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Crisis Communications: Not If, but When

Crisis Communications Not If, but When

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.
—Rahm Emanuel

THE quote above is from former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff during the 2008–2009 economic crisis and Great Recession. However, similar comments go at least as far back as Italian diplomat, philosopher, and writer Niccolò Machiavelli in Renaissance Florence.

Of course, no one and no organization wants a crisis, but inevitably one will happen.

Crises come in all shapes and sizes, but generally share several attributes:

  • They are unexpected
  • They have a strong emotional resonance with a company’s key stakeholders, the media, and the public
  • They evolve in unpredictable ways
  • Events seem to outstrip an organization’s ability to deal with them
  • They call into serious question the competence and quality of a company’s governance and management. For example, Dennis Muilenburg is no longer CEO of Boeing following the 737 MAX disasters
  • They pose extreme, even existential risk to an enterprise
  • They require an outsized and extreme level of communication.

As the late management guru Peter Drucker noted, “Turbulence—for those who still remember a little mathematics—is characterized by unpredictability. It is certain that the unpredictable will happen; but it is impossible to predict where, when or how.” So it is with crises.

While no organization can avoid turbulence at some point, it can keep its seat belt fastened and be prepared


The Team

The first step is to establish a core team that can manage crises effectively right when they occur. The team should include:

  • the CEO and/or COO
  • legal counsel
  • public/media relations

Depending on the nature of the crisis, the team should be expanded to include appropriate senior executives. They could include the following leaders and department heads:

  • marketing and sales
  • government relations
  • human resources/employee relations
  • investor relations/the CFO
  • international
  • supply chain
  • plant manager

However, it should not be too large. More than ten people is too large. Identify and notify the core members of the team, and hold a meeting before any crisis occurs.

A word about legal counsel. Counsel can be expected to ably assess the legal risk of the crisis and suggest specific actions to address it. Almost inevitably, the plaintiffs’ bar will file lawsuits for millions and even billions of dollars in damages on issues ranging from company products being linked to cancer to violations of securities laws over the nature and timing of disclosure of the issue.

You must realize, too, that there is also what could be called “brand risk” involving a range of organization stakeholders that can be extremely important to the overall strategy. For instance, corporate boycotts over specific company policies, while generally not that successful by themselves, can and do generate significant negative media and public attention that leads to change.

Boycott examples have included Chick-fil-A for its opposition to same-sex marriage, Caterpillar for selling construction equipment to Israel that was used to bulldoze Palestinian homes, and products from South Africa over apartheid.

Two of the most famous boycotts:

  • The boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, city buses when Rosa Parks refused to move her seat from a Whites-only section, giving impetus to the young civil rights movement.
  • The boycott of grapes led by César Chávez over farmworker pay and working conditions that eventually led to a union contract improving both

Boycotts demonstrate the need for companies to do the right thing in the first place

Taking Inventory

Before a crisis hits, the first task for the core team is to take inventory of the type of crises that have occurred in the organization’s past and that might occur in the future, given its business.

For instance, for an oil company it could be a major oil spill, such as the Exxon Valdez tanker off the coast of Alaska or the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, causing severe environmental damage and, in the latter case, deaths.

For a food company, it could be contamination of its products, either with a foreign substance or a pathogen such as E. coli, necessitating a massive product recall. Perrier’s market leadership in mineral water in the US was decimated when trace amounts of benzene, a carcinogen in significant quantities, was found in some of their bottled water.

For a clothing company, it could be a major human rights organization exposing dangerous working conditions or child labor in a developing country. More than a thousand workers perished when a Bangladesh factory producing Nike products collapsed.

The Plan

Using the inventory, compose a written plan—in advance. Make it only a few pages, not a long document that likely will then sit on a shelf. It should include:

  • A brief statement to remind those involved in the crisis that the company will address the problem with honesty and transparency, act in the public interest, and have empathy for those affected.
  • The core members of the team and their contact information.
  • Responsibilities for communications with all key stakeholders, including logistics of those communications
  • A system for liaison: information sharing with and input from the board of directors
  • A notice that the group will meet at least once a year to review and update the plan as necessary, looking for potential new clouds on the horizon
  • The company’s key brand messages
  • An appendix of contact information for other important stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, government officials, and so forth

Organization and Logistics

As noted, the crisis team needs to have a logistics plan in place for communications—and for everyone to understand it. This should have a number of pieces, including but not limited to:

  • The website. There should be at least a page of the latest information on the issue, the company’s position, and the ability to send feedback to the company.
  • Related to the website, ensure that appropriate security systems have been established to assure nefarious actors aren’t able to hack into and alter a company’s website or access internal emails.
  • How should incoming calls from different audiences be routed?
  • Who is in charge of coordinating the various intelligence and feedback for senior management and the board?
  • What internal and external resources are available and may need to be brought to bear?

There are many more.

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Leading Forum
This is an excerpt by Jonathan Dedmon is from The Public Relations Handbook edited by Robert L. Dilenschneider and is reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. Robert L. Dilenschneider formed The Dilenschneider Group in October, 1991. Headquartered in New York and Chicago, the Firm provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals around the world, with experience in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions and crisis communications to marketing, government affairs, and international media. Prior to forming his own firm, Dilenschneider served as president and chief executive officer of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. from 1986 to 1991, tripling that Firm’s revenues to nearly $200 million and delivering more than $30 million in profit. For more information, please visit RobertLDilenschneider.com

9781637740613Jonathan Dedmon is a Principal of The Dilenschneider Group with more than forty-five years’ experience in the media and agency public relations and marketing communications, including twenty-eight years with The Dilenschneider Group in Chicago. During his public relations and marketing communications career, Mr. Dedmon has worked across a variety of industries, including real estate, architecture and construction, legal affairs, financial services, education, energy, manufacturing, transportation, environmental services, healthcare, food, and agriculture, and consumer products. He also has worked with e-commerce clients and with a number of trade associations, and in education and the arts. For more information, please visit Dilenschneider.com

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