Kathleen Fearn-Banks. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.
A crisis, by definition, is not a mild occurrence; how-ever, the degree of damage caused by a crisis can vary greatly from adversely affecting normal business operations to putting companies out of business or toppling governments. A crisis can cause temporary public humiliation; it can force the resignations of heads of organizations. A crisis can place an individual popular to mass audiences on the road to obscurity.
All companies, organizations, and individuals who depend on image and/or reputation to be successful should always accept the fact that they are always in a stage ofcrisis.
A crisis has five stages: (1) detection, (2) prevention/preparation, (3) containment, (4) recovery, and (5) learning. These stages can overlap and an organization (from this point on, “organization” refers also to companies, other businesses, and public individuals) can be in more than one stage at a time.
The detection stage should be a process of constantly monitoring one’s operation for signs of impending crisis. Prevention is taking steps to avoid a crisis, putting out little fires before they become infernos. Closely connected to prevention is preparation or planning how one would fight the crisis should it occur. The first two stages can only be advantageous to an organization when there is no crisis. It is much too late to plan a course of action when one is forced to communicate to publics immediately, rapidly, and frequently.
Containment is the stage after the crisis has occurred, and the goal is to end it as soon as possible; get out of the newspapers; and not let one’s bad news be a continuing topic of popular conversation.
Recovery is the desire and effort to return to normal operations. Learning is the process of being careful not to make mistakes, oversights, decisions, and omissions that caused the crisis.
If an organization has never suffered a crisis, it is always in the detection stage as well as the prevention/preparation stage. If the organization has recovered from a crisis, it is, or should be, in the learning stage, the detection stage, and the prevention/preparation stages. Consequently, principles to follow, policies to adopt, tactics to make can sometimes, but not always, be categorized into the five stages.
Stage 1: Detection
Develop a policy of watching and heeding prodromes or warning signs. During almost every news-making crisis or disaster, after the initial shocking story, the news media writes about warning signs that were not heeded. After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, led to devastating floods in New Orleans and killed and displaced thousands of people, the world learned that there were definite warning signs. Joel K. Bourne Jr. had written in October 2004 in National Geographic Magazine a narrative describing mass destruction in New Orleans very similar to the way it actually occurred. The New Orleans Times-Picayune had written several articles about geologists’ prediction that considering that acres of coastal wetlands had been lost and that the Gulf of Mexico was close to the city, stronger hits from earthquakes were possible, even likely.
There was severe flooding in New Orleans in the years prior to Katrina, and every New Orleanian knew that the levees could fail, that the city was below sea level, that the big one was overdue. That was why Mayor Ray Nagin, in his warning to evacuate, said, “This is the real deal.”
Much has been written and said about the failure of the federal, state, and local governments to respond to the tragedy, but the critical time for these governments to take action was before the hurricane hit, when the levees and flood walls could be rebuilt to withstand strong hurricanes. The warning signs were the previous floods, the weak-looking levees, and the news articles.
Also, in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2007, when a troubled student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 students, faculty members, and himself, news articles appeared about the warning signs that were not heeded. Professor Nikki Giovanni of the English Department had reported the student to her chairperson because of his strange writing and behavior in class. Students, even his roommates, had found him incommunicative and disturbed. One professor called the young man the most disturbed student she had seen in two decades of teaching. All these were warning signs only seen in retrospect. Afterward, the university adopted some security plans, which it is hoped will help. This is much like closing the barn door after the cows escaped.
In recent years, blogging and blog sites became another form of communication to watch, making every blogger what some call a “citizen journalist.” One never knows the credibility or the expertise of the blogger but what information is placed on sites can be damaging. Organizations should monitor blogs to see what is being said about them and respond when necessary. Also, sometimes attack sites are set up by enemies, competitors, irate employees, consumers, and people who merely take pleasure in knowing that they can be noticed. In mid-2007, Apple’s iPhone made its debut in stores with a big publicity blitz that had consumers waiting in line to buy the product. Tim Klein, Vice President of PR at AT&T, said that the company would communicate with bloggers and online influencers, keeping tabs on what they were saying. “We have a blogger and industry analyst/influencer program that we’re … implementing. But we’re obviously also reacting to the activity we’re seeing in the news reported out of these sites and individuals,” Klein said.
