Some public relations counselors have a sense of humor when it comes to crisis communications, but not everyone does.

Take the sign in front of an auto repair shop in northwest Houston. It read, "For Maximum Exposure, Nothing Beats a Big Mistake."

Now there''s a small business owner who understands the tightrope walked between doing great work and doing great harm.

Most business owners and operators don''t think their organization could ever be thrust into the spotlight of unwanted public scrutiny. Understandably, they focus instead on staying a step ahead of the competition. As a result, when crisis does strike it is typical that crisis planning and crisis response occur simultaneously, which makes well-reasoned decision making difficult.

It is not a question of if, but when, a business will face a crisis situation. The keys to successfully protecting, and even enhancing, an organization''s reputation are to already have a plan in place, to have leadership that embraces crisis preparedness and to train staff in advance.

America''s businesses are getting the message. A survey by the American Management Association indicates that more companies have crisis management plans in place today than in past years.

The survey finds that 64 percent of companies have a crisis management plan, up from 49 percent in 2002. Sixty-two percent of the companies have designated a crisis response team, compared to 54 percent a couple of years ago.

A crisis communications plan doesn''t have to be an enormous tome. A workable crisis plan may fit on a piece of paper that can be folded to the size of a business card.

The most important aspects to cover are:

  • At what point will the plan be activated?
  • Who will be alerted when it is activated?
  • How will these people will be reached?
  • General guidelines regarding potential courses of action.
  • A directory detailing how to reach important publics, such as neighbors, public officials and media.

One of the most important aspects of a crisis communications plan is defining what constitutes a crisis. Normally, it is recommended that a crisis meet the following criteria:

  • It is an event or series of events that causes unwanted public scrutiny.
  • It disrupts or threatens to disrupt normal business operations.
  • It shows no signs of resolving itself without immediate action.
  • It is not uncommon for an organization to suffer through an incident that generates media attention and is difficult to resolve to think it is in the midst of a crisis, even if the business hasn''t been disrupted. Such a situation deserves immediate attention, but it is not a crisis.

Crisis response team
This team should consist of the organization''s leadership, legal counsel, public relations counsel, security and representatives from each major division of the organization.

In the minutes immediately following activation of the team, each will be responsible for gathering information and reporting it to the rest of the team. Therefore, each member should have an updated list of names and numbers for their particular area of responsibility.

Once the team has been established, identify the spokesperson who will be the public face of the organization in interactions with the media. While it is important that the spokesperson has been media trained, it is equally important that the person delivering the company''s messages have the level of authority necessary to adequately express concern, remorse or commitment to resolve the matter.

While many organizations assign spokesperson responsibilities to the public relations representative, doing so can hurt more than it helps. To illustrate the organization''s commitment to addressing a crisis, it is almost always better to have corporate leadership in front of the cameras.

Return on investment
According to the respondents to the AMA survey, the primary reason for having a crisis management plan is to ensure continuous customer service (71 percent), mitigate financial loss (12 percent) and protect the company brand/reputation (7 percent).

These answers indicate a clear understanding of the true value of crisis planning: Prevention. In the planning process, organizations identify worst-case scenarios and analyze the most appropriate responses.

In so doing, they inevitably uncover existing vulnerabilities, which can be addressed proactively.

Having a crisis management plan also pays off by helping decision makers focus on the big picture. While a crisis can spiral in unpredictable directions, it can be tempting to make spot decisions with little regard for the impact on corporate objectives and its vision. A plan can help leadership stay centered and keep perspective by focusing on the company mission.

As the sign in northwest Houston says, a big mistake will bring plenty of notoriety. Ultimately, how an organization performs under that scrutiny could dictate its very survival.

While no crisis is ever welcome, a deftly handled crisis guided by a crisis management plan can educate the public, reinforce loyalty among existing customers and expose new prospective customers to an organization, its products and services.

Dan Keeney, APR, is the president of DPK Public Relations ( and is the president of the Houston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America

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