How to disaster-proof your business

Disaster proof your business | BCBusiness

Every business crisis, no matter how dire, needs a premeditated action plan

What constitutes a PR crisis for an organization runs the gamut from the somewhat comical—Lululemon’s see-through pants—to the deadly serious, including the recent Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach. Yet while the gravity of a crisis can vary, the approach needed to control the damage is similar. “Every company that deals with commodities and the public should have a crisis communications plan,” says Alyn Edwards, founding partner of Vancouver-based PR agency Peak Communicators. Always planning for the worst may seem like a paranoid way to run a business, but doing so allows a company to seamlessly address a crisis rather than fumble in the media spotlight.

Edwards says to start by establishing your company’s crisis management ethos, which should include being open and transparent. Next, list your crisis communications team—which ranges in size and composition depending on how big your business is, but can include lawyers, consultants and stakeholders. The main part of the plan should consist of a list of scenarios, each with topics (i.e. cause, alert to general public) and at least three key messages per topic. Dave Pinton, BCIT acting manager of media relations and a media public relations instructor in the BCIT School of Business, says that planning and rehearsing key messages “sounds a little bit calculated, but the fact is, if you’re used to thinking that way, then you’re probably going to start to respond the right way when the pressure’s on.”

Issuing a public statement should be priority number one, and Edwards says getting a statement on your website—which can be a video of your CEO—gives the media a personal message to quote. “It just takes minutes to do a video,” he says. “That would be straight to the camera, first of all apologizing for the inconvenience, explaining it and then advising people on what they can do.”

Both Pinton and Edwards advise matching the spokesperson with the gravity of the situation, which means a media-trained executive should be available to address the press and public. The importance of media training—knowing the proper demeanour and how to deliver a consistent message under pressure—cannot be understated. Letting the focus slip inward, growing agitated or veering off-message can result in “enormous reputational damage” according to Edwards, often giving the media and public very unfortunate and extremely quotable moments that get repeated often.

“It’s really natural for companies to say, ‘How does it impact us? We need a message out there that addresses that,’” says Pinton. He singles out the Mount Polley disaster as an example of an executive stumbling: there, Imperial Metals Corp. president Brian Kynoch’s statement that he would “drink the water” didn’t solve the problem of the devastating visuals of the polluted pond. “He needed to follow that up with action that demonstrates the company’s sincerity to make the situation right for the stakeholders,” says Pinton. “That includes people who work in the mine—are they going to have a job to go to?—as well as people who are working in tourism there, who might have been wiped out by this.”

The speed with which you address the media and public—as well as the sincerity and sensitivity expressed to those affected—are what matter most in any crisis scenario. And all that takes preparation. “It’s a great idea to practise communications,” says Pinton, “whether that’s media training or practising in an exercise.” Failure to act quickly or misspeaking will only make a bad situation worse.