Watch crises of similar organizations. They are also warning signs. Other universities scrambled after the Virginia Tech shooting to institute security safeguards to avoid a similar incident on their campuses. This is a particular problem at public universities, where the campus is open to the public because the institution belongs to the taxpayers. After Katrina, other cities in the hurricane area took measures to expedite evacuations. West Coast cities renewed their fear of earthquakes and used the New Orleans crisis as a warning to them to be prepared for “the big one.”
When Pepsi Cola was hit by a crisis caused by consumers placing hypodermic needles in cans of soft drinks so that they could sue the company, the hoaxsters were said to have feared contracting HIV from the needles. The virus is not spread through soft drinks, but for sometime, the public was fearful of drinking Pepsi, and this caused a decline in sales. Pepsi was able to turn the tide and showed suspicious people that it was next to impossible to place needles in their cans. This was a warning to other soft-drink manufacturers and a time to examine their own operation and determine what they would do if such a ridiculous crisis hit them.
Of course, and unfortunately, such responses to warning signs are short-lived and usually die in the fickle minds of decision makers before real solutions are developed.
Watch for the revealing of corporate secrets that may damage the organization’s reputation. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” If an organization learns or knows that it has committed an error that if revealed to the public could cause furor, a decision should be made as to whether it should reveal the error and take the outcome or hide the error and take a chance of the error getting out later … and often in a bigger way. The cover-up can shatter reputations more than the original mistake.
For example, during the Watergate crisis, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, the original error or crime was the break-in of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate, a hotel/apartment/office complex in Washington, D.C. It was the cover-up that led to the political scandal, lies in congressional hearings, and the downfall of Nixon and his allies. As Franklin predicted, the secret was not really a secret when pressure was applied.
Similar results could have occurred in the case of Johnson & Johnson and the Tylenol poisoning case in 1982. Cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules had killed five people in the Chicago area. Company officials told the news media that there was no cyanide in the plant so the poison couldn’t have come from the production process. Later, the company learned that there was indeed some cyanide in the plant but there was no way it could get into the capsules. If Johnson & Johnson had kept that information secret, reporters may have found out, and the company would have appeared responsible because of the guarded secret. Instead, the company told the news media about the cyanide and how it was used and that none was missing. The crisis was later eased when the bottles of tainted capsules were found to have originated from various Johnson & Johnson plants, making it extremely unlikely that an internal accident or crime had taken place.
The detection stage of a crisis is the time to stop a problem before it develops into a full-blown crisis. This is also issues management. To detect prodromes, organizations form employee committees that function like lighthouse keepers watching for vessels at sea, watchdogs, and whistle-blowers who report warnings in their own ways. Organizations, then, implement plans to avoid the crisis or at least prepare plans to address their publics and the news media.
Stage 2: Prevention/Preparation
Several theorists have identified the characteristics and practices of crisis communications. If an organization adopts these characteristics and practices before a crisis, the theories suggest that the organization will either avoid a crisis or suffer less financial, emotional, and perceptual damages than the organization that does not adopt the characteristics and practices. Therefore, these practices are categorized in Stage 2.
Most of the following characteristics and practices are derived from the excellence theory identified by James Grunig and others.
Design public relations programs for all key publics. In 1992, Grunig and Fred Repper wrote,
An organization has a relationship with stakeholders when the behavior of the organization or of a stakeholder has consequences on the other … Ongoing communications with these stakeholders helps to build a stable, long-term relationship that manages conflict that may occur in the relationship. (p. 124)
All of an organization’s public relations programs and campaigns are, or should be, designed to build positive relationships with key stakeholders, both internal and external, and prevent crises. It is a basic reason for having public relations in the first place.
The airlines have frequent-flyer programs designed to make consumers loyal to a specific airline. There is a communication program aimed at these flying consumers. This is consumer relations, a type of public relations. After consumers have enjoyed the benefits of the frequent-flyer program—upgrades, free tickets, cheap tickets, shorter lines in airports, and so on, they want their airline of choice to be crisis free. If the airline goes into bankruptcy, the flyers want it to recover. They defend the controversial actions of the airline. They are the first to complain, however, if there is a problem such as late flights, untidy planes, holding passengers on the tarmac for too long. This, too, is a positive move because these frequent flyers are part of the detection stage of a crisis. If they are upset, there are numerous other flyers who are also upset and may decide not to fly that particular airline again. So the loyal flyers are a support group. Their loyalty is for a selfish reason, but it still benefits the airline. Other businesses, such as restaurants and credit card companies, have frequency programs aimed at consumers, all aimed ultimately at increasing sales and buying loyalty.
