Step 4: Communicate Effectively
Although there are many “tips” that can be offered about how to communicate in a crisis, this is an area that requires judgment based to some degree in fact, and to another degree in instinct.
As the crisis unfolds, the CMT must decide if the designated spokesperson is the appropriate spokesperson. Generally speaking, the CEO is the best spokesperson. If a situation is a highly emotional one - if children are hospitalized due to a foodborne illness outbreak tied to your product - your best spokesperson must be able to project a great degree of compassion. If his is best accomplished by a non-CEO senior level official, consider using him or her. Better yet: pre-train the CEO to project characteristics important in a crisis, such as empathy.
Regardless of who the spokesperson is, it should be one single individual throughout the crisis to ensure consistency in message. In addition, the spokesperson must be kept informed of all important information pertaining to a crisis as it becomes available. To ensure a coordinated response to all media inquiries, company employees outside the CMT should be directed to refer all calls from the press to the spokesperson.
Release of Information
The CMT will have to decide whether to make a public statement or issue a news release to the media, if the media is not already aware of the incident, and then determine the amount of information that the spokesperson is authorized to provide. The CMT must balance the risk to the public that may be inherent in withholding information (e.g., cyanide-tainted meat has been found in certain retail outlets) against the risk of exacerbating the situation if all information indicates the absence of any consumer hazard (e.g., the company has concluded that is dealing with hoaxters).
Keep in mind that public statements can become part of legal actions later. As the saying goes, “Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.” Utilize legal counsel to be sure that your statements won’t become problematic in a possible subsequent lawsuit.
The difficulty of these decisions is compounded by having to anticipate uncertain consumer responses. For example, although the company may conclude that reports of foodborne illness, tampering or contamination are groundless, the public may nevertheless lose confidence in a company that it perceives is gambling with its safety.
Although each situation will dictate how much and what kind of information is released to employees, the press or others, the CMT should rely on guidance developed in advance about the release of information. Rely as much as possible on contingency statements already developed; they were developed absent a crisis and may be more effective than those developed under pressure. As a general rule, it is advisable to keep public statements brief and limit the number of key points to a maximum of five. The statement should, of course, be truthful and should project an image of compassion and responsibility for the company. AMI public relations staff are always available to offer advice on or assistance drafting statements.
Once a decision has been made to make a public statement, the CMT must ensure that it receives adequate and appropriate coverage from the media. If the story is limited to a situation in West Virginia, there is no need to send a statement to ABC World News Tonight. Otherwise you may succeed in making a crisis bigger than it is. Be sure that your distribution is as targeted as possible. For widespread distribution of statements in response to a crisis that has generated widespread media coverage, a company should consider an electronic distribution service (see this Crisis Center for a list of vendors).
Keep in mind that rapid communication with media is essential. Today, a media report can appear on cable news channels within minutes of the crisis. That’s why it is so important to have media lists, including names, phone and fax numbers and email addresses included in your Crisis Resource Notebook.
Communicating with Government Authorities
Not every crisis will necessitate that government, regulatory, or law enforcement agencies be notified or involved. However, natural disasters, outbreaks of foodborne illness, product tamperings, and workplace accidents affect the public welfare and generally require close contact with responsible government authorities. Strikes and demonstrations may warrant coordination with law enforcement officials.
Alerting and involving government officials offers a company in crisis several advantages. First, the company may be able to limit or even shield itself from third party liability if it consults and obtains government approval for its plan of corrective action. Second, the company can take advantage of the experience and resources of the agencies in dealing with the crisis. Finally, by keeping government authorities informed, the company can avoid publication of incomplete and even erroneous information from the agencies by the media.
To address the need for communication with government, the corporate communications policy should designate a CMT member as the government liaison and should identify local, state and/or national agencies to be contacted in various situations. Because meat and poultry processing generally occurs under United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspection, any list of possible government contacts should include the plant’s Inspector-in-Charge, if the incident is known to have originated in a specific plant. Other officials who may be contacted, depending upon the particular crisis, include the circuit, district and Washington offices of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS); local and regional officials of the EPA, OSHA and INS; city and county officials; and policy and FBI contacts.
It is also critical to communicate clearly and frequently with retail and food service customers during a product recall. These operators need to know:
• Precisely what product is being recalled and for what reason? Be sure to include code dates in your communication.
• What should the consumer do with the recalled product? Dispose of it? If so, how? Return it? If so, to what location?
• When a recall is expanded, these operators should be immediately notified as well.
For a list of retail, wholesale and foodservice trade associations that can help you distribute information about a recall see this Crisis Center.
Communicating With Trade Organizations, Customers, and Suppliers
In addition to notifying relevant government agencies about a crisis and keeping them informed of developments, it is often important to communicate with other offices that can be of assistance to the company or who may be affected. Trade associations serving the meat and poultry industry and the retail food industry can provide information, resources and quick channels of communication. AMI is prepared to assist its members in crisis situations by providing technical expertise and by helping companies identify resources such as laboratories, security consultants and public relations consultants, and by sharing information gained through experience in crisis situations.
Companies should also be sure to alert their customers and suppliers when a problem arises and to keep them informed of the company’s plans for addressing it. If, for example, a natural disaster disrupts a company’s operations, failure to notify the company’s suppliers could result in unused and, therefore wasted, raw materials. Failure to notify customers in such a situation also could lead to increase liability for breach of contract. Because claims of product tampering and foodborne illness are normally reported first to food retailers, communication with retail customers in those situations is especially important.
Communicating with Employees
Company employees are frequent targets of media seeking information. How many times have darkened faces or disguised individuals “who wish to protect their identity” appeared on the network news magazine shows offering their opinion of “what really happened” in a plant? The answer is all too many. Company employees also are potential “corporate ambassadors” within the community. They can be your best image enhancers or your most potent circulators of rumors. That’s why it is so important to keep employees informed of the rules regarding speaking about internal company matters, but also of any information that you are able to provide.
An employee who is aware of a crisis within a company and of the aggressive actions the company is undertaking to resolve that crisis ultimately will project a more positive image in the community and will be less likely to speak “off the record” to a persuasive reporter. In addition, an employee who understands that his actions or public face within the community are an integral part of managing the crisis and ultimately, the company’s success will be more likely to act appropriately.