When Hurricane Irene made landfall last August, Peter Eschbach, director of Communications and External Affairs for New Jersey American Water, had more than personal safety on his mind.
“The hurricane wiped out one of our plants, put two others on emergency power and totally surrounded a third with flood water,” he says.
For the company, which relies on regulators to reimburse New Jersey American Water for investments made to improve the statewide system, Mother Nature’s wrath posed a direct threat.
“If a substantial portion of our 2.5 million customers starts complaining about our service to the state,” Eschbach says, “why would the state grant us the ability to recover?”
With roughly one-tenth of their customers on a boil water advisory in Irene’s wake, the lurking impact on New Jersey American Water’s image could have been classified as a public relations crisis.
“A crisis has immediate potential to impede the way you do business, to impact the bottom line and alienate customers and people important to you. There’s an immediate effect,” explains Christopher Lukach, senior vice president and co-owner of Anne Klein Communications in Mount Laurel.
And much like Irene, a public relations crisis calls for a specific blend of do’s and don’ts to mitigate its windstorms.
Have a plan in place.
“It can be as simple as paperwork kept in a three-ring binder with copies to be distributed to top people in the case of a crisis,” says Gary Frisch, president of Swordfish Communications.
Crisis management plans for small- and mid-sized businesses don’t have to be complex, but they should be well-considered and consistently updated.
“In this day and age, businesses of every size need to think about getting in front of a public relations crisis,” says Brenda Jorett, owner of What’s Next Productions, a consulting firm specializing in small businesses and non-profits. “With all of the media and technology out there, the second something happens within your company, mention of it will show up someplace.”
An unlikely, yet plausible, example of a small-business crisis is the possibility of an accident, such as a fire, that damages neighboring businesses.
“If there’s damage to surrounding businesses, which of the business owners will address the media?” Jorett asks as an example of tricky decision-making that can be preempted by foresight.
At their core, crisis management plans keep business owners from overlooking key communication details and from stepping into additional PR landmines in the midst of high-stakes situations.
“You want to not only prep your initial communication to audiences and media, but plan who, internally, needs to be included on a response team,” explains Frisch. “Externally-speaking, key audiences vary across industries, but will obviously include customers, employees, parents if you’re in a business having anything to do with children, investors, shareholders and even vendors.”
Tools to streamline communication can also save valuable time and confusion when crisis strikes.
“I recommend a media contact log with blank spaces for recording who was spoken with, the topic discussed, contact information, and follow-up needs,” Frisch says. “You also want to specify possible locations for press conferences or interviews.”
“The best crisis communication plans are scenario-based, and anticipate the exact issues that could happen,” says Lukach. “Our clients opt for different levels of specificity, but as a general rule, plans should address force majeure, natural disasters, impropriety of employees and executives, and potential victimization-like crimes that could happen on site.”
Don’t say “no comment.”
“‘No comment’ is seen by society as an admission of guilt, even when it’s not intended as such,” says Lukach.
When the media demands commentary, Eschbach points out that a response, if not an answer, should always be supplied.
“Your response might not answer the question, but it trumps ‘no comment.’ The only potential loophole is when you’re talking in terms of legal litigation, but even then, you can say something to the effect of, ‘I haven’t seen the lawsuit yet, so I can’t yet make an informed response.’”
Lukach points out that in today’s media environment, if you’re not talking, someone will talk on your behalf. “Just look at round-the-clock news coverage on crises for an example of this,” he says. “If no one’s available for an interview, the anchors and reporters interview each other. Remaining silent doesn’t stop the noise.”
Show empathy for parties affected.
“‘No comment’ is also a missed opportunity to show the people that matter to you—be it clients, patients, whomever—that you’re a caring organization, that you have policies in place to address the situation,” Lukach says.
And demonstrating empathy, despite some age-old mindsets to the contrary, is never a bad move.
“People often times think when crises happen, that showing sympathy or concern is admission of guilt,” Lukach observes. “It’s not. It’s showing you’re an organization run by humans and not by robots. Not doing so, even when advisable by legal, can undercut credibility.”
Eschbach points to the legal backlash power companies are receiving in the wake of Irene for what customers cite as failure to communicate. Such repercussions, he says, stem directly from perceived detachment.
“You’re talking about people here. Especially in a crisis situation where people have been injured and even killed, you don’t want to come across as a cold, corporate business.”
Don’t overlook social media.
“New Jersey American Water had launched a Facebook page two months prior to Hurricane Irene, and when the storm hit, it became almost our primary means of communication with customers,” Eschbach says.
Despite having only 700 “likes” on Facebook prior to the storm, those relatively few members of the company’s social media network became inadvertent necessities when devastation hit.
“Our censor system was wiped out by Irene,” Eschbach explains. “We were blind in regard to who did and didn’t have water. Our Facebook friends’ observations served as our eyes and ears until the censors were restored.”
By posting photos of field employees working from boats in flood-ravaged areas, and from atop ladders in a plant that had become an island among the raging waters of the Raritan River, New Jersey American Water inadvertently evoked customers’ sympathies.
“Our Facebook audience began going, ‘Oh, wow, we didn’t know it was that bad.’ They’d previously had no idea how awful the situation was. Once they did, they became much more sympathetic and patient,” Eschbach says.
Above all, public relations experts note the public forgives most organizations if they do the right thing.
“If you operate with integrity, are communicating honestly and truthfully, and looking to have dialogue with people that matter to you, crises are, most of the time, salvageable,” Lukach says.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 2 (February, 2012).
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