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Step 4: Write Crisis Management Plans

The Core Crisis Management Team should convene to discuss each possible crisis and develop plans. Additional personnel appropriate to each particular crisis should be involved. A plan ultimately should look like the sample provided in the Crisis Center and should be included in the Crisis Resource Notebook. A plan should include the following elements: how general information will be gathered, how information on legal rights and responsibilities will be gathered, possible corrective action plants and tools for communicating effectively. Below is a discussion of each crisis plan component.

Plan Component 1: Information-Gathering

Operating in an information vacuum can exacerbate a crisis. That’s why information gathering is so critical to managing a crisis.

In developing a plan, the CMT must determine what types of information will be necessary to manage the crisis, who will be responsible for gathering each piece of information and how that information will be disseminated to the CMT members. This information might include:

• Internal details from staff
• News coverage of the crisis
• Statements from regulatory officials
• Statements from local officials, i.e. mayor, city council members
• Information from American Meat Institute on similar crises, what it might be hearing on this crisis
• Statements from union officials
• Statements from activist groups
• General information from an internet search

Any information that the CMT can anticipate needing in a time of crisis should be included in the Crisis Resource Notebook or information about where to locate that information should be included. Such information might include media phone numbers, copies of critical regulations or information on where to find them, HACCP plans or where to find them, and so on.

Sometimes in the information-gathering stage, a company may determine that what it thought was a crisis really isn’t one. Perhaps you thought a protest was about to ensue, but it was canceled. If you had issued a statement to the media in anticipation of such a crisis, you could potentially create news that you don’t want.

An important aspect of the information gathering phase is the fact that it is an ongoing process. The plan should specify how information will be gathered initially and how it will continue to be gathered and disseminated so that the team can continue to monitor and respond to the crisis effectively.

Plan Component 2: Know Your Legal Rights and Responsibilities

Being fully aware of legal rights and responsibilities in advance can be critical to managing a crisis. In writing a crisis management plan, a company must assess its internal and external legal resources. If a company only has inside counsel, the plan should specify who will be used as an outside counsel, if necessary, and how that counsel can be contacted. In addition, the team should locate all legal and regulatory information related to a potential crisis and have clear corporate policies on each crisis.

If the crisis for which you are planning is a potential recall, what are your legal rights and responsibilities to the consumer and the regulatory agency for taking corrective action? If a company has a presumptive positive test for E. coli O157:H7 in a lot of ground beef, what are the company’s responsibilities in notifying USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service? At what point must the company notify the agency? If a company has reason to believe that a recently hired employee presented false citizenship records, how must the company involve government officials?

The company also must determine what its rights are. If an animal rights group has chained itself to your front gates, what are your rights in seeking their removal? And what is your policy for either tolerating their presence or removing them within those legal rights? If the Immigration and Naturalization Service is at the front door seeking to examine your hiring records, what records must the company provide? (The scenarios in this Crisis Center provide some useful legal and regulatory information about a variety of different crises.)

Plan Component 3: Fix the Problem or Develop a Plan to Fix the Problem

Once a company clearly has the information it needs about the nature of the problem and its legal rights and responsibilities, it can develop a plan for redressing the problem. Some crises can be redressed immediately, while others may take time.

In the case of a worker injury, the plan may be to conduct a new safety audit, to modify equipment in some way, to provide new protective equipment to workers or to provide new safety training to employees. In the case of a fire, the plan may be to shut down a portion of the plant and bring in a construction company to make repairs. If employees will be out of work as a result of the fire, the plan might consider how to rotate displaced employees through other shifts or employ workers at other company plants so that no employee suffers a complete loss of income. In the case of product tampering, the plan may include a recall, refunds for consumers and new manufacturing procedures. To the extent that it can be determined in advance, these details should be written down. It is always easier to think clearly in times of calm than in times of crisis.

Plan Component 4: Communicate Effectively

Almost any crisis puts a premium on intelligent, effective communication, both inside and outside a company. Communication with the media, government officials, trade organizations, customers, suppliers and employees can save or destroy a company during times of crisis. A corporate communications policy should therefore, be adopted and incorporated into the crisis management plan. The policy should address the following basic issues:

• Choosing a corporate spokesperson.
• Releasing information (when, how and how much, to whom).
• Communicating with the media and government authorities.
• Communicating with trade associations, customers and suppliers.
• Communicating with employees.

A Spokesperson

A company must speak through one person during times of crisis. Potentially benign situations can become crises by issuing conflicting company statements. Such statements can lead to a perception that the company is covering up, that no one is in charge, or that the company is unprepared to maintain the integrity of its product or processes. These perceptions in turn can result in needless public hysteria, impediments to the company’s corrective actions and demoralizing rumors among employees. Such perceptions can also cause government agencies to interfere rather than cooperate with the company’s efforts.

To avoid these problems, the CMT should designate a corporate spokesperson. Although this function can be delegated to a public relations consultant, experience has shown that a spokesperson is most effective when he or she is a senior officer of the company because it demonstrates corporate responsibility. Frequently, this is the CEO. The spokesperson should be the most senior corporate official with seasoned press skills or public relations experience. Even if this individual has previous communications experience, he or she should receive additional media training focusing on crisis management. Training should include crisis simulations in which the spokesperson must respond to tough questions on various issues.

Draft Statements, Compile Media Lists, Prepare Website

It is also useful to draft possible statements in advance. Of course, these will need to be modified depending on the specifics of the situation, but having some draft ready always saves time and expedites the release of information.

In addition, it is wise to incorporate into the crisis plan lists of media that will receive information depending on the magnitude of the crisis. Having these lists prepared in advance saves enormous amounts of time researching names, fax and phone numbers. Determining the appropriate scope of distribution depending on the size of the crisis helps reduce the chance that a statement creates unwanted publicity, as opposed to simply responding to media reports.

Finally, more and more companies have found success using their websites to post statements and accurate information during crises. Often these statements provide all the information customers or reporters need, and can reduce the volume of telephone inquiries that can cripple a company during a crisis. Be prepared to post crisis communications statements on your website at a moment’s notice.

Consider How Large Volumes of Calls Will Be Handled

In a crisis, even a company with a very large consumer response unit may struggle to handle the volume of calls they may receive. For these reasons, companies should consider several options:

• Some internal staff can be designated to handle overflow calls. If this becomes part of the plan, those staff should be given appropriate consumer response training.

• A special voice mailbox can be set up to deliver a recorded message about the situation (perhaps a consumer needs certain code dates to verify whether she has a recalled product in her possession).

• Arrangements can be made with companies that specialize in consumer response, both during crisis and non-crisis times. The companies are staffed by specially trained operators who can provide useful information to consumers. (For a list of these types of companies, check the External Crisis Resources section.)