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There’s a crisis every day somewhere in the world and plenty of advice from marketing and public relations professionals on how organizations should handle communicating when they happen. But rarely have I seen an attempt to outline the supplies you need to have on hand before your crisis hits. When I was the communications director for SeaWorld San Antonio, many of these things were at the ready when preparing for a crisis; others we developed over time or as part of post-crisis evaluation. So here is a list of essentials for organizations just starting to visualize their readiness.
- A Ready Room – A place from which you will work the crisis. It can be a room, or it can be a box, or it could be a folding table in a hallway.
- Paper stuff – You need paper, pens, notepads, notebooks, business cards, markers and a phone book. Yes, really. The most routine crises are weather driven and usually result in an interruption of power. It’s best to assume you will not have power while working through your crisis plan.
- Lists – Media contact list, community contact list including the PIO at police, fire and public utilities plus leadership team list. If the power is out, you may not have access to your computer and don’t want to waste what’s left of your cell phone battery to check phone numbers.
- Call Log – Make a simple chart with these headings: Date, time, media outlet, request, deadline, call-back number or URL, then make 25 copies and put it in the box. In a time of crisis, the phone lines may be jammed with callers and this will assist multiple people in effectively answering and tracking incoming inquiries.
- Timeline log – As soon as the crisis starts, start writing down the events as they unfold. It’s amazing how quickly you will forget key points in managing a crisis. All participants contribute to the log and it can be on a whiteboard, in a notebook, or on tear off sheets that are taped to the wall.
- Sign In Sheets – If you end up calling a press conference, or doing multiple media briefings, these are very helpful for tracking who was present.
- Other supplies: Two way radios can be effective if you are trying to communicate over long distances, as well as batteries, camera and flash drives.
While I haven’t covered it here, there are plenty of other items that might be specific to your workplace or industry that you want to have on hand during a crisis. Some that were mentioned during our crisis planning exercise included a schematic of your building or facility and a passenger or guest manifest. And don’t forget the first aid kit!
This series is to support the 100 tourism professionals from around the state that I worked with earlier this week who attended my session on crisis planning. They are attending Tourism College, a week-long educational opportunity which is an initiative of the Texas Tourism Industry Association (TTIA) and is now in its second year.
It happens to every organization at some point. Something sudden and unexpected happens which requires us to act. In tourism organizations, it can be as simple as a weather event which affects daily operation. Or as complicated as an event like the BP Oil Spill. Most disasters fall somewhere in between, but the key to survival is to have a plan and use the plan. Organizations who do not, often find themselves under more intense scrutiny and then, it’s easy to make mistakes.
- Taking too long to respond is the most common mistake made during a crisis. Communicate early and often, particularly in this 24/7, “always on” media environment.
- Getting angry with the media. It’s easy to lose your cool and the pressure from large volumes of media is unusual for most organizations, and they often have a hard time coping with it. Stay cool and you will survive.
- Internal panic – in the face of a disaster, you need every cool head and may need to calm down those who haven’t been through something like this before. This makes it even more important to create roles and responsibilities for the team members responding to the crisis.
- Dual roles – Many members of your leadership team will be wearing more than one hat during a crisis, which can complicate communication. Clarify as much as possible and afterward, figure out how to adjust roles for future events.
- Underestimating interest by the public – When you’re on the inside of a crisis, the level of detail that the media and public are requesting often seems out of line. Organizations still aren’t used to sharing so often and it takes some adjustments to accept.
- Leadership – This is the key to any organizations success or failure in a crisis. Whether it’s lack of leadership or, on the other hand, too many leaders, a crisis is the time for the best leader to step in and take the team through the process.
Identifying potential issues before a crisis strikes, will help an organization avoid them and master their next crisis.
This series is a resource for the 100 tourism professionals from around the state that I am working with this week on how to prepare in a crisis, as part of Travel and Tourism College. The week-long educational opportunity is an initiative of the Texas Tourism Industry Association (TTIA) and is now in its second year. Those who participate for 3 years will get certification as a tourism executive.
Do no harm. This was the first thing I was taught about crisis planning, back in the mid-1980s way before cell phones and Twitter. Twenty-plus years later and it’s still the best piece of advice anyone can follow. It is an integral part of every crisis planning and crisis response session I teach.
The second piece of advice came from my years as a Girl Scout: Be Prepared. While no one waits around for a crisis to happen, there are so many things you can do in advance of an unforeseen event that will help your organization manage it and move on.
Many organizations do crisis planning and response well, and literally scratch their heads when they see the gaffes committed by those organizations who make big mistakes under fire. If you haven’t yet thought about what would happen in a crisis, here are three objectives commonly used in visualizing the problem.
Contain the Risk
This means responding to the actual crisis, whether it is natural or manmade, accidental or intentional. It also means to secure the people and places that are involved in the event.
Resolve the Problem
This is pretty self explanatory for weather events. If it’s a fire, put it out. If it’s a thunderstorm, clean up the damage. For manmade or intentional events, though, the road to resolving the problem is far more complicated.
Communicate Effectively throughout the Process
This means to talk about what’s happening, give advisories, warnings, share images, updates and information. Where some organizations get into trouble is when they consider these three principles as happening one at a time, when in fact, they often happen simultaneously.
Smart organizations know that many elements of crisis planning CAN and ARE planned in advance. This can be as simple as creating a phone list or as involved as creating a triage team for larger incidents and practicing how you will respond.
But you’ve got to start somewhere. Here are some links to get you started in planning YOUR next crisis.
