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Tips on Crisis Communications

​COMMUNICATIONS are always important, but they are especially critical in a crisis. Ernest DelBuono, senior vice president at Levick, a strategic communications firm, provided tips on crisis communications to attendees of the recent ASIS 23rd New York City Security Conference and Expo. DelBuono stressed the need for the affected organization to try to drive the story because if it does not, then those who might be critical of the organization will have more opportunity to give the story’s narrative their own spin.

One of the other issues DelBuono addressed was where to position the media who come on site to cover the incident. Though management’s first instinct may be to designate a distant location for reporters to keep them out of the way, DelBuono advised against that because the reporters will likely leave that spot anyway to get a better shot. DelBuono recommended setting up a spot for the media at the facility. Security must secure the building from the media but the organization must provide the media a favorable location with visuals, he said.

DelBuono recommended that organizations have an executive leadership team that develops an overarching strategy for the company, and a crisis management team; crisis communications will be part of these two teams. Teams should include not only the corporate public relations or media departments but also other departments such as security, human resources, and legal. Executives who are involved in the strategic concerns for the company should obviously be part of these efforts. The roles for each member of the team should be spelled out in writing.

Communications should not be left until an incident occurs. There should be a “holding statement” ready to go for any incident; the details can be filled in when something happens. The message would include acknowledging the incident and stating that the company is investigating. The statement can mention that the details will be provided as information is gathered. The statement should not only include what the company is doing about the situation, but it can also include facts such as the company’s record of caring for employees or other positive attributes about the company’s responsibility.

It is important that any information about an incident be put out in language that is easily understood and crafted to suit the intended audience. For example, DelBuono said you might not want the legal department to be in charge of crafting the message, because it might turn into a legal document.

Long before any incident, the team should develop a detailed checklist of what the organization must do; it should describe responsibilities starting with the first hour, and every person on the crisis communications team should have his or her own checklists of tasks that must be done during a crisis.

DelBuono said spokespeople should be designated ahead of time as well. The designated speaker should be trained on the message and trusted not to go off message.

Typically, this will be a senior manager, and that might be something that top management considers when promoting employees into those positions. “If you can’t trust a [person] to go on camera and deliver a message for the organization, then maybe the person is not ready for promotion or senior positions,” he said.

DelBuono said that whoever is designated as the spokesperson must be in touch with the local authorities and would ideally be involved in public briefings with the authorities when allowed. Local authorities will call the shots, but a good relationship will help the company have more control over such issues as where press conferences are held.

The organization may also want to designate someone to monitor Twitter and other Internet sites regularly to see if anyone is frequently posting negative comments about the company; those may become the loudest critics of the organization when an incident occurs. The company should also include the Internet and newer communication media in its communication plans; for example, they should be aware of who the influential bloggers are and reach out to them in an effort to ensure fair and positive coverage.

After an event is over, the facility might become a location for makeshift memorials, which will also attract media attention. The company may need to move the memorial if it’s in an inconvenient location or disruptive to daily business, but management should try to do so in a way that minimizes the risk that the organization will be perceived as insensitive or of wanting to hide the memorial.