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Communication in a Crisis


Many crisis situations entail change, surprise or the unexpected.

“In many ways, individuals and institutions get measured by their capacity to deal with change, surprise and the unexpected.” — Bob Woodward

Many crisis situations entail change, surprise or the unexpected. How do we as public relations professionals respond effectively? How do we blend the proper doses of textbook theory, gut instinct and level-headed judgment?

Over the course of my career I have dealt with a variety of “urgent” situations: product liability, white-collar crime, race and sex discrimination, life-threatening negligence by healthcare providers, environmental issues, and corporate downsizing, to name a few.

In determining a tactical approach with the media, there are certain classic principles to follow in most occasions:

  • Be honest
  • Never say “no comment”
  • Designate a single spokesperson
  • Provide a constant flow of information
  • Be accessible

I know what you’re thinking — that all sounds too easy. How does it really play out? Here’s a real-world example. One major caveat: This incident took place in an analog word without cell phones, e-mail, Twitter or Facebook but nonetheless the basic principles hold true.

Johnson Matthey, a UK company, is the world’s largest precious metals refiner. A number of years ago, my former agency represented their catalytic systems division based in Devon, PA, which was the leading supplier of catalytic converters to the auto industry in the United States.

One Monday morning I received a call from the Communications Director who filled me in on what had transpired the preceding Saturday night. The company had suffered a horrific explosion and fire in a large warehouse in Seabrook, NH. The fire was brought under control in about six hours, but a huge plume of acrid white smoke had been created. The warehouse was leveled. Three thousand chemical compounds — from aluminum to zinc — had been stored in this facility for packaging and distribution to various companies and universities for research and development purposes. The first of seven news crews (from WBZ-Boston) arrived on the scene around midnight.

An evacuation was ordered for all residents within a one-mile radius. That area included a large trailer park. Also nearby was the Seabrook Nuclear Power plant and that was cause for some concern. Bottom line — they were not only dealing with a very nervous community, but potential air and water pollution and allegations of arson by a Johnson Matthey employee. It all added up to what the New Hampshire State Fire Marshall characterized as the “worst hazardous material incident in the state to date.”

So how did we handle the crisis situation? We immediately sent a team for on-site handling. We brought in environmental experts from the Environmental Protection Agency to assess and mitigate the impact of the explosion. We helped set up a healthcare clinic to minister to the needs of affected residents. Moreover, we organized daily press briefings and two large town meetings with on-site media training for the Johnson Matthey spokesperson who was experiencing her first crisis situation.

With regard to the town meetings, we had one that Monday night to communicate the company’s response, a timetable of the cleanup procedure and an investigation into the cause. A second town meeting was held about two weeks after the incident to announce soil and water test results by the EPA and to answer questions from the town residents and media. As it turned out, no significant ground or water contamination was found.

Press coverage of the event and local resident attitudes toward Johnson Matthey turned around 180 degrees over a three-week period — from suspicion and anger to understanding and trust. Plant safety records were fully divulged; the company became extremely active in the community and demonstrated good citizenship with its neighbors.

We were honest. We were accessible. We answered questions. We designated and trained a single spokesperson and we provided a constant flow of communication. With the agency’s proactive efforts PR efforts and Johnson Matthey’s acceptance of responsibility, a highly volatile situation was turned into a positive story for our client.

(Adapted from a lecture presented by John Orr to a graduate class in Advanced PR Management at the University of Delaware.)

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