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Deal with alligators, then drain swamp

By Stacy Cornay
Special to the Times-Call

There’s an old axiom in public relations — even if you’re up to your armpits in alligators, remember that you came to drain the swamp.

Crisis communication is like that.

The alligators of crisis communication are those situations that test our courage. It’s like wearing a swimsuit in public for the first time after a long winter, or taking your audience to the summit of the funny joke and realizing that you have forgotten the punch line.

Crisis communication is dealing with hidden speed bumps in the road of life. In business, crisis communication is positioning yourself to cope.

This hit home for me recently when Vectra Bank of Longmont was robbed. My office — along with the office staffs of other companies located in the bank building — was summarily evacuated to another location. None of us had any advance warning. As Napoleon stated, “Forethought we may have undoubtedly, but not foresight.” Who can forecast a bank robbery? Still, we all had to set up operations off-site and cope with long-scheduled appointments, important meetings, client conferences, etc.

Those with a crisis communication plan fared best.

A crisis communication plan is not specific to a bank robbery. It fits all scenarios, from strikes and hostage situations to allegations of fraud, negligence, fire, flood or other business disasters. Whatever the storm, a crisis communication plan is your best bet for survival.

A good crisis plan starts with an assessment of the worst-case possibilities. Brainstorm with colleagues and co-workers to identify situations that could adversely impact your operations or result in negative publicity. Then develop policies to be put in place if or when the storm breaks. Name a crisis management team and team leader. Know who will communicate directly with employees and their family members. Ensure there is liaison between your internal situation and your external constituency. Designate primary and secondary spokespersons to communicate with the media and train them well.

A sound crisis communication plan should encompass all aspects of your business, from client contacts to lost inventory. Nuances will vary from business to business, but a common thread runs throughout all plans. Get your message out even as you’re dealing with the situation. That means working with the media openly, honestly and effectively.

Here are some bedrock principles to guide you in dealing with the media:

n When things go sour, activate your crisis communication team, analyze the situation, then act.

n Never hide behind a stone wall. Be the first to report your own bad news. It may be difficult, but it will earn you more credibility in the long run.

n Lay it all out — who, what, where, when, why and how. Add to that what’s next.

n Be available to give the media as much specific information as possible. If the media can’t reach you, they will seek other sources. Those sources might be uninformed or have their own axes to grind.

n Don’t speculate. If you don’t know, tell the media you’ll find out and get back to them. Then do it. But don’t get into hypotheticals or what-ifs. Like specters, speculations may haunt you.

This is only a snapshot. There’s much more to a full-blown crisis communication plan. If you don’t have one for your business, put it high on your to-do list or enlist the services of a communications professional to start the ball rolling for you. It’s a sound investment in your economic future.

Don’t get caught in public in a much-too-small swimsuit, telling jokes that have no punch line.

The alligators will win every time.

Stacy Cornay is owner of Communications Concepts, a public relations/advertising firm in Longmont.