In addition to consumers, organizations should design PR programs aimed at employees (employee relations), volunteers (internal relations), community groups and leaders (community relations), and other publics, which may be crucial to survival and success.
Develop and maintain strong relationships with the news media. The researcher Francis Marra, also building on the excellence theory, spoke specifically about the news media being one of the key publics with which organizations should have positive relationships. Editors and reporters should know that PR representatives and spokespersons are reliable, that the news releases emanating from the organization have accurate timely information, that they always get back to the media when additional information is needed, and that they respect the news media’s deadlines.
Many people realize that news personnel are often supporters of organizations in a crisis; some must be pushed into being adversaries. One of the earliest “textbook” cases of crisis communications was the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol poisoning case. A Chicago Sun-Times editorial employee telephoned asking questions about how the company was organized. He did not know how the information would be used, but he told others at the newspaper that Johnson & Johnson had questions. A reporter called the company to alert them that there had been reported deaths from the intake of Tylenol Extra Strength and provided them with the information gathered at the time.
This gave the executives time to make a plan before the newspaper was published later in the day.
The reporter was not obligated to give the company that information. The newspaper could have held the news and let Johnson & Johnson find out when everyone else found out. However, Johnson & Johnson had a positive relationship with the news media. It had a two-way communications ideology with the news media and with its key publics identified and segmented by its company credo.
Identifying and segmented publics are two other characteristics of organizational effectiveness in the time of crisis. The company credo indicated that its first obligation was to consumers, meaning medical personnel, parents, patients, and others who used its products, people serviced by the news media. Its second obligation was to its employees; next was the community—meaning the neighbors of the plants as well as the world community. In other words, people who are not necessarily customers were concerned and are needed to respect and support the company’s reputation. Last, the company was obligated to stockholders.
When the Sun-Times story was published, it merely gave the facts; there were no claims or charges made of Johnson & Johnson. The Chicago Tribune also had the story on page 1 but the name Johnson & Johnson was not mentioned on the entire page. In fact, some stories mentioned McNeil Consumer Products Company, a lesser-known subsidiary of the company.
A similar story of positive links to the news media occurred in 1998, when, in Seattle, a city bus driver was shot by a disturbed passenger, forcing the driver to lose control of the bus, which plunged over a bridge. Three people died, 32 were injured. The Seattle news media positioned Metro Transit as a victim of the crime, and the national media followed suit. The news media could have made the stories concentrate on the bus system’s failure to protect the passengers. Dan Williams, the PR spokesman from Metro Transit, said that the preestablished relationships with the news media and the quick responses to media requests paid off.
Williams said, “Most of the reporters sympathized with what Metro was going through … [It] was important to have credibility with the media as I tried to make the case with reporters and editors for the effectiveness of our security program.” He said that only one reporter, one he did not know, was suspicious and antagonistic.
It must be mentioned that if Metro Transit had had numerous incidents of unsafe buses and if Johnson & Johnson had had incidents of possible internal tampering, the news media would have been obligated to cover the stories in a different way.
The head of communications should be important to top management. Some crisis communications experts say this means that the head of communications should report to the CEO or to another title for the head of the organization. Others maintain that it is only important that top management continually confer with the communications department—usually, but not always, the head of communications—on policy matters and decision making.
The experts who advise that the head of communications report directly to the head of management say that it is the placement of the communications department in the company that is crucial, not only the relationship between the CEO and the communications head. If communications is not highly valued, the communications head may leave the company and the new communications head may not have a “dotted-line” relationship with the CEO, leaving the organization open to a failure to communicate externally or internally.
Frequently, crises arise, and the organization’s spokesperson has no idea what is going on. He or she cannot respond easily to the news media and must say, “I don’t know; I’ll get back to you.” While the spokesperson is searching for the answers, the news media realizes that there’s a communications gap, that the responses might not be forthcoming, and therefore, they look for the story elsewhere. When the organization loses control, issues can become a news-making embarrassment.
Ron Ziegler was Press Secretary to President Richard Nixon. After Nixon resigned following the Watergate crisis, Ziegler, though claiming to be Nixon’s friend, said that unlike other White House staff members, he was never indicted and was not part of the cover-up. Yet he had to answer reporters’ questions for which he had no answers during the investigation.
