When the Balloon Goes Up

The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response

Table of Contents
Chapter Title Page About the Author 9 Foreword 11 1 Explosion! When Failing to Communicate 13 Spoke Louder Than Actions 2 Characteristics of a Crisis 19 3 Lessons from Crisis Case Studies 29 4 Mistakes and Attitudes That Will Ruin Your 37 Organization’s Reputation 5 Focusing the Response: Goal, Strategy and 45 Organization 6 Three Stages of Crisis Communication 51 7 Crisis Communication Principles 57 8 Crisis Center of Gravity 65 9 Initial Response 79 10 Primary Response 97 11 Recovery 107 12 Selecting and Training Spokespeople 113 13 Creating a Crisis Response Communication Plan 123 14 A Sample Crisis Communication Plan 135 15 Maintaining and Improving Your Plan: 147 Exercises and Drills 16 Test Your Crisis Response Skills 159 17 Crisis Case Study Format 175 Index 181
Cover photo of the 1955 explosion and fire at Standard Oil Company’s Whiting, Indiana refinery taken by and courtesy of Vernon G. Skogan. For reference, the structure at the bottom of the photo is a three-story building.

When I reported for duty to a U.S. Army tank battalion in West Germany as a second lieutenant, I was at the bottom of a vertical learning curve. Not only did I have to master the care and feeding of 19 soldiers and five 52-ton behemoths while becoming proficient at tactics and gunnery, I also needed to learn a new language filled with perplexing acronyms, arcane technical terms and odd expressions. One of the latter was, “When the balloon goes up.” According to Army folklore, the phrase originated in the American Civil War, referring to observation balloons that either side would send up prior to an engagement. In Cold War parlance, the expression referred to “the first battle of the next war,” when Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces would invade Western Europe, precipitating World War III. At first I thought it was curious, if not fatalistic, that the expression began with “when” and not “if.” However, as I became familiar with the planning and preparation for that cataclysmic event, I came to appreciate the sense of urgency that “when” gave to the process. It worked then and, for professional communicators today, it just might be the right perspective from which to view crisis preparedness. Virtually any organization, from former accounting giant Arthur Andersen to the Roman Catholic Church, can be involved in a crisis that has the potential to damage or destroy its reputation. The role and reporting relationship of communications or public relations may vary greatly from one organization to another but, inevitably, when that type of trouble strikes, one of the first phone

calls from the executive suite is to the communicators with the question, “What should we do?” You need to have the answer, even if it’s your first day on the job. This book is designed to help you develop that answer. It’s not about putting a “spin” on the truth, turning coverage of a negative situation into a glowing puff piece, how to “get out of this as quickly and cheaply as possible,” or tips on how to avoid interacting with the media. This book will show you how to develop crisis response instincts, and it will give you some battletested tactics to help you defend your organization’s reputation. As the external eyes and ears of your organization, your role in that mission begins long before the TV crews show up in your office lobby. Successful crisis response is a product of detailed planning, realistic training and rehearsals, and adept execution of those tactics in an adrenaline-charged environment of internal conflict, a frustrating lack of confirmed information, rapidly developing events, conflict-producing issues, intense media, and government scrutiny. That’s why you’ll see the term “crisis response” in this book rather than the more popular phrase, “crisis management.” A crisis is a messy, unpredictable, fast-breaking event that defies management. Crisis response implies that when things go wrong, actions are required – actions that will challenge all of your professional skills and critical thinking as no other situation can. Not to add more weight to your load, but consider this organizational reality: In many cases, crisis response is the ultimate measure of the communications or public relations function’s value. You must be ready. Let’s get to work.

Chapter 13 Creating a Crisis Response Communication Plan
A plan is not a solution to a crisis, rather it is a tool that can guide you through the Initial Response – the early, chaotic hours typical of just about any emergency regardless of its nature – and help you plan and manage communications in the Primary Response and Recovery stages. It also facilitates training new communication team members in their crisis response duties. In your absence, the plan can give your team confidence that they’re taking the appropriate actions. Ideally, the Crisis Response Communication Plan (hereafter “communication plan”) should be integrated in the organization’s general crisis plan. This is essential for a coordinated, unified response, and helps business unit and staff group managers understand the support they can expect from public relations. That’s in a perfect world. There are still some organizations that don’t understand the need for - or don’t want to be bothered with - developing a general crisis plan nor the communication plan that supports it. If that describes the culture where you work, get busy and put together a communication plan anyway, because regardless of the level of preparation in the rest of the organization, if an emergency occurs, you’ll be expected to perform flawlessly while others are running for the bunker. All communication plans should start with an introductory statement from the top person in the organization regarding how he

