My small, woman-owned public relations/marketing firm, Advice Unlimited, has been serving the Federal government marketplace for nearly 30 years to help companies with innovative technology get their solutions to the government. Every month, I’ll offer unlimited advice on how to work with this unique market. Please email me with questions or comments.

Advice Unlimited

Advice Unlimited

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Focused Crisis Communications Saves Company

So how prepared are you, really, for a disaster? How often do you review and update your crisis communications plan? How frequently do your spokespeople go through a refresher media training course? And have they been prepped in working with different types of media and different challenging scenarios?

Those organizations with actual plans that are updated and reviewed on a regular basis consistently have greater success in reassuring their audience, building trust and confidence with that audience, and surviving the disaster with the least scarring and damage. Those with no plan don’t usually fare so well. Ideal: make a plan now – when disasters are theoretical and can be thought through – and update it every 6-8 months!

Scenario: new client is a thrift in serious financial trouble. No disaster preparedness plan; no media outreach plan; my firm is called in 2 days before the information is made public.

First step: establish a very small, trusted team to define and implement initial actions.
Decisionmakers and ‘need to know’ personnel only! The smaller the team, the easier it is to get things done and to ensure there are no leaks. And be sure everyone understands the concept ‘need to know’: one of the executives was dating a TV reporter – a fact I was unaware of until said TV reporter ‘broke’ this story a day before the announcement was scheduled to be made.

Second step: what is of top concern to your audience? Define what your key message is, in terms of what is most important for your audience to hear and understand immediately.

In this case, it was simple: we needed to reassure our customers their money was safe. Yes, the thrift had some serious financial problems, but they were working with the government to solve their problems, and expected to continue to serve their customers for many years to come. No one was losing their jobs, no branches were closing. Aggressive measures were being taken to solve the problems, and their money was safe.

Step three: what is the most appropriate and efficient way to communicate this message to your audience? And step four: what other support efforts will help you communicate this message, and reinforce the message with actions that reassure, support, and help to solve the problem for your audience?

Be sure the medium you use to communicate your top message is actually used by your top audience. In other words, if a large portion of your target audience doesn’t own computers, then email blasts, social networking and websites aren’t the best delivery tools. Our target audience was largely older, they didn’t own computers, they didn’t even trust TV. So we used newspapers. We had our CEO talk directly to his customers in newspaper ads and posters, and explain clearly that their money was safe. We set up a press conference for the day of the announcement, and town hall meetings at several local nursing homes and senior community centers. We set up a hotline to answer questions and respond to customer concerns, staffed it with our best tellers who were caring, confident in our message and had great people skills, and plastered the number for the hotline everywhere. We wanted people to call, so that they would have their questions answered and be reassured that yes, their money was safe.

Step five: spokespeople need media training, and need to be prepped for challenging situations

Immediately following the TV reporter’s surprise story on our pending announcement, we moved our announcement up to immediately. Amazingly, all the TV stations and reporters from the local newspapers showed up on our front door within minutes. The CEO thought it would be great for us to go out and greet them; it was all I could do to keep up with him as he moved through the doors to the outside steps – and then he froze. He had never been confronted with several TV mikes thrust in his face. Fortunately, I was beside him and swiftly stepped in as primary greeter, delivering our key message and then graciously introducing our CEO and inviting his comments once he had his bearings. He was brilliant from that point on, and no one missed a beat.

Step six: tell the truth, and always be honorable

Things didn’t go perfectly, but throughout this effort, we were constantly reaching out to communicate with our audience, through tools they used and trusted, and we were honest – we told our customers what we were doing to solve the problems, explained what had gone wrong, and how we were moving forward. Throughout, we kept focused on what our customers cared about and how they would be affected. Happy ending: there was no run on this thrift; and in fact, it was bought six months later by a large, very sound financial institution and continues to serve its many customers today.

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a public relations firm serving IT companies and the government, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at 301-924-0330 or

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