March 1, 2012

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Worst-Case Scenario

A Communications Plan Can Avert Disaster

Peri Kinder

March 1, 2012

For example, a restaurant might create a plan in case a customer finds a mouse tail in their soup or someone develops food poisoning. But there should be plans that also address what would happen if there was a robbery, a flood or a fire. Think of all the worst-case scenarios and prepare a plan to cover each one.

Who will talk to the press? Who will contact employees and family members? Who will monitor social media?

Recently, an employee at Papa John’s Pizza caused a stir when he wrote a derogatory ethnic slur about a customer on a receipt that was then handed to the customer. The customer saw the slur, took a photo of the receipt and posted it on the internet. The image went global and Papa John’s didn’t learn about it until it was too late. “They didn’t have good social media tracking skills, and they didn’t know it had happened until it was already viral,” Ewing says.

Once Papa John’s learned of the incident, it fired the employee and issued an apology on its Facebook page. But many feel its reaction wasn’t quick enough in today’s fast-information society.

Social media has become one of the most important components in crisis communications. Each business should have a functioning Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media outlets so if a crisis does arise, the company doesn’t have to worry about setting up a Facebook account while everything is crashing down. Ewing says tons of businesses are not utilizing social media and don’t have the tools to track these sites.

Create a Message
After every worst-case scenario has been detailed, it’s time to create messaging around those events.

The first and most vital part of a crisis message is to show empathy. Businesses need to let people know in the first 30 seconds that company leaders are concerned about the situation and are committed to resolving the problem. It’s also important to create credibility and trust with those who have been affected. And, finally, honesty is essential when talking to the media, the public, customers or employees.

“There is a need for speed,” Ewing says. “If you don’t talk about your crisis, someone else will and it might be framed in a way you can’t control. And sometimes information becomes disseminated inaccurately or is sensationalized.”

After messages are created for each circumstance, decide how the information will be circulated. Do you need to schedule a press conference? Send out a media release? Put information on the company’s website or social media outlet? And who will represent your company?

Putting the CEO in front of the press might seem like a good idea, but Ewing says most CEOs are the worst-prepared to talk with the media. “They usually have fairly significant egos and not nearly enough training. A better option would be the PR person.”

Ewing suggests choosing the person who will sound the most sincere, who will radiate empathy and who will seem trustworthy. Accepting blame and using a tone that doesn’t sound defensive will set the stage for the rest of the crisis and how the company is perceived once the emergency is over.

A high-end investment firm in California discovered an employee had stolen money from investors. Instead of contacting customers individually, letting them know the situation, the press got involved and emotions exploded. Customers were coming in to yell at employees and the situation quickly turned into a public relations nightmare.

“[The company] should have dropped everything in their business and contacted customers one-on-one to discuss the situation,” Ewing says. “There should have been a message prepared and customers should have received an email, with a good message, telling them to call the company for more information.”

Stage a Drill
So you have a plan, a message, a spokesperson and a way to send out information. Now what? Kyle Bennett, a spokesperson for Kennecott Utah Copper, says the next step is to practice.

With a big mining company like Kennecott, emergency scenarios are rehearsed on an on-going basis. The company involves different groups in its planning from the CEO to employees in the mine. In fact, Bennett says most of the practiced scenarios come from employees—and they are situations no one thought of before.

Some workers at Kennecott expressed concern about being in a remote area during an emergency. Would the company know where they are, how to contact them or how to rescue them? Because of this apprehension, Kennecott leaders decided to have employees and equipment monitored through a GPS system. Now any employee can be located within seconds.

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