Crises you can plan for: Preparing for the expected crisis

March 16, 2009

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Tim O’Brien, APR

The following article will appear in the April 2009  issue of PR Tactics.

While communications crises may take on many forms, they can usually be divided into two major groups — the ones you can expect and the ones you do not expect.

Sudden crises, like an explosion at a plant, violence in the workplace or the untimely death of an executive, require that a company has a solid crisis communications plan in place. However, anticipated crises, such as layoffs or labor strikes, also provide unique opportunities to plan for specifics and anticipate outcomes.

Circumstances may change from one situation to the next, but the process for managing the expected crisis tends to be pretty consistent. To illustrate, consider filing for Chapter 11 to reorganize under bankruptcy protection.

A bankruptcy case situation
By realizing it cannot continue to service its debt and maintain operations at current levels, a major corporation determines that it must file for bankruptcy protection as it reorganizes. The job of communications is to reassure major stakeholders that the company is filing for Chapter 11 — but under the reorganization process, the company will conduct business as usual. The goal is to provide cover for the organization so that it can effectively reorganize with minimal impact on day-to-day operations.

Key constituencies
One of the first priorities in planning for the expected crisis is to identify and prioritize the major targets for communications. Naturally, in a bankruptcy situation, many audiences are of equally high importance: board members, institutional and individual investors, customers, vendors, employees, unions, retirees, banks and lenders, industry analysts — among others. Some of these groups, such as employees, are subdivided — they can be broken down into salaried, hourly and even by geographic location. It is important to parse these audiences as narrowly as possible if there is the need to customize communications by audience.

Key messages
One of the advantages presented by the expected crisis is that you have the opportunity to truly consider and target the interests and concerns of each audience in advance. You can discern key messages by breaking down the audiences on a grid that lays out each possible concern when hearing the impending news. The messaging strategy in bankruptcy situations is to address each of these concerns preemptively when making the announcement. I’ve seen the process work in several ways, but for me, it only starts to become real when we begin to develop the communications documents that will be used for implementation, starting with key messages and Q-and-A, which should be comprehensive to the extent that messages and information are tailored to each important audience.

Major deliverables
Depending on the situation, the complexity of the information, the diversity of targeted audiences and even the geographic challenges, deliverables will vary not only in nature but also in sophistication. What follows is a basic list of the most common deliverables that could be needed at the outset of a bankruptcy filing or other form of expected crisis:

• Master news release. Customized Internet communication on the organization’s Web site and any other affiliated sites or blogs.
• Key messages and talking points and printed Q-and-A’s for spokespersons, managers and company representatives to refer to.
• A timeline, complete with role assignments.
• Backgrounders, fact sheets, chronologies, biographies and other documents likely needed to give the event context for the media and other audiences.
• Videos, presentations, brochures and multimedia tools that may support the overall communications effort.
• Command and control room, ser-ving as a hub for decision-making and expedited response on the part of management, and a press room, serving as a base from which the most immediate and breaking communications can occur.
• Distribution channels for communication that may include everything from e-mail lists to employees and special interest groups, to special databases used to target investors and the media.
• Old-fashioned workplace media — newsletters, bulletin boards, boxes for questions and suggestions, large- and small-group meetings.  And don’t forget the receptionist or telephone operator — he or she can either be a weak or important link in the communications process.
• External communications. The communications team must consider the firm’s external advertising to make sure that it is not sending contradictory messages at the time of the announcement.

Preparation and evaluation
In some crises you may even have the time and resources to conduct advance research predetermining concerns and attitudes among key audiences. Chances are, you will at least have the opportunity to designate the best spokesperson and representatives to reach out to constituencies, coaching them so that they are on message when the crisis occurs.

During the crisis situation, effective media and Internet monitoring systems will allow the team to respond quickly. Following the crisis, the organization will have the opportunity for both formal and informal debriefings and evaluation. It is best to start thinking of how this might take shape before the crisis is triggered. This approach will give the organization the best possible chance to consistently communicate from beginning to end.

Tim O’Brien, APR, is principal of O’Brien Communications. He is a frequent contributor to Tactics. E-mail:


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