Rod Covey: Are you prepared to communicate in a crisis?

Still fresh in our minds is Paula Deen’s fall from grace, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction (whether intentional or accidental), News Corp.’s O.J. Simpson book deal, KFC’s Oprah Winfrey chicken coupon debacle, and of course, the Carnival Cruise disasters. All were major crises in the past decade that prompted a “we better be prepared” attitude among industries, businesses and institutions.

Before a disaster strikes, your survival strategy and blueprint for crisis communications must already exist.

The same is true for a mom-and-pop store as well as a Fortune 500 company. Every business is vulnerable; in these uncertain times, we are probably more vulnerable than we thought for a variety of reasons. The important concept to grasp is that a crisis can happen to any of us.

Planning ahead

The current economic climate is enough reason to develop a crisis-management plan (and we won’t make you nervous by mentioning strikes, layoffs, closings, tainted products, activist threats, sexual harassment and workplace injuries). Are you ready to handle media queries when your back is against the wall? Failure to comply with legalities and industry regulations also poses potential predicaments.

Here are several suggestions to prepare for various scenarios:

1. Assess your assets and obstacles. Where are your company’s vulnerabilities? Who would be affected if a crisis occurred? Staff? Customers? How would those affected be informed and reassured?

2. Assemble a crisis team — the fewer members, the better. Clearly define each member’s responsibilities in advance so the team is “at the ready.”

3. Put a plan in writing. Keep it simple, well organized and easy to understand.

4. Prepare background data. Include company and facility information, product lists, fact sheets and applicable data.

5. Set up an internal notification procedure. Designate a single spokesperson and an alternate. Decide who does what and when.

6. Establish external contacts. Compile (and update) lists of emergency response teams, media contacts, key customers and suppliers, major investors, elected officials and industry experts. Make certain the lists are updated as addresses/contacts/phone numbers/emails change.

7. Practice your PR plan. Train spokespeople how to communicate with assertive reporters, concerned investors, frightened employees, nervous clients and others who may be affected by a crisis.

8. Establish a command center. Determine where the crisis team will convene and operate from during a crisis. The space must be centralized and secure, with adequate computer and telecommunications capabilities.

9. Test the plan. Initially — and periodically — rehearse the procedure, discuss the possible scenarios and identify any weaknesses the crisis communications plan may have. Make appropriate tweaks.

Ride out the storm

Remember, time heals. Accidents and mistakes can be forgiven, even forgotten over time, if handled properly and with integrity. The way your company handles the crisis will dictate the shape of your reputation once you emerge. Your goal should be to manage crises from a point of strength and resolve. That’s probably the bottom line.

Your company will do much better in keeping your good reputation and business relationships if it has a good PR program in place before any issue happens. If your firm already has established credibility, it will serve as a foundation to weather the storm.

Rod A. Covey is president of Covey-Odell Advertising Ltd. of North Canton. He launched Covey-Odell Advertising in 2008, and the North Canton Area Chamber of Commerce named the company the 2009 business of the year. For more information, visit