One of the most overlooked disciplines in any Integrated Marketing Communications plan is crisis. Without a crisis management and communications plan all of the other elements of IMC can become meaningless. When a crisis strikes, the most comprehensive programs in advertising, public relations, marketing and sales promotion can become useless. A crisis can strike anytime, anyplace and anywhere, and generally when least expected.
Unfortunately, many companies and organizations are just not prepared to immediately respond. The longer the delay, the more the incident becomes a crisis and the more the crisis exacerbates. You would think after so many classic crises that every company would have a crisis plan as a management priority. So many provide an excellent historical reference B Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Tylenol, “Mad Cow” disease and Firestone/Bridgestone-Ford are among scores of crises from which any manager can learn..
Even 9/11 did not get the attention of some executives. Some 200 CEOs surveyed by the public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller and PR Week magazine after the terrorist attack said that their existing crisis plans were inadequate. However, two months later, only 63 percent of these CEOs had readdressed their existing plans. How vulnerable are the other 37 percent? And why no action?
A major problem today is that too many CEOs are in denial. They believe they are indestructible and don=t need a crisis plan B that is until they have a crisis. For many senior executives, a crisis management and communications plan could be considered job insurance. Any CEO who believes he or she is immune to a crisis is most vulnerable. If a company or organization cannot protect its image and reputation, it soon will no longer be in business.
The most catastrophic of crises happens when people die after using a company=s product. One company that didn’t make it was Bon Vivant, a producer of high quality, gourmet soups. People died after eating Bon Vivant soup. The company had no response plan and soon went out of business. Johnson & Johnson faced a similar crisis when people died from sabotaged Tylenol. However, the company responded immediately using all of its IMC techniques and rebuilt consumer trust.
Pepsi responded within hours after a customer charged that he found a syringe in a can of the soft drink. Within hours, the company sent video news releases to network, local and cable television stations showing the manufacturing process and graphically refuting how such an incident would be impossible.
The Hong Kong Tourist Promotion Bureau certainly was not prepared when it launched its campaign slogan “Hong Kong B it will take your breath away” only to have an outbreak of SARS just days later.
The objective of crisis communications is to contain and resolve the problem as quickly as possible. You want immediate closure, not continuing media dialog. A comprehensive crisis management and communications plan must be a part of IMC. Representatives from each of the IMC disciplines need to be part of an organization=s crisis team. Other members of the team should include the CEO or his representative, the general counsel and heads of human resources and security.
When preparing the plan, the team needs to anticipate every possible crisis and then develop a communications plan for each. The plan should spell out who says what and when so you can prepare to respond immediately. It will include details regarding the organization=s use of all of its logistical, personnel and financial resources.
Some companies even draft generic news releases for anticipated crises so there is no delay in responding. Everything can be signed off by legal and management before there is a crisis. When a crisis strikes, saying “no comment” or stonewalling a response is only raising a red flag for the media and general public. It furthers distrust when management needs to build trust. Forty percent of the public believes a company already is hiding something or is guilty and this jumps to 60 percent when litigation is involved. Always tell the truth and correct misinformation and incorrect statements. Where victims are involved it is important to show compassion, sympathy and remorse for the victims and their families. It is not against the law to do so and this is often where the public relations counsel conflicts with the attorneys.
The plan will detail methods for internal and external communication. It will describe the location and alternates for the communications command post. The document must be a living document and changed and updated on a periodic basis. The crisis team should meet at least semi-annually, if not more often.
In addition to “what if?” crisis situations specific to any organization or company and its line of products and services, there are five generic situations plans must address:
1. Violence in the workplace. This is the leading cause of death in the workplace and where one of six violent crimes is committed. Even the best of plans cannot prevent this from happening.
2. Sexual harassment and discrimination. Regardless how hard an organization tries, how many seminars and education classes there are, you cannot prevent crises in this area. It is always embarrassing to the leadership when it happens.
3. Terrorism. This was a problem before 9/11 and not all terrorism is of the Taliban or Al-Quada type. There are extreme, radical environmental groups that have set fire to new model homes in housing developments hoping to prevent growth. Radical animal rights groups have destroyed research laboratories.
4. Acts of Mother Nature. Here many companies may have a logistics plan in place for problems created by weather, but is there a communications plan? Violent weather is creating serious problems all over the U.S.
5. Environmental pollution. Do you want to be called a polluter? Or how can you justify the penalty and fine to shareholders and customers?
I have always recommended that my clients be proactive, aggressive and out in front on all issues. This is the only way to control the message and say what you want heard. As soon as the crisis is over, the crisis team should meet, review the plan and make necessary updates. Always be prepared, because the same crisis can happen again.
Rene A. Henry is a consultant and author of six books including Marketing Public Relations B the hows that make it work! and one of the best-selling books on crisis management and communications, You=d Better Have A Hose If You Want to Put Out the Fire.
This opinion piece by Rene A. Henry was originally written for and published in the Summer 2003 issue of IMC Comminique, a publication of The Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University.