Crisis Management: Don’t Close the Door on Your Organization’s Fire

One of my friends when I was growing up in the countryside of Indiana was a boy named Billy, who lived a few houses down the street. Billy was a nice kid but not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to common sense.

We were both around ten years old when “the incident” occurred: While playing with matches in his bedroom, Billy set the window curtains on fire. He tried putting the fire out, but the flames quickly spread. Billy was so overwhelmed by the situation that he walked out of his room, closed the door and started watching TV in the living room. Really, that’s exactly what he did.

For a few minutes, he didn’t have to deal with the awful reality of what he had done, and he was able to go about life as usual. 

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However, it wasn’t long before the entire house was engulfed in flames. Fortunately he and his family escaped, but the house burned to the ground. I still remember hearing the sirens and watching flames shoot out of their house as firemen tried in vain to save it.

Now I understand why my mother encouraged me to make some new friends.

Billy never talked much about “the incident,” so I can’t say for sure what was going through his mind. But I suspect when the fire started in his bedroom, he was afraid he’d get in trouble for playing with matches and thought he could handle it. After all, it was just a little flame at the end of a match—at least, at first. That was MISTAKE #1.

When he realized he couldn’t put the fire out, Billy apparently became so overwhelmed with what he’d done that he convinced himself he could just close the door on the fire and it would magically go away. That was MISTAKE #2.

When I tell this story in my crisis communications seminar, people are amazed at such irresponsible behavior, and rightfully so. Billy should have known better—a raging fire doesn’t extinguish itself by shutting the door on it.

Yet, many organizations with intelligent, well-educated leaders often take the same approach to dealing with a crisis in their organization.

Rather than face reality, they try to ignore the crisis or put a lid on it.

More often than not, the crisis grows and becomes consuming, and in the process devours time and resources. Sometimes the organization’s reputation is severely harmed, and out of the ashes investigations suddenly appear.

It’s not unusual for negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside, which often occur during a crisis, to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control of the situation and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the fire it has set. If the organization is caught off guard, it may be forced to divert valuable resources to fight the fire.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus among senior management, which only makes the situation worse.

Facing reality and engaging the crisis in its early stages will make the situation more manageable and less damaging.

When a crisis strikes, those charged with managing communications should have three primary objectives:

  1. Maintain control of the message
  2. Minimize damage
  3. Achieve accurate and balanced coverage through the news media and Internet

One of the best ways to help maintain control and minimize damage when a crisis strikes is to have a flexible crisis management plan in place.

The plan should:

  • Contemplate the types of crises that could occur
  • Set forth policies to deal with them
  • Identify all audiences and the best ways to communicate with them
  • Have a pre-selected crisis management team in place
  • Establish a system for communicating accurate information quickly and effectively

The only thing worse than not having a crisis plan is having one that is not communicated, reviewed or tested by those who ultimately will have to implement it.

photo credit: nrg_crisis Aglow via photopin (license)

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Ad Agency PR Is Never More in Demand than During a Crisis

Palm tree in Puerto Rico

A couple weeks ago, a car crashed into the church I attend. That’s right, a car. And it did some major damage to the area it hit. (The car didn’t come out of this all that well either.)

It happened late at night when the driver, who apparently was traveling at a high rate of speed, missed the curve in front of our church and plowed into the building. He fled on foot, but it didn’t take long for the police to track him down.

I have to admit that I never thought about the possibility of a car hitting our church—but it did. The incident was a stark reminder that a crisis can strike at any time, without warning.

Ad agency PR is never  more in demand—and needed—than in a crisis. A case in point is another incident that took place—also at night—that not only was unexpected, but potentially devastating to a mental health center owed by an agency client.

Somewhere around 3:30 a.m., on a Friday, I got a call from one of the agency’s partners where I worked at the time saying that the client’s mental health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just experienced a fire that damaged a unit of the facility.

Two patients were dead, and reporters were onsite covering the story.

