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    EXPERT COLUMN: Worst That Could Happen

    Crisis communications plan is essential in today’s environment

    By Cheryl Miller

    An outbreak of listeria, E. coli or salmonella -- these are just a few of the health safety hazards grocers, growers and consumers regularly face.

    With so much at stake -- customers, profits and reputation -- you would think that having a well-thought-out game plan for a potential crisis would be a given. But consider these startling business facts: 41 percent of U.S. companies that reported having a crisis experienced a decrease in sales. Yet 57 percent of U.S. companies don’t even have a crisis plan in place.

    In our culture of up-to-the-minute news and the influence of social media, having an established crisis communications plan ready to go in the event of an emergency is essential. It could prove to be the best insurance policy your company has to save its reputation and sales, and keep possible legal proceedings at bay.

    A crisis can run the gamut -- a weather emergency such as a hurricane, the aforementioned outbreak of foodborne illness, a recall, a workplace shooting or accident. Whatever the event, knowing what to do in advance will help your company tell its side of the story and keep everyone levelheaded when the media start calling.

    Be Proactive

    Whether you get through a crisis successfully depends on whether you and your company choose to be proactive or reactive.

    The most critical factor is to have a crisis communications plan in place ahead of any incident. A proactive approach means indentifying all potential crisis scenarios based on your industry, having a plan in place to deal with them, ensuring that key personnel are briefed on how to execute the plan, and regularly reviewing the plan – or even rehearsing it -- with staff.

    Being proactive is a great benefit in the all-important “court of public opinion.” Give the media and public some answers. It can be as basic as acknowledging the event, its significance and stating your company’s commitment to rectify what happened.

    The First 24 Hours

    Having some answers within the first 24 hours are crucial, because that’s when the media and public form their opinions. How you handle a crisis during that time sets the tone for what all future coverage will look like on the subject. When you and your company appear to have the issue under control, it paints a better image, regardless of the crisis.

    To get out in front, have your designated, media-trained representative answer some of the media’s basic questions -- the who, what and where of what has happened -- as soon as possible, and continue to provide regular updates. This can be done by keeping members of the media informed. While it’s the media’s job to ask tough questions, corporations should remember that the media is an important channel of communication to reach consumers and shouldn’t be avoided.

    Social Media Impact

    The world of social media has made an enormous impact on crisis communications. Today, employees, critics and the media can discuss an event instantaneously, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Social media has changed the landscape so dramatically that often a crisis is announced on Facebook and Twitter before c-suite executives can even be briefed on the event. How a company reacts online to both big and small crises – and how quickly -- is vital to its reputation.

    Whatever your crisis communications plan, be sure it includes social media. Regular posts are an effective tool to communicate directly with customers.

    Each company must evaluate whether to handle crisis communications in-house or outsource the job to an experienced public relations firm. A professional agency can evaluate a company’s current crisis PR preparation or determine what’s required to establish a plan.

    As investor Warren Buffett said, a well-earned reputation can be ruined in an instant. So seek help when needed and always be ready.

    Cheryl Miller is CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based At The Table Public Relations (ATTPR), which has provided crisis preparedness tools, workshops and media training for companies such as the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, as well as restaurants and food product companies.

    By Cheryl Miller
    • About Cheryl Miller

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