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From One Crisis to Another

Posted At: January 1, 2008 10:11 AM 
How crisis communication is contributing to the public relations field

by Abby Barton and Allison Bridges

As the senior vice president of public relations for a well-respected company, what would you do if your product suddenly caused thousands of your customers to become ill? How would you assure the public that you were tending to the problem? What would you say to the families who were affected?

Are you prepared to answer these questions? Many in the industry are not, but with numerous crises affecting our organizations today, many public relations practitioners have switched from trying to create a company’s brand to defending it.

Crisis Anticipation

“The utilization of crisis management is important for all companies because crises are inevitable,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president and founder of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc. (BCM). “A crisis is any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation and/or negatively impact stock value, and such situations are very hard to avoid. Companies must have a plan in place in case of such an emergency.”

BCM has worked with many crises, but Bernstein has found that one of the industry’s greatest challenges is convincing organizations to prepare themselves for an emergency.

“Internal resistance by those who don’t understand crisis communication has been one of our biggest obstacles,” explained Bernstein. “Not everyone understands that crisis prevention costs are always a tiny fraction of the losses incurred from crises for which there is inadequate preparation. Many BCM clients have incurred millions of dollars in losses that could have been avoided with proper preparation.”

Chris Nelson, senior vice president and director of North American Issues and Crisis Management Network with Ketchum New York, also felt that company leaders should always know what vulnerabilities their organizations have. He explained that anticipating a crisis is key to recovery.

“Often companies do not recognize they’re in a crisis until well after it’s too late to do much for them,” said Nelson. “A company needs a robust crisis preparedness program that ensures the company is thinking through crisis management strategies and tactics when it’s not facing the extreme time pressure that crises present.  Wasting time can really destroy a company’s strategic options.”

Dr. Joseph V. Trahan III, APR, Fellow, PRSA, and president, CEO and media trainer for Trahan & Associates, offers courses for companies to help them control the media when a crisis occurs. Trahan explained that the four most important steps in effective crisis communication are anticipation, coordination, cooperation and communication.

“Everyone will experience a crisis at one point or another, and companies have to anticipate and prepare for such situations,” said Trahan. “Second, coordinate relationships with publics before the crisis and then cooperate and come together as one team to help.”

The Importance of Communication

Trahan’s final step in crisis communication is one that he believes to be of most importance because the effective use of communication determines success or failure.

“Maximal disclosure at minimal delay is a guiding principle during a crisis,” said Trahan.  “It is imperative to disseminate accurate information as quickly as possible. Be open, upfront and honest, and never lose sight of communication.”

Nelson agreed that communication is crucial during a crisis. “The story a company can tell in a crisis is determined by the actions the company takes to respond to the situation,” explained Nelson. “Because of this, crisis management is one of the few areas of communications in which you really can help make a positive change in the way a company operates, rather than simply improving their messages.”

Public Relations and Crisis Communication

So how does crisis communication tie into public relations? As Nelson explained, defining the problem is crucial, and understanding why and how the situation threatens the organization is part of public relations.

Bernstein agreed, adding that crisis communication takes the field of public relations to a new level. “The goal of traditional public relations is to build the value of a brand to improve its sales environment, whereas crisis communication aims at preserving the value of a brand to minimize losses,” explained Bernstein.

“Crises are caused by mistakes,” explained Trahan. “The ability to deal with those mistakes is the difference.  Public relations makes the difference.”

E-mail: Jonathan Bernstein
E-mail: Chris Nelson
E-mail: Joseph V. Trahan

What do you feel is most important when dealing with a crisis? Is your organization prepared?

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