance for a crisis saved a hospital from disaster. One night, a distraught husband showed up in the maternity unit with a gun. A stand-off ensued and patients – including newborn infants – along with staff members were at risk of being shot.

The hospital’s marketing staff and leadership had prepared for a crisis and immediately pulled out their written plans to determine next steps. The plans were elaborate, having detailed scenarios of who would act as spokesperson for the press, what protocols would be followed for communicating to employees, and who would interface with law enforcement officials. The plan was very detailed, even considering what the telephone operators would say and how they would refer calls.

This particular crisis went on through the entire night. In the end, it was resolved peacefully and no one was hurt. And while the situation was incredibly frightening for all involved, the hospital’s leadership felt more in control knowing they had developed a crisis plan in advance, and weren’t scrambling to figure out key details during the tense stand-off.

Not every crisis involves guns. Perhaps your company will experience layoffs. Or an accidental chemical spill occurs, or one of your products is recalled. Maybe it’s a disgruntled customer who takes his complaints to the press or blogs negatively about your company to the world. Are you able to counter the negative activity effectively and swiftly?

Put pen to paper

We once had a client who came to us in an urgent situation. A decision made by this company’s management team caused great fears and concerns in the community. Our client made a decision based on what was best for their clients, but they didn’t consider how their decisions might affect those outside their company. And they certainly hadn’t prepared for the backlash that ensued.

The outcome was a scathing front-page story in the local newspaper, a community up in arms and the good reputation of a great company battered and bruised.

Planning for – and thinking through – the crises your company may face, and then putting pen to paper, helps to create a general plan. Key components include who will act as the company’s spokesperson, who will run the command center and what role the president and CEO plays. The most important part of documenting all of this in a plan is that you quickly discover that one person cannot effectively do it all. Assigning roles and responsibilities, and coordinating activities, helps to manage the crisis successfully.

A general plan allows for adaptation when a crisis arises. Certainly, some things that come up in a specific crisis may not be accounted for in a general crisis plan, but you’ve prepared your basic strategy and have created opportunities for contingencies.

One of the biggest – and perhaps most intimidating – audiences to address in a crisis is the media. Even the most skilled orators can struggle and stumble through a press interview during a crisis.

Media training, in advance of a crisis, on effectively preparing for press interviews, delivering difficult messages, and staying on message has helped many spokespeople through challenging interviews. Like any other ability, these are learned skills that take practice to be mastered.

Techniques such as blocking and bridging, development of talking points and interview basics (including pointers for on-camera performances) are each covered in a comprehensive media training session. This type of training allows potential spokespeople to understand how the media gathers information and how talking in “sound bites” will get core messages delivered. It also talks about how to handle hostile questions, how to stay calm and focused during a tense interview and the “lures and traps” that can make negative headlines.

The worst time to be preparing for crisis communications is when you’re in the middle of one. Early planning saves time, money and – most importantly – reputations.

Laurie J. Storey-Manseau is principal of StoreyManseau LLC, Concord. She can be reached at 603-229-0278, or