or she expects the response to any emergency or crisis to proceed. Regardless of the level of preparation, any crisis produces some amount of panic and trepidation that, in the absence of senior management's specific guidance, can cause organizational paralysis. The communication plan should be accessible electronically and on paper in an old-fashioned three-ring binder in case, for whatever reason, the plan cannot be viewed electronically. Members of the communication team should have three hard copy versions of the plan: for their offices, their personal vehicles and their homes. When it comes to communication plans, size matters. The thicker the plan the less likely it is that anyone will use it in the heat of battle. I worked with a client who told me he had an extensive plan and proceeded to plop a hefty three-ring binder on the table. The plan began with a 26-page essay on why it is important to communicate in a crisis; discussed eight crisis levels, each with its own two-page definition; and included detailed descriptions of 58 crises that could befall the plant, ranging from a power outage to a flood. That last scenario began with, “Although there are no rivers within 40 miles of the plant ...” However, nowhere in all that did the plan specify what actions should be taken in any of those emergencies. To be effective, your communication plan must be an easy-toreference document containing the decisions, actions, resources and contacts you and your team will need to represent your organization in the high pressure, high stakes atmosphere of a crisis. It must be written clearly and with enough detail so that the most junior member of your team can implement it without guidance. Ideally, a communication plan should be no more than 30 pages in length.

Developing the Crisis Response Communication Plan: The War Game Process War gaming is a methodical process military planners use to identify the multitude of decisions, actions and resources required for a particular operation. It's also an excellent process to use when creating a communication plan. One step at a time, beginning with how you might be notified of a situation, identify the decisions and actions necessary to initiate and sustain your response the way you desire it to be implemented. Details are important. Include how the communication staff will support special decisions or requirements, such as initiating a product recall, advising neighbors near your plant to shelter-inplace or contacting customers regarding how you intend to supply them. This is hard, nuts-and-bolts work, but the results of this process will become the framework of an effective plan. Make the process as realistic as possible. For example, given business travel, off-site meetings and vacations, assume that onethird of your communication team will be unavailable for the Initial Response. War gaming will most likely reveal gaps in your response capabilities. For example, how will you meet the one-hour Initial Response standard if the crisis occurs at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and you live 45 minutes from your office? The answer may be to have the hardware, such as a PC with access to your organization's network and a fax machine, at the homes of your communication team members. You may be inclined to assume that your team members already have such equipment and know how to use it, but you won't know unless you ask.

Because of what military planners refer to as "the fog and friction of war," your team may not be able to accomplish as much in a given period of time as you might think. No matter how well prepared you are, the intense pressure from external and internal sources associated with any crisis creates confusion and uncertainty. Fatalities and injuries will further cloud the situation, making it difficult to respond in a timely manner. This high-pressure environment also produces organizational friction, making seemingly simple tasks, such as establishing contact with people on the scene, obtaining and verifying information for a media statement or press release, even rounding up CRT members for a meeting, takes longer than they would under less stressful circumstances. The longer the crisis plays out, making people tired and irritable, the more friction there will be for you to manage. There are seven steps to creating a communication plan using the war gaming process. 1. Conduct a capability analysis A capability analysis will help determine your response strengths and weaknesses. Include a skills and experience assessment of your team, an inventory of equipment, such as hand-held e-mail devices, mobile phones and laptops, and any outside resources currently on retainer or other agreements that can be called upon to assist your team in a crisis. 2. Select a likely operational scenario Select an operational crisis scenario that is likely to occur in your organization based on its business, industry or sector to give context to the war gaming process.

3. Determine the ideal response sequence Step-by-step, determine the best-case sequence of actions and decisions and the details required to support them in order to respond to the scenario without regard to the weaknesses or needs identified during the capability analysis. Actions are the tasks required to implement the response. For example: • • • • Prepare the initial statement or talking points Appoint a spokesperson Activate the Web site crisis dark page Issue a media advisory regarding a press conference

Decisions are the choices that must be made at critical points during the response. For example: • • • • • Does this situation require a statement? A press conference? Does this situation require outside communications assistance? Should the Web site dark page be activated? Should previously scheduled events or programs be cancelled? Rescheduled? Should the CEO make a statement? Travel to the scene of the incident?

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