Not only having a plan but using common sense can ease the negative impact.

By George Foster, President of Foster Marketing Communications & Kristy Blosch, Director of Public Relations

In our agency library we have a sample copy of an eight-year-old Crisis Communication Plan forBritish Petroleum (BP). It includes 30 pages of information on what to do in a crisis. To our way of thinking, however, it’s too heavy on listing internal point people and external media contacts and outlets (about 25 pages)…and relatively short on reality. But at least it’s a plan.

The BP oil disaster is a classic case history of what can happen when you have a plan but you don’t factor in the local equation. Many times, flawed communications at the local level hinder the public relations effort. As the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke slowly shared with the convicts after catching escapee Paul Newman: “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.”

When crises hit, there is a tendency to centralize the response at headquarters, notes Irving Schenkler, director of the management communication program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Public relations efforts frequently fail to take local customs and peculiarities into account. Schenkler says, “There’s a systemic problem in these situations in communication flow, and how sensitive communication is calibrated and delivered.”

As a result, foreign executives frequently place the wrong foot forward – or into their mouths.

When BP’s Swedish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, emerged from a marathon meeting at the White House on June 16, he assured the American public that he and BP were concerned about the “small people.” Swedes, who are considered among the best English-speakers in Europe, were embarrassed by Svanberg’s lack of understanding of American politics, where journalists may refer to “average people,” but populist politicians like Sarah Palin call them “real Americans.”

In the early part of the crisis, BP CEO Tony Hayward’s remarks that the spill was small relative to the vast Gulf of Mexico and his complaint that he just wanted his life back — reinforced the sense that Hayward wasn’t fully engaged in the effort to clean up a mess far from his corporate home.

What is strange is that the thrust of BP’s old Crisis Communications plan is to engage the media on a local level, both internally and externally. Local internal contacts and local newspapers and TV/radio stations along the Gulf are all listed. However, this disaster and BP’s response was deemed beyond the local level and ability and media interest. And, certainly it is.

How are you going to respond in a crisis?

Chances are good your company has an internal plan for what to do in case of an emergency, but what about handling the public aspect of a crisis? What will you do to prevent negative media from spoiling the reputation that your company has worked so hard to build? How will your company appear under pressure?

Unfortunately, companies are all too often caught off guard and unprepared to navigate the communications challenges and opportunities that arise during times of crises.

Some companies operate under the mind set that they’ll cross that bridge if they come to it. But, when a crisis happens, having a well-thought-out, coordinated crisis communications plan in place that integrates all your public communications can greatly help minimize negative publicity and protect your company’s reputation.

From a public relations perspective, a “crisis” can be considered anything that will bring intense negative attention to your company – anything from an explosion at a plant to financial and investor worries to troublesome lawsuits. But there are several reasons why companies need to have a plan in place, regardless of the type of crisis.

When a problem happens, time is of the essence. You need to act quickly to respond to concerns or criticism. Immediately responding to negative and possibly incorrect information leaves less time for those thoughts to resonate with people and more time for your company’s message to be heard. As we’ve seen with BP’s current situation, it can be difficult to repair the damage done by inaccurate information and the perception that you haven’t acted quickly enough, i.e. how many barrels of oil were actually flowing from the well. Planning ahead reduces the time spent trying to organize communications efforts – time that you won’t have in the event of an emergency.

It is important to be coordinated, confident and caring. In times of trouble, one of the most important things a company can do is to portray strength, organization, confidence and capability. A strong front can go a long way toward easing fears and erasing misconceptions. Having a plan in place that employees are comfortable and familiar with reduces uncertainties and helps those involved react with confidence. It shows customers and shareholders that the company is capable of handling difficult situations with poise. Also, the public wants to see that your organization is genuinely concerned for those affected and that you truly want to make it right.

Advanced planning ensures all the necessary pieces are in place. Does your company have someone that is prepared to serve as a spokesperson? Will the website handle heavy traffic if it receives a surge of visitors? Have you built relationships with relevant media? These are just a few of the many questions faced during a crisis that take time to answer and cannot be adequately addressed in a hectic and short amount of time.

If properly prepared, crisis situations can reveal unique communications opportunities.While it’s not entirely true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, it is important to look for the silver linings and opportunities that can present themselves during troubled times.

• Increased website traffic – A company’s website is one of its greatest advocates and platforms for getting its message out. Always have your company’s website prepared for a crisis situation by making sure the site highlights the company’s capabilities and strengths and that it is able to handle high traffic.

• Open dialog – When a crisis happens, you’re immediately thrown into a conversation. Once the dust settles and that conversation ends, it’s important to continue that dialog. Use the doors that opened through that situation to continue your company’s communications efforts. When participating in these conversations, don’t forget about the role social media and networking sites now play.

Opportunities to show growth and improvement – One of the ways to keep the conversations going is by continuing to provide feedback on some of the issues that were discussed. For example, maybe your company strengthened its safety requirements after an accident. Take that opportunity to highlight the company’s initiative to improve and protect its employees.

• Identify weaknesses – In the same way troubled times reveal opportunities, they undoubtedly uncover weaknesses. Thoroughly evaluate your company’s communications efforts after a crisis, as well, and identify areas that need improvement. You’ll be even more prepared should another problem arise.

A comprehensive, integrated crisis communications plan can be a lengthy and time-consuming process, but it’s a sound investment.

Foster Marketing Communications can help you put that plan together – or hone it. And, you can be sure we’ll be there to support you if a crisis happens.