Don’t Become a Member of the Procrastinators’ Club

October 1, 2013

I lived in Southern California for many years, and while everyone knew that the next “big one” — large magnitude earthquake — could happen at any time, few were prepared. I used to keep some water and walking shoes in the trunk of my car, but I have to confess that my disaster planning wasn’t complete. As professionals, one of the things that we all tend to put off is crisis planning.

I faced my first crisis situation long before joining PRSA, when a key member of the executive team that I was part of tragically committed suicide. I was in charge of the office, and soon found myself dealing with the press, grief counselors, urgent business matters and meetings that couldn’t be postponed. 

We didn’t have a formal “crisis plan,” so I responded by seeking the best advice of colleagues I respected. Inevitably some of that advice was contradictory, and I had to make judgment calls on sensitive matters in a timely manner.

Planning ahead

I was reminded of the need for crisis planning when we experienced a deluge from above several weeks ago. The PRSA National offices are located in an office building in downtown Manhattan. One evening in August, a substantial overhead water pipe in our Professional Development (PD) room broke.

Water gushed from the ceiling, pulling down live electrical wires, blowing speakers out of their units, and carrying away ceiling tiles. Water streamed into office cubicles, past the doorway of the room housing our servers and routers, down the elevator shaft and onto the steps of our building.

Luckily, two of our staff members were working late and heard the noise, quickly springing into action and alerting building personnel and PRSA management. Though we were able to shut the pipe off fairly quickly, there was damage and we had to bring in a remediation team, who arrived onsite by 1 a.m. By the time that staff reported to work that morning, we were up and running, albeit a bit soggy.

Communicating clearly

And so, while we know that we should be prepared for crisis, there is something about human nature that allows us to think, “it won’t happen to us.” For PRSA, the last 10 months have been a solemn and persistent reminder that none of us are immune from crisis.

Superstorm Sandy pounded the area last fall, and we were knocked offline for 10 days. Earlier this year we lost Arthur Yann, APR, our vice president of public relations, to a heart attack — a loss that we’ll feel forever. And to end the summer, a flood in our PD room.

In each of these situations, it was essential not only to take quick action to recover, but also to communicate clearly and effectively. Several things enabled us to get through those situations:

  • Having lists widely available with contact information not only for internal staff, but also for volunteer leaders and key board members
  • Having a clear management hierarchy and chain of command, with an understanding of how communications should flow
  • Not only having backup systems and technical competencies that you can quickly call into play, but also having technical staff and management who understand each other and can communicate in understandable terms
  • Having a responsive and professional PR team — folks who are ready, willing and able to provide counsel and execute quickly, and who are able to adapt to changing circumstances

After drying out some waterlogged telephone and data lines, we’ve recovered from our flood, though we still have quite a bit of cosmetic damage to repair.

If there is a lesson, though, then it is: “It can happen to you, at any time, over and over” — so be prepared. As a PRSA member, use the resources we have for you. Take stock of your plan. Do it now, and if you need ideas, resources or guidance, then we have something for you.

Crisis Resources From PRSA

  • Tim O’Brien, APR. “Tapping the Power of Battle-Tested Crisis Communications Principles,” Public Relations Tactics, August 2013

    Each social media crisis shows how even a momentary lapse in judgment or a simple misunderstanding can lead to serious consequences. Here are some common challenges and tips for how you can prepare for them.
  • Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA. “The Fast and the Furious: Lessons on Responding to Inaccurate Reporting," The Public Relations Strategist, Summer 2013

    Luxury electric carmaker Tesla recently proved the old adage, “don’t fight people who buy ink by the barrel,” wrong. Tesla CEO Elon Musk took on The New York Times this past February and successfully restored the company’s integrity. What do you do when a reporter covering your organization or client gets the facts wrong time and time again?
  • Debbie Wetherhead. “Preparing Leaders to Communicate During a Crisis,"  Public Relations Tactics, January 2013

    When you’re spiraling into a crisis, one communications tool can help steady the course: key messages. Preparing strategic statements and helping spokespeople deliver them effectively are essential to a successful outcome.  The media’s constant need for information, the rapid proliferation of news and the inherent controversy require your organization to move fast in a crisis — really fast.
  • Crucial Communications During a Crisis: Q&A with Helio Fred Garcia,” The Public Relations Strategist, Summer 2012

    “If you can’t communicate effectively, you will not lead,” Helio Fred Garcia, president of the New York-based crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group, says in his latest book, “The Power of Communication.” Communication often determines a leader’s success during a crisis, yet it is often (and unfortunately) overlooked as an essential business aptitude. Here, Garcia talks with The Strategist about the imperative value of context and effectively engaging key audiences.
  • Joan Gladstone, APR, Fellow PRSA. “Standby Statements For Leaders,” The Public Relations Strategist, Summer 2012

    Preparing a standby statement helps you avoid that gut-wrenching feeling that your organization has lost control of the story. Instead, you will feel calm and confident knowing that you’ve influenced the all-important first story before it goes viral.
  • Gerard Braud. “Clear Skies Ahead: Sunny Day Secrets to Effective Crisis Communications,” The Public Relations Strategist, Summer 2012

    Many communicators congratulate themselves and win awards for their media relations skills during and after the crisis. But the reality is that a top-notch crisis communications plan, written on a clear, sunny day, can often terminate a crisis before it goes public or significantly mitigate its impact if it does.
  • Ken Scudder. “Be Prepared: 10 Steps to Take Now for Crisis Readiness,”  Public Relations Tactics, January 2012

    Managing a crisis is 60 percent preparation and 40 percent execution. Here are ten steps you can take now to make sure your organization is ready when a crisis strikes.
  • John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA. “Being Creative in the Face of Crisis: How Innovation Plays a Role in Communication,” Public Relations Tactics, August 2011

    The 4 Hard C’s of Crisis Communication:  When creating a crisis communication plan, practitioners must be Quick, be Candid, place everything in Context and remain Consistent.
  • Jo Robertson, D.Sc. “Tell It All?: Challenging Crisis Communications’ Rules,” Public Relations Journal,  Vol. 6, No. 1
  • Shelley Wigley, Ph.D., and Weiwu Zhang, Ph.D. “A Study of PR Practitioners’ Use of Social Media in Crisis Planning,” Public Relations Journal, Vol. 5, No. 3


William (Bill) M. Murray, CAE, is the chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
Email: william.murray at


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