In 1991, The Washington Post was researching for an investigative article about United Way of America CEO William Aramony, and the PR staff members were like sitting ducks waiting to be slaughtered. They heard through various connections that the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Shepard was gathering information, but they had no idea what was going to be in the story. They felt from what they had been told by persons who were being interviewed that there were problems and that a scandal might be brewing.
In early 1992, Shepard asked the PR department for some information and an interview with Aramony. The PR staff member said that he got the interview set up and that that process “was much more contact with him than I normally had.” The story was primarily positive; Aramony was a man with connections that resulted in a lot of funds being raised for the nonprofit organization. However, the page 1 story had a few paragraphs about Aramony’s excessive spending, perks, and large corporate-type salary. It was those few sentences that caused national concern among United Way agencies and the American citizens who donate hard-earned money to charities. This was a severe crisis for United Way and caused the eventual resignation of Aramony.
Develop relationships with communications departments at other organizations that may share the same crisis. If fire is a potential problem, know how to contact the PR people at the local fire department. If a crime is a worstcase scenario, know how to contact the PR people at the police department. This policy paid off for Metro Transit when the city bus went over the bridge in 1998. The PR reps from the transit company, the fire department, and the police department had met prior to the crisis and exchanged phone numbers—office, cell, and home. They agreed that in the event of a crisis, they would only answer questions from the news media that were specific to their own agency’s responsibilities. If the question was about the crime that caused the driver to go over the bridge, they would refer the reporter to the police representative. If the question was about rescue, they would refer the reporter to the fire department spokesperson.
This way, there was little chance that the story would have inaccuracies. At the site of the incident, the three met and briefly shared information about the incident, the crime, the number of injured passengers, and so forth. They agreed to inform each other as information changed.
Have a crisis communications/crisis management plan. This is a major step in being prepared for a crisis. The key to the crisis plan is crisis inventory. The organization must decide what the worst-case scenario would be. Too often, organizations are so determined to “think positive” as if thinking positive will prevent something negative from happening. They even say, “It never happened up to now.” That’s all the more reason why a crisis is likely to occur.
Crisis inventory is a way of determining what crises are most likely and what crisis would be most damaging. A team of key people, not all in management, discuss outcomes and likelihood based on issues and crises befalling similar organizations. Blue-collar workers often see potential crises of which executives are not aware. Then, a crisis communications plan is developed to address the crisis deemed the most likely and the most damaging. This crisis communications plan can be part of a crisis management plan that would include broader issues such as evacuation and staff changes. More often than not, the crisis communications plan stands alone. It should be handy. Everyone who needs it should have it in advance and should be familiar with it, knowing what each person will do in the event of a crisis.
Some of the crucial components of the crisis communications plan are a director of the crisis communications team and the duties of each member; how key stakeholders will be notified; how the news media will be alerted, who will be the spokespersons(s), talking or speaking points to be emphasized in interviews and news conferences; background data about the organization, and other documents. It should not be so big or unwieldy that crisis team members can’t find the information and instructions they need.
During a crisis, many people find that information normally on the tips of their tongues is forgotten. Phone numbers they call everyday are forgotten. Equipment they take for granted is lost during natural disasters when electricity is out. During Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Nagin and his staff not only had no electricity and landline phones, but cell phone towers were also not operative. During an earthquake in Los Angeles, a PR professional had to seek a manual typewriter when there was no power. A crisis plan would indicate alternative supplies and serve as a kind of substitute brain.
One PR practitioner said, “A crisis plan is a waste of paper, a bad reason for cutting down a tree.” He and other critics of the plan say that a crisis never happens the way you plan it. This is true, but numerous professionals who had plans and used them through crises say that having a plan for any crisis helps you cope with other crises.
The Pepsi Cola Company never dreamed that hypodermic syringes would be placed in its soft-drink cans, but its worstcase scenarios did include tampering, and the existing crisis communications plan worked well. Often, only the speaking points need to be changed. The stakeholders to be notified remain the same. The crisis team remains the same. Background of the organization is gathered and in one place.
Stages 3 and 4: Containment and Recovery
The tactics of ending the crisis and recovering from the crisis are often similar. In fact, planning recovery is often an effective way of containment. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were not blamed on the airlines, but it was a crisis for the already financially beleaguered airlines because passengers were understandably reluctant to fly. Immediate and increased security, although a nightmare in itself, helped convince potential passengers that airports were making steps to prevent a similar attack. The attack will never be forgotten, but the increased security was a step toward containment and recovery. The airlines/airport communication personnel notified the public through the news media of the new security standards.
