Proactive Crisis Communication Planning is the Business Insurance You Could Be Missing

Proactive Crisis Communication Planning is the Business Insurance You Could Be Missing

In 1982, seven people in Chicago died after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. While the police searched for a suspect, Johnson & Johnson — Tylenol’s parent company — faced a crisis: how would they communicate with a shocked and scared public? 

The company acted quickly by removing Tylenol from store shelves and issuing a nationwide warning not to take their product. Tylenol was the country’s leading pain reliever at the time, so the move cost Johnson & Johnson millions. However, their decision to prioritize people over profit helped regain consumer confidence. 

While authorities never uncovered the person responsible for the poisonings, Tylenol’s response has become a case study for effective crisis communication. The company ultimately regained its lost market share thanks to its quick response and clear, transparent messaging. The crisis also spurred the company to introduce an innovation designed to prevent the same thing from happening again: the tamper-proof bottle.


Crisis Communications is Business Insurance

While most of us will never face a crisis on the scale of the Tylenol poisonings, these events offer a potent lesson for business leaders. Issues like sexual harassment, customer data breaches and industrial accidents happen every day and carry clear risks to an organization’s reputation and ability to operate. Without a crisis plan, there’s a serious risk of making potentially fatal mistakes.

Ultimately, proactive crisis communications is a form of insurance that will help protect your businesses against the challenges that are out of your control. In the age of instantaneous information, the media and public will expect a near-immediate response, which you won’t want to compose in the heat of the moment. With that in mind, here’s how to begin proactively planning for a crisis. 


Get Your House in Order First

When a business faces a crisis, the media and public will often visit the company’s website and social media channels to obtain background information to make a judgment. That means your blog and social media presence can be the first line of defense against bad sentiment. 

In most cases, you won’t know beforehand that a crisis is about to hit. However, if you’re currently using your blog and social media channels to tell a bigger story about yourself — like how your business treats its employees well or all the good it does in the community — you’re already communicating positive messages to the public. That way, you’ll leave a more favorable impression if a crisis arises.

Sometimes, a company will know when bad news is on the horizon, like an unfavorable regulatory ruling. In those cases, it’s possible to use your blog and social media presence to soften the blow of what’s to come and tell your side of the story. 

In either case, it’s impossible to use these tools to your benefit if you’re not actively employing them. So, create a content schedule that tells your company’s story and stay consistent with posting. These practices help lay the groundwork you’ll need to face a crisis.  

Create a Crisis Plan

Once you’ve established a content creation routine, it’s time to start creating your crisis response plan.


Step 1: Brainstorm

The first element in creating your plan is establishing a list of realistic threats your organization could face. An effective way to develop this list is by gathering a group of stakeholders and asking, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Then rank those responses by their likelihood and potential risk to the enterprise. For example, the chance of a data breach is high for just about any organization. However, that particular crisis could impact a financial institution much differently than it would a construction company. 


Step 2: Respond

Once you’ve established a list of likely potential crises, begin crafting responses to each threat. Start with creating simple pull quotes you can get approved. That way, if the worst ever occurs, you have something prepared and vetted in advance. You aren’t required to use what you’ve created, either. But you’ll at least have established a starting point that can be updated or revised to fit the specific circumstances. 


Step 3: Plan

Now that you have an official company response to each of your imagined crises, you can build your communication plan. Start by assigning who will speak for the company in each situation. Is it always the CEO? Or will the response come from the subject-matter expert in each area, like the CFO or human resources (HR) director? Your plan should also include a backup company representative in every area that can cover if the lead is unavailable during the crisis.

How and when you communicate with employees should also be a part of your crisis planning, so it’s wise to include HR in this process. Creating policies that prohibit employees from speaking to the press without permission may also be necessary.


Step 4: Execute

Like everything in business, this is all easier said than done. However, developing a crisis response plan is critical for any business that wants to thrive in today’s world. One effective way of executing this work is to tackle a single potential crisis each month. This method prevents overwhelm and enables you to create more thorough and authentic responses. 

Instead of a single pull quote, you could have website messages, social media posts, blog entries and email communications prepared on each topic in advance. Once you’ve tackled all your most significant potential threats, you can revisit your previous plans and make any necessary changes. 

New Technology Brings New Threats

While proactive crisis communications could become even more critical as artificial intelligence (AI) technologies become more prevalent. Tools like ChatGPT have the potential to create seemingly authoritative content that could be rife with errors or misinformation. Problems could arise when organizations deploy these technologies incorrectly or, more seriously, be targeted by them maliciously. As we enter this new era, communications workers must be able to identify harmful information and respond effectively. 


Bad Actors Need Not Apply

Underlying this all is the issue of business ethics. This proactive crisis communication framework is not intended for organizations that behave badly and hope to avoid public consequences. Rather, it exists so that organizations can respond swiftly, effectively and transparently when the unexpected happens.  


Remember These Principles

Even the best-run organizations can encounter unexpected trouble. The Tylenol brand could have become extinct had they mishandled their devastating crisis. However, they remained honest, transparent and remorseful throughout and made significant changes that improved their product and protected their customers. More than forty years later, they remain one of the country’s most recognized brands.

