One step ahead

Zajac Communications specializes in preparing companies to face the thing they would most like to avoid.

Former television news producer Robert Zajac founded the Akron-based public relations and marketing firm in 1993 to assist companies with media relations. Zajac Communications soon grew into a full-service PR and marketing agency, as it added services to meet clients’ needs.

“We expanded upon the services I originally intended to offer as a result of clients who were satisfied with our work and wanted us to do more for them,” Zajac says.

The company added crisis communications to its resume by accident, you could say. After one of its manufacturing clients experienced a fatality at a plant, it called upon the agency to handle the media.

“Since we had worked with them with local and national media in the past, we were the first people that they called,” recalls Jennifer Zajac, a principal in the firm. “You can’t keep a fatality in a plant a secret, nor do you want to, but of course, along with the concern of the employees, the media was calling frequently.

“So they called us and said, ‘We need help, we don’t know what to say to these people. We know that we have to tell them what’s happening. We don’t know what to do.’ So we went down there.”

Since that incident, Zajac has built upon its experience. Along with offering a full menu of marketing services, the firm specializes in preparing clients to deal with crises.

“All crises are predictable,” Robert Zajac contends.

He says a crisis can occur at any type of business. When it does, the most important tool you can have to deal with it is preparedness.

Here are 10 steps Zajac recommends a company take to prepare for a crisis.

1. Identify your crisis management team. Zajac recommends your team be comprised of a small number of senior executives or decision-makers.

“Typically, the team is led by the CEO or, depending upon the organization, the person with the authority to make decisions, implement a plan and enact policies,” he says.

In addition, the top communications adviser should be on the team, as should heads of major divisions.

“You’ll probably put a crisis management team together that is much larger than what you’ll ever use in a crisis, but you want to have all of those people knowledgeable, prepared and trained so when the crisis occurs, you can select the three or four that you need that are most appropriate for that issue,” he says.

2. Identify spokespersons.

“Though it may seem natural for the CEO or president to be the company spokesperson during a crisis, that may not necessarily be the best move,” Zajac warns. “For the most part, the CEOs are going to be way too busy during a crisis to be handling media and being a spokesperson.”

Instead, he suggests companies designate a chief spokesperson who is a good, effective communicator.

“He or she has to be a liaison to the media and other important audiences. This is a big job — to keep communications flowing, prepare statements and, if asked, answers … and to be available to the media.”

He adds there may be a time when the CEO should speak, to show leadership, and there may be a need for different department heads to speak to different audiences.

“The reason the crisis team is composed of the heads of major divisions or departments is because of their different areas of expertise and responsibility. Their expertise may be required to answer some questions,” Zajac says.

3. Train spokespersons. When preparing someone to talk to the media, Zajac recommends a three-step preparation process: Know what the media wants — identify its areas of interest; anticipate the questions the media will ask; and prepare the messages you want to deliver.

“There are five questions you should ask a reporter when he or she first contacts you about a story,” he says.

1. “What are looking for and how can I help you?”

2. “What is your deadline?”

3) “Who have you already talked to on this matter, and with whom do you plan to talk?”

4) “What do you know about our company?”

5) “What do you know about our industry?”

“If there is any aspect of a media inquiry over which you have complete control, it’s what you say in an interview,” he says.

4. Establish crisis protocols.

“Initial and developing crisis news can come from anywhere and anybody,” says Zajac. “Establish an emergency communications policy and distribute it to all personnel. It should explain precisely what to do and whom to call in a crisis situation. Additionally, it should include your policy on talking to the media.”

5. Identify your audiences. When a crisis occurs, the interested audience is broader than most people expect, Zajac says. It could include media, financial analysts, government agencies, employees, customers, vendors, distributors, your community and the public at large.

“There are a lot of different people who can be affected by a crisis,” he says.

He suggests preparing a complete mailing, fax and phone number list for each audience to expedite communication.

6. Anticipate crises.

“After establishing your crisis management team and identifying audiences, plan brainstorming sessions with a cross section of executives to talk about potential crises,” Zajac advises. “All crises are predictable. You can walk inside a manufacturing plant and take a look and you can see things that could happen.

“There’s always the potential, regardless of what the company is, for some type of workplace violence — a disgruntled employee, a former employee.”

7. Assess the situation.

“If you’ve done all of the preceding steps, assessment is simply ensuring that the crisis team is receiving all available information so that you can determine your response,” Zajac says.

8. Identify key messages. If you don’t know what your key messages need to be, create general messages ahead of time with the help of your PR representative.

9. Decide on communication methods.

“There are many different communication vehicles you can use during a crisis. Employees, customers, vendors and investors can be briefed in person, you can send letters, newsletters or fax messages, or you can use the media as a communication vehicle,” Zajac says.

10. Ride the wave. No matter how well you have prepared, some members of your audiences are not going to react the way you expect or want them to, Zajac says. He advises against getting frustrated. Instead, use the opportunity to “analyze, evaluate and adjust your communications so your messages are communicated effectively.” How to reach: Zajac Communications, (330) 996-4140