An organizational spokesperson should express sincere concern if there are injuries or loss from a crisis no matter who is responsible. However, the spokesperson should not accept blame if the organization is blameless. The Pepsi Cola Company and Johnson & Johnson both recalled the products in question during their crises even though they did not believe that their employees were responsible. It was important to put the public at ease while the investigation continued.
No one had been hurt by the syringes in the Pepsi can, so there was no reason for an apology, but concern was expressed from the beginning. Carl Behnke, the head of the Seattle Pepsi plant, the site of the first syringe in the can, worked with a PR agency and issued an advisory urging consumers to simply pour the contents of soft-drink cans into a second container before drinking. The crisis cost Pepsi a $30 million loss in sales, but the communication tactics soon caused sales to rebound.
There had been deaths from the poisoned Tylenol, and the recall was a step of concern that cost the company $100 million in sales, although Johnson & Johnson’s management was certain the poisoning did not take place in its plants. Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Vice President Lawrence Foster also expressed concern and was open and honest with the news media.
Neither Pepsi nor Johnson & Johnson ever accepted blame. The heads of the companies were spokesmen to the news media, insisting that they would be vindicated. Both were.
In apologia theory, an organization may make a full apology accepting blame. It may totally deny charges. Or it may try redefinition, expressing that it did not intend to commit the misdeed; publics may forgive organizations that are contrite. There is also dissociation, in which case the organization informs publics that it may appear that it is guilty but actually it is not. Dissociation was the choice Pepsi and Johnson & Johnson made; the public may not have accepted any stronger denial until after investigations were completed.
If the organization has erred, admit guilt and be sincerely sorry. Whether at fault or not, convince publics of a plan to try to prevent a recurrence of the crisis. Make certain the plan is carried out; be true to your word. Again quoting Benjamin Franklin, “How few there are who have courage enough to own their own faults, or resolution enough to mend them” and also “Well done is better than well said.” Americans tend to be forgiving as long as the guilty party is truly repentant.
If the CEO of Exxon had come to the site of the Valdez oil spill and cried his eyes out on seeing the birds covered in oil, the newspapers would have written about that, and photographers would have gotten the photo of the man holding a bird and getting oil all over his hands and expensive suit. And the image of Exxon would have been totally different. As it was, it wasn’t the most oil that was ever spilled by a ship, but the CEO’s refusal to come to the site told the world that Exxon didn’t care.
At the University of Washington in Seattle in 2007, a female employee was shot and killed by a former boyfriend, who ambushed her in her office. As expected, after a couple of days, news coverage turned to security failures at the university. Security at the university became even more urgent because a few days after the news coverage began to die down, a gunman shot and killed students and faculty members at Virginia Tech.
The two shootings were different in that the Virginia shooting was random and the Washington shooting was relationship oriented. Norman Arkans, Vice President of University Relations at Washington, commented, “The Virginia Tech incident magnified our incident. They were different in cause and effect but both occurred on college campuses and were thereby linked in the media.”
Immediately after the shooting, senior-level administrative meetings were held to deal with understanding what had happened and to communicate with the family of the deceased, the students, and staff in the College of Architecture (where the shooting occurred), and the broader campus. “It became apparent right away,” said Arkans, “that we needed to understand more about relationship violence and how to provide resources.” After the university president expressed concern both publicly and directly to the family of the deceased and her colleagues in the college, the president appointed a broadly representative committee to evaluate resources and support mechanisms for dealing with relationship and workplace violence and to implement a more streamlined and focused program for people seeking advice, guidance, and help of any sort.
Some of the improvements were the following: (1) a 24-hour hotline for people in need of protection, (2) a poster distributed widely with the hotline phone number, (3) a reinstituted campus Nightwalk program, (4) a new workplace violence Web site, and (5) a plan for annual training of faculty and staff.
Other than the presence of the organizational head in a news-making crisis, the PR specialist should be the primary spokesperson. Crisis communications experts (particularly the theorist Francis Marra) agree that public relations should have autonomy to speak during a crisis. A crisis is often won or lost in the first few hours of communications with the news media, and PR professionals should know how to present themselves to the organizations’ advantage. Lawyers tend to be more concerned with their battle in the courts and fears of litigation than with reputation and image. They choose words to limit liability. If the battle in the court of public opinion is lost early in the crisis, the organization’s image is negative and the battle in the court will be even more difficult.
