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Crisis Communications 101

Toyota’s recent PR blunder and Honda’s major recall put automakers in the spotlight and at the forefront of consumers’ minds. These corporations aren’t the first (e.g., Enron) and surely won’t be the last to suffer from poor crisis management. As faulty breaks plaster the headlines, people are starting to question crisis management, especially the PR practitioners behind it.

Earlier this month, Rebecca Roberts from NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and crisis management expert Eric Dezenhall compared notes on Toyota’s lack of crisis communications. The topic up for discussion: “How to Bounce Back from a PR Disaster.” In addition to exploring Toyota’s problems as they stand, Dezenhall accused PR practitioners of solving crises with transparency. “Whether it’s Tiger Woods or anything, you’re always hearing these very silly PR people [diving] in front of the camera [to] dish out this ridiculous cliché that if you just fessed up, the problem would go away,” Dezenhall said.

In light of Dezenhall’s comment, I interviewed crisis communications and media issues guru Gerard Braud, asking him about effective crisis management versus the alternative. How should PR practitioners handle a crisis?

Below, you can find some of the questions Braud and I discussed.

1. Is it imperative for organizations to write a crisis communications plan, and why?

The short and sweet answer:

Every organization should have some form of a crisis communications plan, as every organization runs the risk of having something go wrong at some point.

Braud’s thoughts:

“[A crisis communications plan] should be something that every organization should have without fail; however, it’s something that most organizations fail to have. If you fail to plan, plan to fail. A crisis, more often than not, is something that you could make go away before it ever happens. Usually, a crisis happens because somebody neglected to nip it in the bud. Toyota is a perfect example right now. You know that you run an automobile company, you know you will have recalls, and you know what parts are going to fail you the most.”

Braud’s suggestions:

An organization should write out 100 or more plan templates that cover every possible worst-case scenario.

2. How and in what ways can PR practitioners prepare for the unexpected?

The short and sweet answer:

If you are properly prepared, there won’t be anything that catches you or your organization off guard.

Braud’s thoughts:

“There is no such thing as the unknown, and there is no such thing as the unexpected.”

Braud’s suggestions:

In preparing a plan, don’t forget three key components:

  • Perform a vulnerability assessment of your organization. What could go wrong?
  • Use the information gathered in the vulnerability assessment to write plans that take all scenarios into account. How are the crises managed?
  • Keep plans up to date and make sure the plans’ executions are practiced. Why risk creating another crisis?

3. How can social media be incorporated into crisis communications plans?

The short and sweet answer:

Only use social media in your crisis communications plan when it’s relevant to your audiences. Tweeting emergency information to an audience who receives most of their news from a newspaper might not be best.

Braud’s thoughts:

“People need to understand that social media can be as detrimental in a crisis as it can be beneficial. I actually think it can be more damaging, and here’s why: When a crisis hits, you have to know in advance who your audiences are and what the best ways to reach them are. If my company is Starbucks, which is a gen x, gen y millennial-type audience, then social media is a great way to communicate, but if the audience consists of a bunch of baby boomers who don’t want iPhones, who don’t tweet every 15 seconds, who don’t have a Facebook page, who never put a video on YouTube, then I should avoid using social media, or I can use it, but it may not be the best way to get in touch with people.”

Braud’s suggestions:

Know your audiences in each worst-case scenario, so that when a crisis hits, you already know which audience you need to reach and how.

In every crisis, you should have at least one warm, live human being speaking to your audiences. At the very least, have someone post information on your organization’s primary Web site.

4. You mention on your Web site that the Virginia Tech crisis communications plan is a “recipe for disaster.” For someone with little background in drafting a plan, what are the main problems with the Virginia Tech crisis communications plan?

The short and sweet answer:

The Virginia Tech plan is outdated and provides little information, forcing a crisis communications team to gather information at the time of the crisis and waste valuable time that could have been spent executing a complete, up-to-date plan.

Braud’s thoughts:

“[The plan] tells you to gather information. Duh. It says you may need to assemble a crisis management team. Duh. Just about every plan I’ve ever looked at is more than a list of standard procedures. The [Virginia Tech] plan does me no good to look at it.”

Braud’s suggestions:

When drafting a plan, write it, destroy it and write it again.

Every time you rewrite it, make it plainer and more fail proof.

Write it so that a crisis communications team can read it and know every step of the way ahead of time, without having to do much work.

(Information provided in this blog post is from Gerard Braud. Image provided by Trends Updates. Special thanks to former classmates Sarah Lilly and Katelyn Mashburn.)

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