Crisis management and your crisis response plan

Too late for planning (via tvol on flickr)Crisis management planning is critical for any business and Atlanta-based companies are not immune from this rule. During my career as a reporter and especially over the past five years of reputation management at Jackson Spalding, I have witnessed the results of those who conduct business without a crisis communications plan. It’s like walking a tight rope without a net.

Most of my clients never expected they would need help with issues management. Crisis communications popped into their minds only after the crisis popped into their life. In fact, I frequently acknowledge that many of my clients never wanted to work with a PR firm at all. They call — sometimes at the request of their attorney — after an unplanned event becomes an issue that might impact their bottom line.

The situations that lead to this call are wide-ranging. I’ve helped corporate boards communicate the transition of C-suite executives and once worked with a client who needed to explain to employees, vendors and partners why a C-level executive was pleading guilty after a Justice Department investigation. I’ve responded to protests, including one led by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition and one organized to oppose a Glenn Beck book signing.

I took a call yesterday from a company in Georgia that anticipates a significant drop in business because a fire at one facility resulted in media coverage showing only the damaged property. The TV news coverage made it appear as if the business would shut down. The business owner wants to let the world know that just 10 percent of operations were affected. The doors are still open and it’s “business as usual.”

The good news is that with some focus and energy there is always a strategy to make challenging situations better, even if there isn’t a magic wand to make the situation disappear.

Most crisis communications plans involve a mix of internal communications, media relations, community relations, business to business strategies and, increasingly, online reputation management.

But before a company decides which tactics are required, it’s healthy to step back and think about the big picture. I’ve said this before but there are seven rules to follow in a communications crisis:

Rule No. 1: Recognize that you have a problem, and it is not going away.

Rule No. 2: Everything sends a message, whether it’s intended or not.

Rule No. 3: Facts have a power of their own.

Rule No. 4: Look for the unanswered question.

Rule No. 5: Make sure your message will resonate with people.

Rule No. 6: Be willing to put integrity ahead of profits.

Rule No. 7: Be proactive. Don’t play defense.

Crisis Management Planning
I’m always happy to work with clients who haven’t planned for a crisis. Maybe it’s my nature as a former reporter but I love the adrenalin that comes with fire drills.

But the truth is that an effective crisis response often stems from a thoughtful crisis management plan. My best clients, like Cousins Properties, have a crisis communications policy and work from that plan in an emergency. With this approach, clients see better results and save money during the course of unplanned reputational issues than those who don’t.

It’s just common sense to make a plan. Whether it’s used or not, every company should create a crisis communications plan and revise it annually.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The same is true when planning to protect your corporate reputation.

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