A Crisis Plan Can Equal Crisis Prevention

The recent collapse of a portion of the Dallas Cowboy’s practice facility illustrates once again the importance of every business having a practical and up-to-date crisis management plan.

As we have learned over the past 24-years, a business crisis rarely occurs at a time convenient for the company or its executives. The Cowboy’s facility collapse took place on a Sunday afternoon when most offices were closed and millions of Americans were enjoying the running of the Kentucky Derby. But the news media, which operates 24/7, almost immediately began raising questions about the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of the building involved. Scrambling to find a public relations firm or create a crisis management plan after the fact is a prescription for a media relations disaster.

Say nothing and there is a good possibility that a company’s reputation will be damaged by inaccurate or incomplete reports. While it may be unfair, to the public “no comment” often translates to “we’re guilty.” Once this type of information migrates to the Internet it can live on forever. As filmmaker Michael Moore once said, “Give a lie a 24-hour head start and the truth will never catch up.”

That was a potential problem for one of our clients when an employee was run over and killed after she followed some customers out of a restaurant after they failed to pay their bill. The news media immediately raised the issue of whether the restaurant employee was taking a risk because she would be forced to pay for the customers’ meals out of her own pocket. Restaurant executives responded immediately correcting that misinformation and telling the media that the employer’s policy called for the waitress to tell a manager about the problem not leave the restaurant or chase anyone.

Later, another journalist was about to report that the restaurant could lose its liquor license because one of the customers served was underage. Quick intervention corrected that exaggeration of the likely outcome of a state investigation into the matter.

A realistic crisis management plan should be drafted by experts with experience in actual crisis situations. It should outline likely issues that could face a company or organization and detail as much as possible how these issues are to be managed and who is responsible for addressing them.

The plan should have a clear, simple-to-understand media relations policy that makes sure the media will receive timely information needed to do an accurate story without creating legal issues for the client later on. In one case recently, an employee of a big box retailer shared with a reporter the fact that company safety policies were not being followed when a customer was run over by a piece of heavy equipment at the location. If the company had a media relations policy, either this employee was not aware of it or did not understand the importance of following the policy.

Many crisis management plans we have reviewed lack one or all of these important components.

• The plan must be concise enough to be of use during a crisis.
• The plan must be applicable even if the company’s offices are closed or key executives are out of position.
• The plan must take into account public perception of the company’s actions.
• The plan must identify and employ experts in media relations during crisis situations.
• The plan must be flexible enough to allow for contingencies and unexpected issues.
• The plan must be tested, updated and rehearsed.

Finally, make sure your crisis management team includes experienced experts who are not afraid to give you the hard facts “with the bark off” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to say. Your team should include experts in media relations who understand how to contact the news media quickly and effectively 24/7 as well legal counsel you trust and understands the importance of protecting your reputation. Ninety percent of lawsuits never go to trial and even vindication in a courtroom will not help mitigate damage to your company if the trial takes place years after the incident.

Recently one of our clients was accused of doing substandard work on a major construction project. The information was incorrect and threatened to stop others from doing business with the company. Working with our client, we identified the real cause of the problem and worked with the news media to “update” the incorrect story. The end result was the crisis ended as quickly as it began with no adverse impact on the client’s business.