If reputation is protected or gained, the lawyer’s job may be easier. However, the legal staff and the PR staff should be in communication before statements are made. During the prevention/preparation stages, the two staffs should discuss actions to be taken during worst-case scenarios so that when a crisis hits, the discussion is not new. Several corporate crises were adversely affected because PR persons did not have autonomy, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Firestone 500 tire crisis.
Select an appropriate expert to be a spokesperson as well as a person ranking high in management. If there are deaths, significant injuries, and great financial loss, the CEO or some high-ranking officials should be the spokesperson for the company. As already mentioned, this was one of the problems in the Exxon Valdez oil spill crisis. A front-page crisis is not a time for the PR person who is normally spokesperson to represent the organization; the publics expect to see and hear from the head of the organization, a person who can make promises on behalf of the organization and represent its concern. The PR professional can only “represent” the management of the organization and speak words accepted by the public as perhaps coming from top management but perhaps not.
The spokesperson in a front-page crisis should not be an external PR consultant. David Marriott, a PR consultant who specializes in crisis communications at Gogerty Stark Marriott, Inc., advises his clients to never put “the hired guns out front.” He said,
I believe companies should speak for themselves—not hired consultants or their lawyers—except in certain cases. The media prefers someone from the company, plus, I believe that a company spokesperson carries greater credibility with the public. Outside PR experts can be a valuable resource to a company going through a crisis and should be used for that purpose.
Often, an organization in crisis will improve its situation by having, in addition to the company representative, an expert in a related field who can persuade publics. This person should not only be highly credible in the subject field but also be able to speak in simple English and not jargon. Often after earthquakes, seismologists are used in news conferences to explain to the public the technical aspects of tremors. After fires, fire investigators explain the causes of fires. Sometimes, organizations err when these experts, though highly qualified in their fields, either speak with foreign accents or are unable to depart from technical language and therefore become nearly useless.
Tropical Fantasy, a New York soft-drink manufacturer, selected the right spokesperson when it was hit by a crisis caused by the outrageous and possible malicious rumor that its beverage caused sterility in African American men. This was 1991, when the city’s mayor was David Dinkins, an African American. At a news conference, the mayor drank a Tropical Fantasy drink to prove to witnesses that the drink was safe. In this case, the mayor’s credibility was that he was a black man and the most notable black man in the city.
In the case of a restaurant called Snapps in Florida, a rumor circulated among high schoolers that a manager with the AIDS virus had intentionally bled into the hamburger meat. In this case, no one died and no one was injured. The restaurant chain headquarters was located in another state, so an expert was used as a spokesperson. First, all the managers in the restaurant volunteered to be tested for the HIV virus; none were positive. Also, the director of the local health department told news reporters and the public that all the managers tested negative and also that AIDS could not be transmitted through food and that it was safe to eat at Snapps. The news conference was held at the office of the health department, where TV news cameras would focus on its building or its name as an establishing shot.
Don’t blame others. Shifting the blame is a strategy tried but rarely successful in the recovery stages of a crisis. First of all, it doesn’t end the news coverage; it compounds it. And sometimes the shifting backfires when other organizations or individuals refuse to accept blame. Shifting the blame occurs easily when reporters and others ask the baited question “If you’re not responsible, who is?” Don’t take the bait.
Exxon’s CEO Lawrence Rawl blamed the officials of the State of Alaska and the U.S. Coast Guard for its crisis after the oil was spilled and continued to spread while arguments ensued over who was to clean up and how. Rawl said that Exxon’s hands were tied because it couldn’t get authorization to clean up the oil or use dispersants. Actually, it was the responsibility of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of several oil companies working on Alaskan waters. Exxon was only part of the consortium. However, the public never accepted any placing of blame elsewhere. Newspapers and television news stations ran photos and footage of the ship that leaked the oil, and it had the name “Exxon” on it. So, to most people, Exxon was responsible. The other oil companies in the consortium were not anxious to share the great public shame Exxon faced.
