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Business Trends: Crisis communications
For business owners, planning for the worst is better than hoping for the best
By Joanne Friedrick
May 05, 2011
When communication is instantaneous via 24-hour cable TV, Twitter, blogs, e-mail and cell phones, news of a disaster and its consequences can be disseminated in a moment — and just as quickly distorted by inaccuracies.
The same is true if the crisis isn’t natural, but manmade: food recalls, workplace violence, a business scandal, an oil spill.
So when a situation occurs requiring an immediate and accurate response, it’s important that the business or agency involved has a crisis-communications plan ready to go. That means knowing who will be the chief spokesperson on the topic, what the key talking points will be, if there needs to be a formal statement released to the media and what that will be, how everyone involved will be updated so the message remains coherent and cohesive and how the plan will be evaluated post-crisis.
Within the seafood industry, the fallout from the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and its impact on businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida were circumstances requiring crisis communications to separate fact from fiction.
When the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire and sank in April 2010, Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board, says “we immediately knew we would have some PR issues.”
Fortunately the organization already had New York PR firm Shea Communications on board, and added a social media team from Zehnder Communications in New Orleans to the mix.
Concerned that misinformation about the oil spill and its impact on fisheries and tourism would adversely affect business, Smith says they knew “we need to get the word out fast.”
Among the first steps, he says, was conducting conference calls with local seafood industry leaders such as board members and representatives from local, state and federal seafood-related organizations to determine what the real problems were, as well as calls with members of Congress. That was followed by a phone conference with about 80 area restaurateurs and chefs. “We were able to work with the chefs’ PR people to keep the [seafood] business moving forward,” says Smith.
Helping to fund the PR and social media messaging, he notes, was an upfront payment of $2 million from BP, owners of the damaged oil well. Some of that money, says Smith, was channeled to News Strategies, operated by former CBS correspondent David Henderson, who with his team created Louisiana Seafood News, a newsroom-style website that carries news stories about the Louisiana seafood industry and its recovery during and after the oil spill. Media outlets can pick up the articles and video footage or use as a starting off point for their coverage.
Using such a tool for crisis communications “helped cut through the clutter. We talked to him (Henderson) and we knew within 15 minutes it was a good idea,” says Smith.
The newsroom, he adds, “was a powerful tool for us,” generating more coverage than Smith and the board ever expected. In a study carried out over the summer on the types of coverage the industry received, Smith says the resulting report showed more than 3,000 interviews with board members and staff were logged.
“We reached 3.4 billion people,” he says, and the report, which contained copies of all the interviews, weighed in at a hefty 36 pounds.
Even after the leaking well had been capped and the cleanup under way, Smith says the board is still using the newsroom to generate four to five articles a week. “If we do a press release, he (Henderson) makes a news story out of it. We want to keep this going for as long as possible,” says Smith.
The ability to form and disseminate a message following a disaster like the oil spill comes from having a plan already in place, says Smith. Dealing with the aftermath of the spill was easier, he says, because they had already put it into action during Hurricane Katrina.
The marketing board also received direction from the National Fisheries Institute, which helped from a strategic standpoint, and by speaking with fisheries in Alaska that went through a similar crisis with the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
For any company or organization looking to create a crisis-communications plan, Smith advises that they pull the leaders together and address the issue head on. “It really does take a strategy,” he says, as well as having some financial reserves for an immediate PR campaign.
Eddie Gordon, executive director for Wild American Shrimp, recalls that his organization was able to effectively communicate the safety of the shrimp supply following Hurricane Katrina.
“With Katrina, we got a lot of information out there that the seafood was safe to eat,” he says. Like Smith, Gordon stresses the need to work with all agencies — state and federal — to discern the correct information “and get it to the media with the real facts.”
This includes not only the good news, he says, but if there are problems those need to be accurately communicated as well so they aren’t blown out of proportion.
If the media reports are inaccurate, Gordon says a good crisis-communications plan allows for working with editors and reporters to clear up the misinformation.
“If we saw articles that were incorrect, we would call editors to find out where they got that information and we worked to correct it,” he says.
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine