Message in a bottle Featured

6:38am EDT July 28, 2003
Bruce Hennes, president of public and media relations firm Hennes Communications LLC, received a call from a client, a large nonprofit group, which was being sued by the parents of a child who drowned two months earlier in one of the group's swimming pools.

The attorney for the nonprofit was faced with questions from newspapers and television stations and planned to issue a statement saying that the lawsuit "had no basis of fact" and that the group would be "vindicated in a court of law."

"I told them, 'You can't say that, it's awful,'" Hennes says. "I asked them how they felt about this, and they said, 'We're devastated. We know this kid, we know the family. Our whole family knows their family.' I said, 'Bingo. There's your statement.'"

Hennes continues, "That's not spin. You're telling the truth. Admitting responsibility is not the same as admitting liability."

Employers often are not prepared to talk to the media when a crisis hits their company, Hennes says. But knowing how to deal with the press should be a crucial part of any disaster recovery plan.

Only half of employers who responded to the Smart Business/Employers Resource Council survey reported having a disaster recovery plan, a slight improvement over last year's survey, in which 47 percent said they were prepared for a crisis.

"Tell the truth, tell it all, and most importantly, tell it first," Hennes says. "It takes a lifetime to build a reputation. It only takes seconds to lose it."

Here are some of Hennes' steps to preparing a crisis communication plan.

* Anticipate potential crisis scenarios within your company and prepare key message responses. Think of the 10 worst things that you might face, and craft core answers.

* Have a media-trained designated spokesperson. A crisis is no time to hand the ball to an amateur or anyone unprepared to further the goal of maintaining your firm's credibility.

* Prepare to reach key personnel with current office, home, cell and e-mail information. You must be able to reach everyone, anywhere, anytime.

* Prepare basic background materials on your company and its key employees. The middle of a crisis is not the time to prepare a press kit. Consider maintaining a "dark" Web site that can be turned on in an instant.

* Develop a media distribution list with current names, phone, fax, e-mail and cell phone information. You will communicate with some of your audiences through the media. If the media doesn't get the information from you, it will get it elsewhere. How to reach: Hennes Communications LLC, (216) 321-7774 or www.hennescommunications.com