The Evolution of Crisis Communication


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After finishing Neil Swidey’s 2-part story in The Boston Globe Magazine last week – “Trapped Under The Sea”, the untold story of two divers who died in the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) Deer Island Treatment Plant Outfall Tunnel – I was immediately transported back 10 years to one of the seminal events of my public relations career, making me reflect on how much crisis communication has evolved over the past decade.

On July 21, 1999 I was sitting at my desk at the MWRA in the Charlestown Navy Yard writing a mundane press release about summertime water conservation, when the phone rang. It was my boss, Executive Director Doug MacDonald, and he sounded uncharacteristically shaken. There had been a terrible accident on Deer Island, he said, and that I needed to get there fast to handle the press…

As the 25 year-old spokesman of the MWRA in 1999, I personified the classic “Flak” of the time. I wrote press releases, nurtured media relationships, proactively issued good news, spun the bad news and reacted to the unexpected accordingly. I carried a pager and a basic cell phone (used sparingly for outgoing calls), and sent press releases over the fax machine. I had email, but since most media members didn’t, it was fairly useless. The internet was several years old, but it was really still just a novelty. In 1999, the dissemination of news was still solely done by traditional news outlets. As a spokesman, controlling the media meant “controlling the message”.

From a public relations standpoint, The Deer Island Outfall Tunnel crisis was handled perfectly. Pre-set protocols that had long been established were set into motion – notifications to key personnel were made quickly, a communications center was set up on the site of the incident, accurate and up-to-date information was disseminated to key communications personnel, and a single spokesperson for all public information was set (me). Within an hour of the incident, we had established control of the information and were in a position to release that information as we saw fit in a well thought-out, clear, concise manner. If the press wanted the story, they had to go through me…and they did.

Fast forward to 2009…If this same incident occurred today and the protocol we had established in 1999 was still all that was in place, I cringe to think of all the loose ends that would be flying around! What had been an airtight crisis communication protocol at the time would be seriously flawed today.

Advances in communications technology, and people’s incredible access to it today in comparison to a decade ago, has created a playing field so drastically different for a Public Relations professional that it’s not even comparable. The internet, which was just emerging in 1999, has become a critical conduit for news, communications, commerce, and social interaction. The internet has taken our vast world and shrunken it down to the size of an iPhone. Cell phones are no longer clunky mobile telephones with a single use and purpose. Today, “Smart Phones” are multi-faceted portable communications tools that not only allow users the ability to connect with each other anywhere, at any time, through voice or SMS; they enable users instant access to the internet and all of its mass communications tools.

Armed with a Smart Phone, every citizen has become a source of news and information. Look no further than Janis Krums, the blogger who happened to be on the first ferry to arrive on the scene a few minutes after US Airways Flight 1549 had plunged into the Hudson River in New York City earlier this year. Within ten minutes of the crash, Krums had used Twitter (and Twitpic) to post a photo of the downed plane with news of the crash and distributed that information to tens of thousands of people. It was roughly 30 minutes before the first news crew was even on the scene.

Controlling “the message” today as a PR professional no longer means controlling the press. Since everyone who has access to a computer is now a viable news source, it is now virtually impossible to completely control the message. It is still possible, however, to mitigate the crisis and influence public opinion.

With that said, I will share with you my Five Principles of Handling a Crisis in 2009 that will help you to minimize the damage of an unforeseen crisis and protect your company’s short-term and long-term interests:

Prepare – Abraham Lincoln once said; “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Being prepared for a potential crisis situation is absolutely critical.
Develop a set protocol that will be placed into motion as soon as an unforeseen crisis strikes. This protocol includes everything from a strategic contact list (eg – key decision makers, communications personnel & legal council) to the creation of a physical command center.
Media train key personnel. Establish a spokesperson(s) for the company and have them work with a professional public relations professional (or firm) to receive the proper media training.
Set up online monitoring tools. Every company should employ free online monitoring tools like Google Alerts and Tweet Grid, or paid services like Radian6 and Cision. It is critical to monitor your brand online 24/7. Whether it’s a disgruntled employee smearing your company name on a blog or an online news article about a client or competitor, monitoring the web is a necessary step towards protecting your brand’s reputation and to identify, or in some cases, avoid a crisis before it happens.
Get the facts – Stay calm and keep your wits about you! While it is important to respond swiftly to a crisis, it is even more important not to make any rash or reflexive moves. It is imperative to get all of the facts as quickly as possible from the most credible sources. Before you can successfully handle a crisis, you need to understand what happened, how it happened and where your exposure lies.
Be Proactive – Once you have all the facts, it is imperative that you take a proactive approach to responding publicly. Avoid taking a defensive posture. Make sure that your stance and message is carefully crafted and delivered in a clear and concise manor. Avoid live interviews if possible and never, ever say “No Comment!” In the court of public opinion, “no comment” means “I’m guilty!” The most effective way to ensure that your response is clear is to issue a written statement attributed to your designated spokesperson. A statement should consist of a two to three sentences that can each stand alone. The statement should be conciliatory in tone and firm and decisive. Make it clear that you are aware of the incident, state your stance on the matter and ensure people that you will get to the bottom of it and take action.
Monitor – Good intelligence is your greatest weapon for diffusing a crisis situation. Utilize your online monitoring tools, adjusting search terms as necessary, to monitor what people are saying about your company, what they are saying about the crisis itself, and how effective your response has been. This allows you to keep a virtual finger on the pulse of public opinion and enables you to uncover additional exposure that may warrant a response.
Take Action – Whether the crisis has been averted or you’ve simply mitigated the fallout, it is important to publicly take steps to remedy the cause of the crisis and ensure that it will never happen again. Announce new policy, hire a consultant, or fire your CFO. Whatever it is, make sure you announce it, so the public knows you intend to fix what broke.
While advances in communications technology and the advent of the “citizen journalist” have significantly added to the challenges faced by a crisis communicator, the key principles remain the same. Whether you own, manage or operate a company or public agency, you can be sure of one thing – you will inevitably be faced with a crisis situation. When you do, will you be prepared to handle it?

boston globe, communications protocol, Crisis Communications, google alerts, mitigate crisis, Online Monitoring, Social Media Monitoring

About the author
Tom has more than 13 years of public relations and journalism experience. Before joining 451, Tom spent five years at Regan Communications in Boston, providing strategic communications for a wide range of local and national companies including Dunkin’ Donuts, New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., RE/MAX of New England, Boston Celtics, Mix 98-5 (WBMX-FM), Boston magazine, Boston Herald, Boston’s Weekly Dig, Boston Wine Expo, Cask ‘n Flagon, Bluestone Holdings, Langer Broadcasting, and The Glynn Hospitality Group. Prior to Regan, Tom served as Public & Media Relations Manager at The Massachusetts Hospital Association and for three years as spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

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