Rumors were flying, I was told, and I needed to get on a plane in the morning to go handle the matter. My weekend was going to a little different than I planned.

When I arrived in San Juan and entered the hotel lobby, my eyes were drawn to a newspaper with a front-page story and photo about a prison riot where 26 people were injured and several guards had been taken hostage. The news media left the mental health center to cover the prison riot, which bought us some time to get organized.

I quickly discovered that the number of newspapers in San Juan numbers in the teens, making it feel more like a regional than local story given the number of print outlets we had to deal with (not to mention radio and TV).

After being transported from my hotel to the mental health center, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing director and chief medical officer (who served as our spokesman) were top-notch pros, and they were going to make my job much easier.

Plus, the center had established good relationships in the community, so it had plenty of goodwill to draw upon, and there was no shortage of people who were willing to help us.

After a quick briefing to ascertain the facts, determine what had been communicated by the media (including rumors that the facility had burned to the ground) and making a list of all our audiences, we developed a game plan, followed by a crash media training session in which I helped our spokesman and marketing director prepare for interviews.

Here’s what happened next:

  • We established a link with the police and fire department spokespersons to get advance notice of what they would say to the media so that we had time to prepare our responses.
  • I worked with the staff to put together a brief statement for employees, patient family members and the news media, updating them on the latest information. The statement expressed concern for the victims’ families and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staff who tried to save everyone, and managed to do so except, unfortunately, for the two patients who perished. (I later learned these patients were suspected of having set the fire in the first place).
  • The statement included a clear but low-key message that the hospital was functioning, and that only one unit of it was affected by the fire.
  • We also developed a fact sheet explaining what happened to combat rampant rumors and made it available to reporters and other interested parties.
  • Media coverage of our statement was light because of the Columbus Day holiday (which I learned is a big deal in Puerto Rico), so we took out full-page ads reprinting it in leading newspapers.
  • We also sent a letter from our spokesperson, who was highly respected in the local medical community, to key referral sources to ensure they understood that the center was functioning.
  • Finally, we encouraged health care professionals in the community to speak out on behalf of the center within their areas of influence.

All this took place over the weekend, and in less than 48 hours I was able to return home.

In the days that followed, the mental health center reported very positive responses from the community, while the news media was on to its next story.

My main takeaway from this experience: We were able to manage this crisis so effectively in large part because of competent staff and positive relationships in the community.

photo credit: Ricymar Photography (Thanks to all the fans!!!!) via photopin cc

Has Agency Crisis PR Lost Its Way?

Crisis PR is in crisis. Or so says Matthew DeBord, writing in The Big Money.

He believes the 24/7 news-and-comment cycle and social media have permanently altered the landscape to the point where “the new crisis paradigm is spinning hopelessly in the dark.”

Leading with BP’s troubles and the inability of its crisis communications team to work magic, Mr. DeBord writes “the dark art is in meltdown.”

While Mr. DeBord’s article raises some interested points, his statement “The BP oil spill, Apple’s (AAPL) Antennagate, the fall of Goldman Sachs (GS), Toyota’s Great Recall, the sexual travails of Tiger Woods, the trysts of Al Gore, the loose lips of Stanley McChrystal—all these combustions would have been fixed, in the good old days of 2007, with a call to Burston-Marstellar or Sitrick & Co.,” is frankly absurd.

Exxon hardly waltzed through the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which took place before the Internet was used on a large scale. Or how about Bridgestone’s tire disaster a decade ago? Bridgestone had a top PR firm working on the crisis, but would anybody say it was handled well?

While there’s no doubt that social media have changed the speed at which companies communicate and the way in which they interact with the public, the fundamentals of crisis communications haven’t changed.

I can’t recall ever seeing a crisis “fixed” just by throwing money at PR. There has to be a good-faith effort to fix the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

If a company is deceptive and tries to hide the truth, no amount of crisis spin is likely to do it much good.

Don Beehler provides public relations consulting services to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies and businesses.