May 17, 2012

Crisis Management In A Rapid-Fire Communication World

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Criminal Matters.
All strike fear into the souls of business owners. Having a well-thought-out crisis plan can help you avert a business-threatening problem.

What happens when there is a natural disaster? There are injuries, there are hundreds missing and the city is in shambles.

As a business leader, you have to disseminate information immediately. The messages must be succinct and cohesive for multiple constituents to understand and respond quickly. This is why individuals and organizations should make crisis planning a priority. Emergencies are not only limited to physical disasters. Rapid response is also required for crises such as civil disorders, labor unrest, criminal charges, death, illness, system failure, scandals, indictments, convictions, lawsuits, hostile takeovers and bankruptcy.

From Ponzi schemes to Occupy protests; from unpredictable weather patterns to factory explosions; from terrorist attacks to mall melees; from celebrity mishaps to sinking cruise ships, crises happen every day. This is why comprehensive crisis planning is imperative for saving lives as well as saving brands. But where to start? Service professionals and corporate executives from the smallest mom-and-pop to the largest multinational organizations often find it daunting to roll up their sleeves and facilitate a crisis plan.

Crisis Planning Road Map

Crisis planning begins with ethics and trust-building in the community. Identify your organization’s core values reflecting your dedication to serve with honesty and integrity, then you can easily develop your mission statement, defining your organization’s reason for existence. Effective mission statements include purpose, value, contribution and distinction. If a reporter should call a food manufacturer, asking for a comment related to a food-poisoning incident, a well-constructed mission statement serves as the foundation for the company’s response. For example, “We are committed to providing quality product with top-line inspection techniques to guarantee the delivery of healthy, fresh goods.” Without a mission statement, the manufacturer would have to scramble for a response.

Before setting the date for your crisis management planning session, consider viewing Steven Soderbergh’s feature film Contagion about a fictional bat virus pandemic that kills millions. The lesson learned is how quickly the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and medical researchers respond. They begin immediate research of the problem. They are proactive with the media. Public Schools become quarantine centers. FEMA sends food trucks. The National Guard is on the scene. They activate emergency hotlines.

Social media’s influence was not lost on director Soderbergh either. He includes in the film a blogger who might not have been the most credible journalist, but is loved and respected for entertaining his 12 million followers through the darkest days of the outbreak.

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Where To Start

Now you are ready to create your plan. Bring together your top executives and agree that your crisis plan will:

  • Reduce uncertainty
  • Improve efficiency
  • Maintain employee morale
  • Include core values, mission statements and messages
  • Identify your audiences
  • Collaborate, inform and educate
  • Reinforce alliances, win over neutral audiences and minimize attacks from hostile audiences
  • Build credibility
  • Include media response
  • Include digital communication and social media platforms
  • Include victim assistance
  • Include simulated drills and exercises

The first step is to designate an Emergency Incident Leader to oversee and direct plan creation and later operations and logistics in a crisis. Boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face.” Remember that every emergency is unique and the team must be ready to improvise when things go sideways—because they inevitably will.

Alan B. Bernstein included this overview in his Emergency Public Relations Manual published 30 years ago, but the application is still relevant today.


The Overview section of a crisis plan usually includes these items:

  1. Purpose: Identify what emergencies the plan covers.
  2. Authority: Identify what laws, policies and regulations support and govern the emergency response.
  3. Approvals: List the individuals who wrote the plan and those who approved it.
  4. Command Structure: List the management hierarchy in command of an emergency along with contact information and keep it updated.
  5. Scope: Define the exact emergencies and disasters covered in the plan. This should include delegation, collaboration and technical experts for each.
  6. Policy Statement: This statement confirms who has the authority to provide breaking news and information on behalf of the organization in the event of an emergency.
  7. Concept of Operations and Executive Summary: A mission statement designed to familiarize internal audiences, crisis assistance partners and the community with an organization’s preparedness efforts.

The Basic Plan

These are a few items the basic emergency PR plan will address:

  1. Continuity of Operation: Define a succession plan if responders can no longer carry out their duties.
  2. Risk Assessment and Information Communication: Identify your organization’s vulnerabilities and the methods planned for dissemination of information. In a crisis, it is critical to tell the truth and tell it fast.
  3. Command, Control and Coordination: Clearly identify the Emergency Incident Leader and the people in charge of operations, logistics and public relations by title, function and name.
  4. Procedures and Guidelines: Identify the primary and secondary re­sponders by title, function and name.
  5. Duties and Responsibilities: This section lists the emergency action tasks along with the names of the individuals responsible for carrying them out. The list of those within the organization should include legal counsel, public relations, financial officer, human resources, IT and systems management, telecommunications coverage and security. The list of those outside your organization should include hospital liaison, police, fire department, Red Cross, Federal, State, local jurisdiction.