- The Ten Steps of Crisis Management from Bernstein Crisis Management
- Crisis Communications for the Social Media Age from GigaOm
- Sample Crisis Communication Plan from the Colorado Nonprofit Association
This series is a preview of my presentation tomorrow for 100 tourism professionals from around the state who are attending Travel and Tourism College. The week-long educational opportunity is an initiative of the Texas Tourism Industry Association (TTIA) and is now in its second year.
Welcome to the web base of Step In Communication, a small but mighty PR firm in San Antonio, Texas. Have a look around and see what you think. We’d love it if you would fill out the Contact Us form if you have questions or just want to say hello and make sure the form works properly. (Small but mighty PR firms don’t often have a lot of extra people around to “test” things for them).
We hope to add resources and thought-provoking posts that serve the community and our clients. Throughout the coming weeks, you will see pieces about business success for businesses and nonprofits, hear a little bit about what’s on our minds, what’s going on in the community and a quirky little category we’re just going to call “life riot” for now. Stay tuned and thanks for stopping by.
Earlier this year, Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor, a disaster restoration company, donned a disguise and went undercover as part of the CBS reality show, Undercover Boss. The episode ran again this past week and brought to mind the value of employee engagement and input.
Yellen had made some assumptions about what was happening “in the field.” Like many companies reacting to the economic recession, Belfor had put a wage and hiring freeze in place to protect “6,000 Belfor families.”
But when Yellen got into the field, his assumptions were challenged immediately. If you haven’t seen the episode, I won’t spoil the outcome, but you can watch it here.
Yellen was completely inept at the tasks he was asked to complete – and admitted so in the sidebar interviews that are part of every reality show. Toward the end of the episode, as he’s flying off in his private jet back home, he reflects on what he’s learned.
“I lived my life in a bit of a bubble.”
Yellen’s changing point of view seems remarkable but internal communicators everywhere, a leader who is ready to make a change is at a priceless tipping point and is a reminder that the impact of leadership should NEVER be underestimated.
While we don’t know what changes have occurred at Belfor since the episode, and can only judge by the episode itself, Yellen learned a lot about employee engagement and policy impact. The innocently crafted wage and hiring freeze to cope with the recession had broad-reaching implications that leadership didn’t anticipate and in fact, was hurtful to the four employees showcased in the episode.
This highlights another important principle in employee communication – the value of sharing business challenges with internal teams. Especially in the face of uncertainty. Employee engagement goes a long way in helping to develop solutions. And it is the first step in co-creating business solutions. We’re not talking about the old school suggestion box, we’re talking about a more team-oriented approach.
To communicators, Belfor seems completely out of touch with one of its key stakeholders, the employees of the company. They are not alone. Many companies struggle with how to communicate WITH its employees, usually because they are concerned about corporate reputation.
Yet every year, the impact of internal audiences on corporate reputation is well documented in the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey on corporate reputation and trust. In the 2011 report (hyperlink), 63% of respondents believed a corporation which treats its employees well is what matters to corporate reputation.
In another section of the survey which queried the credibility of information sources about a company, three of the sources cited are largely internal. They are: a tech expert within the company (at 64%), a person like yourself (at 43%) and a regular employee (at 34%). While the role of the CEO as a credible source also ranked high, the impact of the internal audience is very clear.
At the end of the show, Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfour, says to one of the four employees he worked with undercover, “I heard you so clearly.” It was the “epiphany” moment for the show, and we hope, for Belfor in creating a new sense of engagement with their internal stakeholders.
While the decline of the publishing industry over the last decade is no secret, there is one emerging trend that new professionals should be watching. – the role of brands as publishers. At last week’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this topic was covered heavily. One panel had a razor-sharp view on the subject.
“Brave New World: Debating Brands Role as Publishers examined the intersection between the decline in traditional journalism and the opportunity for brands to use storytelling to talk directly to consumers using great content.
One member of the panel said all brands should think and act like publishers. Another talked about how different content channels can be used by brands to talk about different things. Yet another believed we should be eliminating the middle men – journalists – altogether. One panelist was concerned about how we would police brands when they lie.
What does this mean for the new public relations professional? It means that public relations pros in organizations of all sizes have more opportunities to tell their story directly to the consumer – through blogs, wikis and other online places. And organizations also have an obligation to tell stories honestly, in a timely manner, and using the most basic tool of all – great writing.
Lately great writing has a lot of new buzz words in the online community – dynamic content, content creation, content strategy. All of these titles are jargon for writing with purpose, or writing with the audience and market in mind.
The labels may be new, but the principal behind them is not. William Zinsser is the quintessential journalist and nonfiction writer whose landmark work On Writing Well has been the reference against which all others are measured.
At the heart of Zinsser’s beliefs about writing is that it’s a transaction between writer and reader. When done well, two qualities will emerge: humanity and warmth.
“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength,” Zinsser says in the first chapter.
This advice rings true for all forms of nonfiction writing – magazine, newspaper, web site, blog and any others you could imagine creating as a public relations professional. As PRSA members telling the stories of a brand, cause or an organization, we are also obligated to tell it honestly and ethically.
New professionals can be confounded by the actual process of writing – it may or may not have been part of a degree program. So where should you look if you want to improve your writing skills?
Here are four ideas to improve your writing immediately:
- Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser
- Start a daily journal in which you write about something that interests you in a journalistic style.
- Find a writing buddy and exchange and critique each others’ work.
- Set aside time each day for writing, even if it’s only 30 minutes.
There are many more steps you can take to improve your writing, but these are a great way to get started. So when your boss starts to talk about the new content strategy, or creating dynamic content, you’ll know that all he or she is looking for is great writing with a purpose and an audience. And you will be ready to deliver it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared in the PRSA National Newsletter for New Professionals in May, 2011.