Communication plan is the key in a corporate crisis

Business managers should be prepared for worst-case scenarios

Tylenol, Bridgestone Firestone, Columbine High School, Exxon, McDonald’s, United Airlines, American Airlines — all of these organizations have been hit by a major crisis. Companies never know when they might be struck by a terrorist attack, a major product recall as a result of deaths or injury, workplace violence, a fire or explosion, a nasty scandal or sudden death of the company’s leader. In today’s media climate, any small or large organization can land on the front page of the daily newspaper or the six o’clock TV news before the dust has hit the ground.

Annette Veech

Business managers need to be prepared for such an eventuality with a detailed crises communication plan, says Annette Veech, senior lecturer of business communications at the Olin School of Business at Washington University. Veech is the author of Managerial Communication Strategies: An Applied Casebook, published by Prentice Hall.

“The reality of handling crises and working with the media is that organizations have little or no lead time to analyze data in-depth and prepare intelligent on-camera responses,” says Veech. “The central issue for organizations, unfortunately, is to prepare ahead of time for worse-case scenarios so that you survive the real time employee scrutiny and media coverage.”

Three critical lessons managers must learn before a crisis occurs are:

1. Expect the unexpected.

2. Own the problem and apologize.

3. Match the facts to spokespersons’ words and the company’s actions.

Like the Scouts, businesses should adopt the “be prepared” motto. Preparation for a crisis should include two major components: a crisis communication plan and a crisis management plan.

“The least you should know,” Veech tells managers, “is that you cannot wait for a crisis and then think that you can luck your way out of it.”

The crisis communication plan covers how, when and with whom the company’s crisis team communicates during and after a crisis. A communications plan should include such strategies as:

• developing a list of forbidden statements and behaviors (for instance, don’t reveal names of victims until official procedures are completed);

• creating a visual timeline or flowchart of possible key events;

• maintaining lists of contact information for news media and internal managers as well as legal counsel, psychological assistance, and the insurance company.

The crisis management plan outlines how the “core crisis team” will manage the crisis itself. Elements of this plan should include:

• mapping out strategies for each type of potential crisis with the local police, fire, FBI and other authorities;

• developing action plans for various scenarios at each company location;

• training employees at all locations in handling emergencies and referring media to the proper spokesperson;

• keeping all contact names and numbers current.

Veech’s other suggestions include establishing a command center with full communications capability as well as a standby location. The core crisis team should also be prepared with a change of clothes, overnight kits and sources for meal delivery to the command center and nearby lodging.