Crisis Communications: Planning Essential to Weather PR Storms

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 12:00 am  

There are accepted procedures in crisis management, said Craig Douglass of Craig Douglass Communications of Little Rock.

"In crisis management you go through a process," he said. And avoiding communications pitfalls is as important as implementing the right procedures.

"You avoid responding without as many facts as you can, given the situation," Douglass said. "Then when you are relatively sure that you have enough facts to adequately respond to the situation, then and only then do you want to move that information out as soon as possible and as comprehensively as responsible.

"What is the old quote: ‘Facts are stubborn things'? You want to get them. You want to know what the facts are of a situation," he said. "And once you are relatively sure you have enough to go with, then you move as quickly as possible."

Douglass said an organization's initial response should include the caveat "that we are learning more. As we learn more, we will share more."

In addition, a business or other entity must understand who comprises its audience, "stakeholders" in corporate parlance, or customers and clients.

With a large and highly visible public institution like Penn State, Douglass said, "there automatically is some scrutiny that is brought to bear when a crisis situation happens ... ."

In such cases, executives and communications professionals should "understand those who are personally affected by the situation," he said. When crises have legal ramifications, "you absolutely have to understand the legal ramifications first, and then you've got to move on that because this is about harm done to people."

Leslie Taylor is associate vice chancellor of communications and marketing for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS, like most public entities, has an emergency preparedness team, which, Taylor said, "is prepared for all kinds of things, from a nuclear disaster to earthquakes to patients injured in a train wreck."

But that's different from its crisis communications plan, a plan that UAMS has developed over time. One of the plan's highlights is accessibility.

"We have somebody on call all the time, 24/7," Taylor said. "You have to be accessible. If the media have follow-up questions you can't wait - if they call you at 10 - and call them back at 3 o'clock."

Another, she said, is honesty. "If you're not honest, you become the story. And that's a big mistake, because the media are going to find out.



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