When a disaster hits, most businesses immediately focus on getting operations up and running, but there’s another aspect to consider: communications. It is crucial to get timely and accurate information distributed to customers, employees, vendors and the community during a disaster.
“Otherwise, people may think you are shut down completely,” says Anita Yoder, who has worked as a public information officer for both Placer County and the Sacramento Red Cross. “When people learn through the news media that there is a fire or flood, they immediately assume the whole region is closed for business, and it often is not the case.”
In fact, many businesses are not only open, but they’re assisting with the crisis. So what is the best way to communicate your business’ position during a crisis? Plan ahead.
“Businesses lose valuable time during a crisis handling media calls and other issues,” says John Segale, president of Precision Public Relations. “Having a prepared crisis communications plan will help restore operations sooner.”
Segale has dealt with fires, industrial accidents, food recalls and toxic spills over his 25-year public relations career. He estimates 35 to 45 percent of companies do not have a crisis communications plan. Especially for small businesses, he suggests a short, simple and easy-to-update plan that examines the “what ifs” most likely to affect a company and includes a candid look at all functional areas.
There are two categories of crisis to plan for says Christi Black, managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations. One is the crisis you can anticipate (like a flood warning to evacuate) and another is what comes with little or no warning (like an earthquake). And remember that an organization’s crisis communications plan and operations plan should work together.
Some key questions to address in a crisis communications plan:
How will the company collaborate with emergency responders like firefighters, police, the Red Cross and local officials? Black says the Red Cross is often the first organization on the scene and can be a third-party information source for family members and others.
Who will the decision makers be during a crisis, and how can they be reached at all times? Keep this information updated in your plan, along with general company information like products, number of employees and customer base.
Who is the spokesperson for which situation, and how will that person disseminate the information? Black warns not to rely on land lines and to set up a remote cell phone tree. “We recommend that clients have a website in place specifically for crisis communications,” she says. Using social media is also essential for immediate alerts and updates.
How will information be monitored? A lot of misinformation will be spread by rumor, especially early in the crisis. Black suggests establishing a daily listening post to monitor what’s said so businesses can respond as necessary.
Immediately after a crisis, Segale suggests asking three questions: What do we know? When did we know? What have we done about it? Then formulate a communications response that expresses what he calls the 4Rs: regret, reform, remediation and recovery.
“Don’t guess, speculate or assign blame,” says Yoder. “Be honest and proactive, and own your part.”
Black suggests four critical elements to communicating after a crisis:
Communicate about the health and safety of employees, clients, vendors and other stakeholders.
Let the above groups know how the disaster impacts their needs. If not known, give an estimate of when it will be known and when the next update will occur.
Activate the business backup plan, and let customers/clients know how their needs will be met.
After the immediate crisis has passed, have senior business leaders contact employees, clients and others to give updates and personal care.
“Crisis communications is not just about the news media,” Yoder says. “It is also about those you do business with and how you can best serve them during this time.”
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