Media relationships can sour quickly in a disaster. The problem is that few companies are prepared for the around-the-clock media coverage of disasters. To address this issue, a media relations component should be part of the overall disaster management plan. The objective is to make sure that accurate information gets released in a timely manner.
The plan should indicate where the media relations department will be located during a disaster and how often press conferences should be held. The company should designate a spokesperson, with alternates designated as well. Only these employees should speak to the press. The primary spokesperson should become the calm face of the company during a crisis.
Making sure that the spokespeople are well informed is critical. The company plan should include what information might be needed and how the spokespeople will get this data. It might come from the company public relations department or from the employees themselves.
For large companies, putting out a consistent message is easier, because they have strong ongoing media relations operations. But even large companies may reach outside for assistance with this task. For example, at Starbucks, all media responses come from corporate headquarters. Under its disaster management plan, however, the company has contract public relations firms on standby to help out if company employees are overwhelmed.
Few small companies have a media department large enough to support the type of information processing that must occur during an emergency. In those cases, a critical part of the emergency plan is to assign employees from other parts of the company to help with media relations should a disaster occur.
Companies can learn from local emergency management organizations and other public agencies on this issue. These groups usually have designated emergency public information officers who are in charge of getting important information to the public during emergencies. These officers ensure that messages coming from the agency are consistent with other federal and state officials.
Not only must the message be consistent, the messenger must instill confidence both in internal workers and external listeners, including the local community and reporters, and project a sense that everything is under control. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s response to the 9-11 attacks serves as a model of that principle. Victims, as well as the public at large, took comfort from his calm demeanor.
A disaster plan is a set of promises that a company makes. They spell out how a company intends to behave when tragedy strikes. More than a document, a disaster plan is a process that is designed to evoke appropriate actions by anticipating problems and creating possible solutions. By being aware of common problems from past incidents, companies can help to ensure that staff will be ready to meet those promises and, in the process, to give aid and comfort to the affected community.
William M. Lokey is a program director for James Lee Witt Associates, headquartered in Washington, D.C.