Notes from the Masters’ Institute – Crisis Communications: Planning, Execution and Ethics

Tue, 08 Feb 2011 09:19:34 -0600


Leaders in business recognize the need for a crisis plan, so why don’t most have them? A poll of the Masters’ Institute attendees revealed that out of 18 respondents, seven have a crisis plan in place, ten do not and one person was “unsure” if they had one in their organization or agency… demonstrating the importance of senior-level practitioner programming addressing crisis communications.

Moderated by Professor Edward Downes of Boston University, an esteemed panel of experienced crisis communications leaders gathered to explore and discuss issues, tips, and how to be a better planner and ethicist in times of crisis.

Some of the panelists had different labels for crisis communications, but all were passionate about this particular area of public relations, considering it a sport, a chess game, a practice, and even an obsession.  No matter what industry, panelists all seemed to share tips and insights relevant to all.

According to Elaine Driscoll, Boston Police Department, “Crisis is a sport and a chess game.  At Boston Police Department, we don’t have one crisis plan per se, but a formula with clear crisis communications goals: to mitigate damage to the department as much as possible, and keep moving.” Elaine talked about assessing a situation’s news cycle (“How many days might this story be in the papers?”), analyzing each crisis situation (“Do we have a PR problem or a shooting problem?”), and determining the best course of action to keep the department moving forward. 

A seasoned pro, she gave great tips relevant for any crisis: “Stay in charge. Be the authority. Cut down on all the editorializing by providing a concise, clear document outlining all possible problems and proposed solutions already put in place or about to be put in place. Get out from under the media pig pile.”  She also talked about assessing the difference between an internal issue and an external, public-facing issue, and recognizing there are different sensitivities required for each.

Rachel Bloom Baglin of Covidien spends a lot of time monitoring, scenario planning and creating templates, but recognizing that the biggest challenges lie in the crises they are NOT planning for. Over the years, she’s learned how to recognize them and respond to them and how it impacts not only the company, but its stakeholders. She talked about even the mere negative mention of her company’s product in related Congressional hearings can affect stock prices and investor confidence; her job is to monitor, identify, and quickly respond to those situations.  She gave two great examples of Vioxx and a culturally significant statement by a Japanese ministry of health official as external events that impacted the company’s stock prices, with a need for immediate crisis response.

Jim Weinrebe of Schwartz Communications talked about his vast experience in healthcare and how complex the subject matter can be as it relates to crisis planning, especially in the realm of Congressional hearings. Rehearsing scenarios is as critical as getting your CEO/decision makers to support and really invest time in the crisis planning process.  Jim’s agency encourages CEOs to share lessons learned with their peers, increasing the likelihood that other CEOs will be convinced that crisis planning is critical. 

A few more “take home points” offered to Masters’ Institute attendees:

  • It is an “institutionalized tradition” for your healthcare leadership to be grilled on live TV via a Congressional hearing – be prepared with specific crisis planning and training in this area.
  • Bad news is contagious, and creates a “pig pile” media mentality.  Work towards getting out from under the pile by taking control and being honest – and breaking the cycle.  It is critical to keep the story moving forward. 
  • Don’t stop doing positive PR during a crisis.  It shows this forward motion – life and business moves forward and good work continues to be done.
  • Ask your leadership and coworkers the tough questions to help with planning. What DON’T you ever want people to know, confidentially?
  • Above all, be honest, truthful, responsive, and manage your story.
  • The best take-home point was about speed and the importance of being nimble in a crisis.  Engage in the crisis as fast as possible but don’t feel pressured to explain if you don’t have the facts (never speculate). Media will fill in the holes quickly with speculation if you don’t respond fast.

Stay tuned for part two from the Masters Institute Crisis Communications Program: Social Media Tips

Julie Dennehy

Dennehy Public Relations

Past President, Publicity Club of New England