Prepare for Emergencies
Ninety minutes after the loss of voice and tracking data signaled the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas on Feb. 1, mission control personnel at NASA's Johnson Space Center near Houston were acknowledging only that a "contingency" had occurred. Although to the public that term seemed like a euphemistic denial of disaster, it actually indicated the enactment of an emergency mode of operation.
As NASA Flight Director Leroy Cain requested mobilization of rescue personnel in the Dallas area, he issued a directive to mission control staff members: "All flight controllers on the flight loop, we need to kick off the FCOH [Flight Control Operations Handbook] contingency plan procedure, FCOH checklist page 2.8-5."
All employers should likewise adopt procedures governing operations during catastrophic events, and those protocols should encompass an essential component: a crisis communication plan. Health and food product contamination, aviation and rail crashes, fires, explosions, floods, accounting scandals, outbreaks of disease, manufacturing plant accidents, chemical spills and other debacles can be injurious or lethal not only to people, but also to the organizations within which responsibility resides. Effective communication can help prevent a mishap from degrading into chaos, can defuse inflammatory rumors, and can minimize or avert resentment or public loss of confidence.
The purpose of a crisis communication plan is to define a chain of command through which cohesive and accurate information is gathered and disseminated. A crisis communication plan should anticipate potential emergency situations and describe how the organization would communicate essential information to all groups of people who may be affected. All employers, whether small or large, should adopt such a plan and identify the members of a designated crisis communication team as well as a principal spokesperson to work with the news media.
Anyone who is designated to respond to inquiries from news reporters should first undergo media training. If a crisis occurs, the spokesperson should gather as much information as possible from informed sources and respond quickly to inquiries from reporters. The spokesperson should be thorough and truthful, and should provide reporters with media kits describing the organization, its leaders, and its products and services.
Concealing or withholding potentially damaging information from journalists is unwise. Reporters will likely seek details, sensational or otherwise, from employees and members of the public who were involved in or affected by the mishap. Although acknowledgment of fault is unpleasant, honesty is far more effective in preserving public confidence than denial of truth. Declaring "no comment" when grilled by a reporter carries a connotation of guilt or dishonesty. A spokesperson who doesn't know the answer to a question should say so rather than trying to evade the question, and then should try hard to obtain the answer.
The spokesperson shouldn't trivialize or minimize the severity of the mishap, particularly if injuries have occurred. Expression of compassion for victims is far more powerful than declaring, "Nothing like this has ever happened here before." Such a statement means little to injured employees, their family members, stockholders, vendors and consumers. By definition, accidents are not intentional. But people who are hurting want to know first that they will be given care and justly compensated, that the cause of the incident will be promptly and thoroughly investigated, and that reasonable corrective measures will be enacted to prevent similar mishaps in the future. Such statements of assurance validate the integrity of an organization; attempts to dodge responsibility damage reputations.
Organizations with Web sites should use them to disseminate timely information, because that's where many people may turn. Any fact sheets or statements prepared for the news media also should be posted on the affected organization's Web site, and given to receptionists or made available on voice-mail systems in organizations that use automated telephone greeting systems. Information should be updated frequently, or when significant new developments occur. The receptionist or voice mail message should indicate who to contact for additional information.
Bear in mind that an organization can't defuse inaccurate rumors about an incident without knowing what they are. Monitoring radio talk shows, news broadcasts and Internet "chat rooms" and news groups in which the event is likely to be discussed can help identify public perceptions.
Throughout the crisis, move quickly and be keenly attentive. Prompt resolution of a disturbing incident and punctual care for affected individuals, in tandem with candid, sincere, timely communication, can help an organization survive with its reputation intact and can play a role in helping to prevent reoccurrence of tragic events.
EditPros has prepared a detailed eight-page report, "Formation and Operation of a Crisis Communication Team," which it is offering free of charge. Copies of the report can be obtained by sending an e-mail message to "email@example.com" with the subject line "Crisis team."
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