As you’re building your own crisis communication plans, allow these principles to guide your responses. When the process is finished, you’ll have positioned your organization to survive a crisis and come out better on the other side.

Crisis PR & the PIO with Dave Thompson, ODOT [Podcast]

Crisis PR & the PIO with Dave Thompson, ODOT [Podcast]

Demystifying Crisis PR & the Infamous PIO Role

Learn more at CommCon on May 18th as Dave Thompson gives an inside look at the communications surrounding last summer’s devastating Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge  

“Public relations for government,” Dave Thompson, APR says of his job as Public Information Officer (PIO) of Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT). But as we dig in, I discover the classic role of the PIO to be so much more. Having been at ODOT for over 16 years, he’s technically the Public Affairs Program Manager, overseeing the multitude of PIO’s throughout the state. But when he first started, he was the spokesperson you’d see on TV responding to an issue — a natural disaster, accident, weather, or more — affecting the roads. Today he trains and manages those people, but the job is still intense.

Next week, attendees of CommCon, the Oregon chapter of PRSA’s conference, will get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a PIO. Dave is moderating a session titled “Coordinating Consistent Communications in the Middle of Chaos.” The panel will delve into what happened during the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire that decimated the Gorge and will include speakers from the US Forest Service, Portland Fire & Rescue, and Multnomah County Communications Center. As one of the first PIO’s on the scene, Dave’s mission was to communicate effectively to the public the status of the crisis.

CommCon takes place May 18th from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the DoubleTree Hotel (1000 NE Multnomah Street), tickets are available here.

Working Together

The fact that the panel features communicators from multiple agencies points to a key aspect of the job that I didn’t think about. As a PIO responding to disasters affecting the public, you’re working arm-in-arm with multiple government agencies and NGO’s—aligning your messaging and deciding which group, and whom from that group, will serve what function in the Mt. Everest sized list of things to do in a crisis. For example, Dave’s team recently won an award from Travel Oregon for their expert communication management of the Eclipse this summer. As Dave recalls that time, he paints the picture of a busy communication headquarters with executives from different groups serving functions like:

  • Managing & assigning duties to the entire team (like an Editor)
  • Aligning messaging from all groups
  • Pulling together press releases & media communications incorporating that messaging
  • Media outreach & response
  • Press conference organization & delivery

If it sounds intense, it is. I envision such a headquarters like the inner-workings of a frantic newsroom, and Dave agreed to the comparison. When I asked how people without experience can get involved, he said “you can’t just walk into a situation like that unprepared.” He points to some training resources people can go to, but it seems that on-the-job training and planning ahead with all involved parties is the way to go.

Planning Ahead

The ODOT public affairs team gets roughly 30-40 calls per week from media that need to be promptly and accurately addressed. All contact seemingly involves a crisis of sorts but the way Dave explains it, with a lot of forward thinking and planning, maybe PR practitioners don’t have to relate to every tragedy as the crisis that it indeed is. Dave says that “absolutely” all crises can be planned for, with his team having contingency plans for everything — earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, major traffic accidents and more. Not only do all plans live in his computer, he and his team have print-outs and jump drives of plans, media contacts, press release templates, talking points and more, within arm’s reach — in their cars and at home — should a disaster occur and computers aren’t working or available.

Extending the Megaphone

No longer does Dave think of his job as strictly “customer service for the media.” The rise of social media has extended the megaphone — which used to be reserved for media — to the general public, therefore drastically changing the PIO’s function. But Dave’s thinking has also evolved, realizing that the people of Oregon are his customers because they must use the roads safely and efficiently. He treats every inquiry, whether it is FOX news or your grandma, with the same weight.

“The roads are the lifeblood of the economy, greasing the skids so that the economy can flow. Road maintenance is not just for semi-trucks, it’s so you can get to work, get to the store.”

A Varied Past

With a masters in computer science, going on to teach at USC, Dave’s career trajectory — from writing papers and teaching, to eventually working in broadcast for 20 years, to now working at ODOT — seems unlikely.

As a self-professed “nerd” working in computer science at USC, Dave found himself isolated, watching the world move without him. Working late at the office on Friday night he switched on the news. A hostage situation at the airport immediately sparked his adrenaline as he became fascinated with the story execution. The next day, he signed up for a new broadcasting class and the rest is history.

Today Dave is dedicated to teaching others.

“My personal mission in life is to make a difference. Nobody will remember it was me, but some part of life will be better because of something I did.”

Having joined PRSA in 2002, Dave has gone on to teach, learn, and become a chapter board member, expressing that you get out of it what you put into it. Dave has truly left a mark on the Portland community by his commitment to spreading knowledge and helping others.

About the guest: Dave Thompson

Dave is the Public Affairs Program Manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). He leads a team of eight spokespeople spread across the state of Oregon. He is also a lecturer and media trainer for interviews, crisis management and crisis response. Prior to his career as a PIO, Dave was a reporter, producer, anchor and host at various TV and radio stations. He is also a former board member and president of the local Portland chapter of PRSA.

Connect and follow Dave on social media:

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