Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Evolved Approach to Crisis Communication

You're a successful propane tank exchange executive gearing up for the summer peak season. Demand is forecast to be high. People are eating out less and are spending more time at home. Production costs have leveled off with the decreasing price of oil. Heck, your company may even post a small gain this quarter. Life is good...

It's 12:37 a.m. on a Sunday night; your phone rings and the voice on the other end frantically explains to you that there was an "accident" involving Plant 4. The main propane storage tank blew. The fire has been contained, but initial reports indicate severe structural damage and several employee injuries. The cause of the blast has not been isolated.

The media have not caught wind - yet. You, my friend, have a crisis.

You quickly dig out your crisis communication manual (circa 1995) and begin the motions. You know a response is required. You know your initial response needs to be timely, succinct and transparent - or now you do - because you've only got one shot to respond before the court of public opinion makes its ruling.

What channel(s) of communication allows you to respond and distribute your messages to those who most need that information in a timely, succinct and transparent manner AND in one fell swoop?

Not a phone call. Not a press conference. Certainly not keeping "mum."

The answer is the Internet. Plan an online crisis communication plan with your public relations team. Create an account on Twitter. Develop a page on Facebook. Post updates and key information in your online newsroom or blog. Don't have either? Get them.

Your online crisis communication initial response should include:
  • Recap of the event/crisis (include numbers if possible)
  • Action being taken to correct the situation
  • Restate your key messages and existing safety measures
  • Resource for further updates (preferably online)
  • Easily redistributed materials (not a 13MB PowerPoint)
How do you fit all of this on Twitter? Observe: "Attn: Media. Situation at COMPANYNAME re: propane facility. Visit for continuing updates, media advisories & contact info." (<140 characters) FYI - is an efficient tool to shorten URLs.

Sure, you'll still spend the next week on the phone talking to reporters about propane safety issues, but the Internet gives you control over your message and provides real-time access to information for media, retailers, consumers, investors, employees, family members, etc. This is critical in bringing a crisis situation under control from the beginning.

The point is not to rush a response to satisfy the media when you don't have your facts straight; you should have most of this in place already, just fill in the blanks!

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