Communicating in a Business Crisis: Part I

By George Merlis Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Does every business need a crisis communications plan? No, but a surprising number of businesses -- even small businesses -- do need such a plan.  Crises vary in degree, intensity, and effect on the public. A company’s bankruptcy is a tragedy, one that  deeply affects employees, customers, and stockholders. It might even have a ripple economic effect on a community or a region. The effects of such a crisis, while severe to those involved, are limited insofar as the affected population. A swarm of tornadoes that level a town is a contained crisis. While the entire country will feel deep sympathy for the townspeople, the threat and effects will be largely regional. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax mailings had far wider ripples.  In the first, the American mainland suffered 3,000 killed in its first significant foreign attack since the War of 1812, and the threat of further terrorist strikes frightened millions. After the anthrax-tainted letters began showing up the previously benign mail slot in every American home suddenly became the potential portal for a deadly disease.

So do you need a crisis communications plan? Ask yourself two questions:
What’s the worst crisis that can befall my business (or area of responsibility)?
How widespread will the effect of that worst-case scenario be?

In my case, the worse case scenario I can conceive of for Experience Media Consulting, my media and presentation training business, is my clients suddenly abandoning me. Since the effect of that crisis would be extremely limited -- a severe economic blow to me as an individual -- I don’t need a crisis communications plan that goes beyond telling my wife and my accountant what has happened.

But for many entrepreneurs, a crisis communications plan is essential because they have far more stakeholders. Now understand that you can’t have a crisis communications plan until you first have a crisis management plan. If your not managing the crisis, then you don’t have a whole lot to communicate; certainly, “We’re ad-libbing our way through this problem,” is a less than positive response to media inquiries in a crisis.

Preparing a crisis management plan is outside my area of expertise, but I do know with certainty that the time to plan for crisis management is in advance and that every conceivable department or individual involved in the crisis response must be involved in the planning. Now a key to your crisis management plan’s success will be communication, because most crises, unlike my personal dire scenario, require some public response and unless there are adequate communications, the public won’t know if it has a role to play.

Let’s look at the three most basic facts stakeholders want to know about any crisis, no matter how limited it is in scope:

1.    How dangerous is this situation to me and to my family’s physical and/or economic health?
2.    If there is a direct physical and/or economic risk, what individual actions should I take to mitigate risks?
3.    What steps are you, the responders, taking to mitigate the situation and to insure it does not happen again?

In crises ranging from a tainted product reaching the marketplace and a horrific workplace shooting all the way down to the drying up of a small consultancy’s client base, stakeholders want these questions answered. Obviously, the tainted product or the gunman in the workplace require far greater outreach than the small business failing. In the former crises there are so many stakeholders that the three questions must be answered via the mass media. In the latter, you could handle the chore with a few phone calls and/or e-mails. (If you’re telling your spouse your business went bust, I suggest doing that face-to-face, rather than by e-mail, unless you want your marriage to go bust along with the business.)

Next time: Your crisis spokespersons: What they must communicate to the stakeholders and how they should communicate it through the media.

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