Last week, Epic PR received an urgent call from a client regarding an explosion that took place in their company’s facility. Emergency personnel were en route (five fire trucks) and the entire building block had been safely evacuated with no reported injuries or fatalities. The CEO and lead spokesperson was in Europe unreachable at the time, and the company’s staff were still absorbing what had just happened. Who you gonna call? Your public relations consultant, of course!
A company’s PR agency is often at the top of the list, particularly when there is a good chance that the media will show-up, bystanders are already taking photos and video footage with their iPhones (likely destined for social media channels), and key stakeholders are asking you questions that you’re unable to answer just yet.
Epic PR kicked into high gear and within the hour we participated in a thorough phone briefing to assess the situation, prepared a public statement, provided on-the-spot media coaching, and arranged to have the statement posted on the company’s website.
In times like this, companies that don’t have a crisis communication plan, wish they did. Unfortunately, more often than not, many companies make crisis communication plans a low priority project and put it off longer than they should. Since Epic PR had only been working with this client for a couple of months on a limited budget, a crisis plan was not part of our initial scope of work. Nonetheless, armed with past crisis experience and knowledge of the company, we were able to respond in a rapid, thoughtful manner.
If your organization is faced with a sudden crisis, here’s a brief reference guide care of PRSA that should help you get through the first few initial hours, which are often characterized by surprise, frantic communication, ambiguity, high stress, limited response time and insufficient information.
- What is known for a certainty about the crisis situation?
- What is possibly true but cannot be verified yet?
- What is the worst possible outcome of this crisis?
- Who will be hurt by this crisis?
- Who might be blamed for this crisis?
- What could be misunderstood?
- How can we help?
- What cannot be said because of confidentiality, privacy, or other reasons?
- Act quickly.
- Inform management.
- Determine who will be the spokesperson.
- Prepare a statement that may include one or more of the following points: sympathy for the victim, how help will be given, where we stand.
- Determine best way to distribute statement (press conference, news release, online).
- Prepare for interviews.
- Set up channels of communication so that any change or new information about the crisis is conveyed to the spokesperson.
- Arrange for media to have 24-hour access to a spokesperson.
- Keep all on the team up-to-date.
- Be open and responsive to requests from the news media.
- Keep your answers brief, factual, and to the point.
- Show your concern for others affected by the crisis.
- Tell your own bad news first.
- Let other organizations speak for themselves.
- Avoid speculation. Don’t assume anything. Politely decline to respond to hypothetical questions.
- Don’t place blame.
- If you don’t know the answer or are unsure about what to say, it is better not to say anything. Offer to get back to the reporter with accurate information. Be sure to follow up with the reporter as soon as you have the facts.
- Do not reveal confidential information.
- Don’t say, “No comment.” Instead, explain why the information is not available.
- Don’t be evasive or misleading.
- Respect reporters’ deadlines.
- Promptly correct erroneous statements made by others.
- Think of possible outcomes and prepare tentative responses.
- Be willing to adapt responses as circumstances change.
- Keep reporters up-to-date.
- Evaluate what worked well and what could have been done better.
Epic PR’s Public Statement Template
Every crisis communication plan should have templates and pre-written material for their top 5 or 10 potential crises. Here’s an example of a basic public statement template:
A (what happened) at (location) involving (who) occurred today at (time). The incident is under investigation and more information is forthcoming.
Here’s how the above example evolved into a statement for my client:
A small explosion (what) occurred today in our (location) facility involving a (state what it involved) located at the rear of the building at approximately 11:30 a.m. (time) There was a loud noise and the explosion produced flames and some smoke, which prompted a senior engineer working in the area to alert staff to evacuate immediately. The sprinkler system activated and most of the smoke and fire dissipated by the time emergency personnel arrived.
There were no injuries and all employees and occupants in adjacent buildings were safely evacuated. We are grateful no one was harmed and our priority right now is to ensure the ongoing safety and well-being of all employees and other workers in the area as well as to cooperate with emergency authorities on site.
Our company has a comprehensive operations risk plan that we review regularly and follow closely to implement stringent safety precautions on a daily basis. This is the first incident we have had at our facility and we are taking it very seriously.
We will endeavour to update you when as more information becomes available.
There is a crisis communication adage: it’s not really the crisis that damages a reputation, it’s the way in which you respond to it. Advance preparation for various crisis scenarios is your best antidote to scrambling at the last minute during a crisis and it increases your chances of a more successful outcome than if you did no planning at all.
– Maria Loscerbo