|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Maintain some perspective:|
Don't be a crisis communication hypochondriac
|© 2006; 2011 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations
|About the author|
Just as paranoids can have real enemies, crisis communication hypochondriacs can experience an actual crisis.
But, no one should willingly choose to live in such a frame of mind.
A crisis is not inevitable for every PR practitioner.
Anyone thinking about a public relations career needs to recognize and be prepared, both psychologically and operationally, for the possibility of having to perform public relations during a crisis. But, unless you work for a consulting firm that specializes in crisis management or for an organization involved in a high-risk activity such as aviation, mining, emergency medicine, nuclear power, law enforcement, or the military, crises won't be a major part of your job and shouldn't be something you'll need to spend a lot of time worrying about.
However, it can be hard to maintain such a calm perspective when a flood of articles proclaiming the need for more and better crisis planning is surging through public relations trade journals and the general business press. And, that's what's been happening ever since 9/11. What had been periodic surges of articles became a veritable tidal wave, and they're still at flood stage.
Many of these articles and similarly focused workshops at PRSA and IABC conferences are needlessly alarmist and over-filled with gloomy and pessimistic anecdotes of the dire consequences that befell practitioners who failed to adequately and effectively communicate during a crisis.
BUT, crisis situations, although numerous, are still the exception rather than the rule of everyday business life.
- Such stories may be true and cannot, therefore, be denied.
- Nor can we deny that there may be more failures than successes when it comes to handling crisis communication.
There are more organizations that do not face crises than do face them. And, even those that do face a crisis will have far more calm and routine days than crisis days.
If/when a crisis occurs, it will undoubtedly turn your world upside down. But, until then, unless you've intentionally chosen to work in a high-risk environment, you needn't and shouldn't let crisis planning dominate your thinking. If you do, you won't have time or be in the right frame of mind to maintain positive, healthy relationships with your organization's key publics.
Pre-crisis fear and over-preparation can be debilitating.
In the earlier online reading entitled Performing Public Relations in a Crisis, I quoted Robert Berzok, vice president of corporate communication for Union Carbide, discussing some of the internal management problems that arose for his company in the aftermath of the Bhopal, India chemical discharge.
- I said that the second-guessing and "if only we had ..." responses of the managers involved weren't surprising. That happens any time something goes awry.
- What intrigued me was his revelation that a number of middle-level managers who had not been directly involved in Bhopal became obsessed with what might happen the next time a crisis occurred.
- Berzok reported that some of these managers became so preoccupied with preparing for the next possible disaster that they let everyday matters slip through their fingers. They put so much time into making plans and holding disaster drills that they had to reduce the time they normally spent meeting and talking with their customers. This apparently went on for months and didn't became evident to top management until they noticed a dramatic increase in customer complaints and began looking for its cause.
Hearing this was a major "Ah-ha!" moment for me because I had earlier seen something very similar happen when I was director of communications for the Iowa Department of Social Services (DSS) in the early 1980s. But, at the time, I didn't fully understand what was happening. Nor did I realize that similar problems occurred elsewhere.
Among its other responsibilities, DSS operated the Iowa state prison system, and I had started working there only a few months after a major prison riot had occurred. In fact, both the state and federal investigations of the riot's cause and its handling were still in progress, and many people in the agency and throughout state government seemed obsessed with being better prepared for the next possible riot than they had been for the last one. Special inter-agency committees had been established to improve the existing "disturbance plans" for quelling any future disturbances and for communicating what was going on to all of the critical publics.
Note 1: For public relations purposes, neither DSS nor any other state agency ever used the term "crisis" in connection with these plans or with an acual situation because it might give the impression something was beyond our control. Nor did they use the term "riot." Even the most severe situations involving armed prisoners, hostages and fatalities were called "disturbances," while less severe situations were "incidents."
Note 2: The federal investigation eventually resulted in a federal court order to reduce over-crowding in Iowa prisons and implement changes in recreational policies, but they found no significant problems in the state's riot-control techniques or its communication about it.
In addition to the committees and work groups that had been established to work on improving inter-agency cooperation during emergency situations, our agency had created its own committee with representatives of all state correctional facilities as well as the central offices in the state capital. There were also additional review and planning activities going on in each institution. Revised disturbance plans were being developed and circulated almost weekly, and mock crisis drills were conducted at least once a month.
The impact this had on the agency didn't become apparent until months later. As it was happening, bureau chiefs and other mid-level managers who found themselves unable to keep up with the demands of their jobs without working lots of overtime thought they had been hit with a sudden rise in client caseloads and other extra work requests as well as the post-riot response and planning blitz.
The crisis planning had become so absorbing and so time-consuming that it interferred with the agency's primary mission.
- Overtime throughout the agency soared, but the backlog of work and clients who needed attention continued to build. It reached the point where several dozen temporary workers had to be hired to keep up.
- Only when auditors eventually reviewed caseloads, productivity reports, and time records did they realize there had been no increase in caseloads, no new projects, and no unusual work requests except those related to developing new disturbance plans.
Preparing for a crisis creates its own kinds of stress.
It's easy to get caught up in "crisis frenzy" whether you're dealing with an ongoing crisis or trying to plan for one. Both activities are necessary, but they must be done thoughtfully, analytically, and in moderation.
During the time that DSS was so caught up in and was being consumed by crisis planning, it frequently held mock crisis drills. Some were only for our own agency. Others were large-scale, multi-agency simulations that also brought in staff from the State Police, the National Guard, the Department of Transportation, the Attorney General's Office, and the Governor's Office. Ironically, many of these drills that involved "tests" of what were supposed to be improved versions of our disturbance response plans ran into more problems and shortcomings than showed up during the actual riot.
The biggest wake-up call came during a full-scale drill that involved more than a half-dozen agencies and staff members at several remote locations around the state in addition to those that were gathered in the state's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in a sub-basement of the capitol. The participants were still arriving in response to an "emergency notification" that had ordered them to report ASAP to the EOC when a shouting match broke out between three senior-level state officials.
At this point, the exercise was canceled because the commissioner felt it couldn't possibly proceed smoothly with everyone using different plans. Instead, he immediately convened an emergency meeting of the state agency directors to try to get control of what he called "rampant and counterproductive crisis planning."
- They were arguing about which of them was supposed to be using a particular work area, phone line and radio link. They were all red-faced, yelling at one another, pounding on the table, and waving the crisis plans in their hands to emphasize their claims to that particular space and equipment.
- The situation in the EOC was on the verge of getting out of hand until the Social Services Commissioner stepped in and asked to look at the disturbance plans the three officials were holding. After a minute or two he somewhat shakenly announced that all three men were accurately quoting what their plans said but each had a different version of what was supposed to be a single plan.
- Since everyone else in the room also had a copy of the disturbance plan in their hands, the commissioner asked everyone to look at the date and version number on their plans. Among the 20+ people in the room, there were five different plans. He then opened the radio and telephone links to the remote sites and found out there were still more different versions that had been localized.
The lesson in this is that crisis planning is important, but it's also important to keep that planning in perspective and under control so it doesn't become counterproductive. Click here to read more about how to gain perspective from recent crises.
The Olympics of public relations.
|Stay well-informed to be ready
when a crisis hits.
|Planning for a crisis|
|Six Steps to Preparing a Rudimentary
Crisis Communication Plan (pdf)
|Coping when a crisis hits||Performing public relations in a crisis|
13 April 2016