Be prepared to lose access to normal tools and facilities. During natural disasters, electricity and other utilities are often, very often, not available. During Hurricane Katrina, not only electricity but also landline telephones and cellular phone towers were down. Drinking water was not available. During a California earthquake, PR staff members of one university found their building condemned. They had no phone numbers, media lists, or access to computers. They located an ancient manual typewriter and used a car for an office during the first day of the disaster.
The 9/11 terrorist attack in New York had numerous companies scrambling to locate surviving employees. All employees should know how to report in when the work site is gone or damaged. Crucial information about employees as well as important day-to-day operations should be available offsite at a place known to employees.
Tell your own bad news, first if possible. Telling one’s own story has always had its advantages. There is less fear of misunderstanding and misquoting if the complete story originates from the company in crisis. Some organizations call news conferences and reveal the details of a crisis. Some give the story to one newspaper known to be accurate and let other media get the basics from that newspaper. In recent years, it has become crucial for an organization in crisis to put its own information on a Web site for all to see—reporters and concerned publics.
An Alaska Airlines plane crashed off the coast of California in 2000, and within an hour, its communications team had placed the story on a Web site used by employees but easily accessible by the media. News media, as well as consumers and employees, accessed all the information Alaska had up to that point, before a news conference could be called. The information was updated as new information was acquired. This was one of the first major companies in crisis to use its Web site to get the word out immediately. Crisis Consultant David Marriott said, “It became a huge asset for us in getting out to a variety of audiences. Alaska now has a crisis Web site which can be activated quite quickly.”
Stage 5: Learning
The learning stage begins after the crisis is not the subject of news coverage, and phone calls, e-mails, and other communications from publics have subsided. During the learning stage of a crisis, the organization is learning not only about how it has been affected by the crisis but also how its image and reputation have been affected.
Develop strategies to repair and restore reputation and image. This requires research to determine where the organization stands with various publics, including, but not exclusively, employees, consumers, community members, and government leaders. Focus groups, surveys, interviews, monitoring blogs and Web sites, and other fact-finding strategies may be employed. When the strategies determine the problems, the organization can set appropriate programs and policies to make amends.
Sometimes making amends means compensating victims, usually publicly. Sometimes it is announcing a corrective policy or program. William L. Benoit is known for image restoration theory, and he describes restorative approaches. Some of Benoit’s approaches are taken during the recovery stage of the crisis, while others are done after the news coverage has ended. Some organizations hope that compensating victims and announcing corrective programs will end the news coverage on a high note.
Other organizations wait until litigation is complete. If the organization does not wait until after litigation, it takes the risk of being seen as taking steps to avoid litigation or improve its position in court. Judges may look on some restoration approaches as a positive indication that the crisis will not recur. This is a decision that must be carefully weighed and timed.
Be prepared for anniversary stories. Following every crisis, the news media will keep tickler files to remind themselves of anniversaries of news-making crises. At first, it will be every year, then perhaps every 5 years, every 10 years, and so on unless another disaster or catastrophe diminishes it. The anniversary of the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor will definitely be revisited on December 7, 2011, the 70th anniversary. The 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 are still annual revisits; they replaced the Oklahoma City bombing, everywhere except in Oklahoma, where the news media remind the public that the incident is not forgotten. In the rest of the country, that domestic terrorist attack may be remembered if no greater news stories abound.
The organization or country that suffered the crisis is expected to answer questions about progress made since the crisis and convince the public that steps have been taken to prevent future similar crises.
The Columbine High School shooting incident, which left 12 students and a teacher dead, took place in 1999. The head of PR for the Jefferson Country (Littleton, Colorado) School district said that in addition to the anniversary stories, there were phone calls or questions by e-mail from the news media or from parents or other school districts every day for 1 year and 2 months; then the rate slowed down to about once a week for many years. When 33 students and teachers were killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, it became the most memorable school shooting, and on April 16 for many years, stories retelling that tragedy will be told, and the news media will want to know about the latest security precautions implemented.
Study the crisis. Analyze the news coverage. What were the difficult questions posed by reporters and publics? Why were the questions difficult to answer? Could the organization have prevented the crisis? If so, by doing or not doing what? What can now be done to prevent such a crisis again? What were the positive and negative outcomes? Could it have been worse? Can the organization make positive moves that will boost positive relationships with publics? If so, make a plan to do so. Devise a crisis communications plan or a better crisis communications plan. Organize a system of notifying management of issues that may become crises and go into Stage 1: Detect the next crisis.