Emergency PR plan communications should include these items:

  1. Designated Spokesperson: Idealy you will have one individual represent your company, respond to media questions and release statements. In addition, designate technical experts to provide supplemental information and support to the spokesperson.
  2. Mission Statement: This reinforces the manifest goal of protecting your company’s integrity and reputation. Core values and trust play a crucial role.
  3. Spin: A company must empathize with how the public perceives the crisis. An immediate apology wins sympathy and allies. Organizations can even preposition their responses to crises such as:
    • Unauthorized procedures
    • Misuse of confidential information
    • Errors in judgment and honest mistakes
    • Attacks from hostile competition
  4. Media Procedures: Your PR director’s strong relationships with the media will be helpful in the midst of a crisis. The PR staff must know how to handle the barrage of inquiries via telephone and social media. Your emergency PR plan must establish a media center with designated areas for press briefings and interviews before an event ever occurs. This plan must also designate media representatives to ensure smooth traffic, safety and information control.
  5. Media Training: Anyone authorized to speak on behalf of your organization must be media trained. A glaring example of someone untrained for interviews on prime time network news was Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential campaign. When Charles Gibson asked Palin about her insights into Russia, viewers were aghast when she said that Alaskans could see the country from their windows. Had Palin trained and prepared, her answers to questions about foreign policy experience would have been credible. Your emergency PR plan must anticipate the toughest questions from the media and rehearse the best answers.
  6. Prepared Statements: Statements and news releases should include the answers to who, what, where and when in response to a crisis.
  7. Collateral Materials: The press will ask for fact sheets about your organization. When they cover a crisis, reporters want to know a company’s history. Simplify any technical information and make it easy to understand. Members of the media appreciate illustrations, pronunciations of uncommon words and flow charts explaining what went wrong. Provide reporters with credible information they can use for their reports. Absent credible, accurate and usable information, you risk them constructing their own interpretation of the story. Make these collateral materials part of your emergency PR press kit.
  8. Key Audiences:The media is usually an organization’s toughest audience. Even so, consider your other constituents when constructing a statement. Change positioning of your statements to address the concerns of specific stakeholders such as:
  • Local, national, international, digital and trade media
  • Employees
  • Shareholders, analysts, bankers, stock brokers, investors
  • Customers
  • Community organizations
  • Distributors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers
  • Suppliers, trade associations, strategic alliances and licensees
  • Legislative, regulatory, judicial and government bodies
  • Special audiences, including physically challenged, minorities, senior citizens and religious groups

Now that you have reviewed the components required for a comprehensive crisis plan, you might consider hiring a professional media trainer to master messaging and delivery. Distilling memorable messages from complex ideas made Albert Einstein one of the most popular figures in history. Make sure that your organization has its own website to control the messages and that your PR department has learned to master social networking to monitor and market the brand. Using the Internet and social media, your company can identify and respond to negative press immediately, in real time and while it is happening. In today’s Web 3.0 world, the majority of information about us already is or quickly can become public. Bad news spreads like wildfire, so communication response has to move even faster. Building your own content bank filled with an accurate chronology of events and impressive references can work in your favor when it becomes necessary to diffuse a negative incident. •

How A Mission Statement Saved the Day

Large companies such as Playboy Enterprises have many mission statements written for specific divisions. Playboy magazine developed its mission statements through authoritative editorial guidelines developed by their founder, Hugh Hefner, and adhered to for decades. When Playboy magazine expanded its global reach through 17 international editions of the publication, the U.S. editorial guidelines were clear and concise in every contractual agreement.

In April 2000, Playboy Enterprises learned that major international women’s groups were protesting against the company for violent graphic images in the newly released Romanian edition. The offensive article was entitled “How to Beat Your Wife Without Leaving Marks.” The misguided Romanian editor intended the piece as an April Fools’ satire.

Playboy’s senior management team responded immediately to defuse the situation. This rapid response with a clear and focused message was possible because the company’s editorial policies pertaining to violence toward women was clear and unequivocal:

“There is no place in Playboy for any kind of violence whatsoever, and most particularly violence against women. Playboy Enterprises and Playboy Magazine has zero tolerance for the depiction of violence, or the use of threat or coercion against women in any form. It violates the very essence of our message of the joy of life and freedom between the sexes.”

Additionally, CEO Christie Hefner issued an immediate apology for any anguish this ill-conceived satire caused. She reinforced Playboy’s long-standing history as a powerful corporate proponent of women’s rights and an enterprise that has worked closely with many groups and organizations in support of women’s rights. These swift and clear actions mollified the women’s groups and the media. Indeed, the public and media applauded the fact that the company took punitive action against the editor of the Romanian edition.—C.R.

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About the Author

Cindy Rakowitz
Cindy Rakowitz
Cindy Rakowitz is the CEO of Blackman Rako­witz Public Relations. She is a highly respected, award-winning executive with more than 25 years experience in marketing, communications, public relations, promotions and product development. Working in a variety of industries, including accounting, law, television, radio, magazines, film, packaged goods, sports, hospitality, fashion, music and wellness, she enjoys continued growth and success. Her newly released book, Emergency Public Relations, Crisis Management in a 3.0 World is available for purchase at,, and More information on Cindy can be found at Blackman Rakowitz Public Relations, (818) 783-3307, or Read more about Cindy Rakowitz...



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