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For a variety of reasons many people don't like to write. Whether it's the trauma of getting started, struggling to find the right words or conquering writer's block, writing isn't everyone's cup of tea. Introduce the pressure, fear, panic and uncertainty a crisis creates and you'll understand why writing crisis response communications is so challenging. Not to overstate the case, but every word you produce and disseminate over a variety of formats will be scrutinized by your stakeholders including employees, customers, detractors, competitors, neighbors, public officials... this environment is no place for a rookie. But in a crisis you don't always have the luxury of finding the perfect person to fill this critical role. This is where your Crisis Response Plan can help. Planning and exercises: Simplicity and specificity When it comes to crisis communications plans, two elements will make or break their implementation: simplicity and specificity. Your plan should be written so that the most junior member of your team can implement it with confidence that he or she is responding appropriately. The plan should not be a philosophical discussion about crisis management. It should be a concise guide to responding to a crisis with specific actions, decisions and information. To achieve that the plant should be written in a checklist style with specific information needed to implement each particular action. For example, if the plan calls for issuing a press release, information about how to do that should be adjacent to that action, including: • • • • • • Distribution service (e.g. PR News wire) E-mail address Phone number Names and contact information of pertinent staff Your account number Detailed instructions from the vendor about issuing a press release on their system should be included in Annex
Give junior or new members of your crisis communications team an opportunity to practice implementing the plan during a crisis tabletop practice exercise, but only if they
have had a chance to review and study the plan and have participated in their assigned role in exercises. This will build their confidence. Boilerplates: Help relieve writer's block Some of the most important pages in your Crisis Response Plan are those that contain "boilerplates." Boilerplates are templates for the statements the writer might create in the crisis. They provide the structure on which the statement is based. Crisis response writing must be crisp, unambiguous and to the point. Don't even think about extolling your organization's vision, values, safety record or other self-serving statements. To save time, especially with the initial statement, you should have management approve the boilerplates in advance of a crisis. The first hour of a crisis is no time to discuss whether you should communicate even though you won't have all the facts. Now, you have one hour to write, have approved an issue the initial statement. Your phone is ringing off the hook. People are asking you questions regarding what happened. Your boss needs to see you. The clock is ticking. This is why boilerplate statements are invaluable. Here is a sample boilerplate for the all-important initial statement from When the Balloon Goes Up: The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response. Initial Response Statement Format Note: Use only confirmed information in this statement. Although it is unlikely you will have all the facts, it is critical to communicate your primary concerns and what actions the organization is taking to respond to the situation. Your most important audience in this statement is the people directly impacted by the incident. Headline A concise statement about what's happening, for example: RPM CORP. RESPONDING TO SMITHVILLE FIRE Date/city of origin What happened? RPM Corporation can confirm at (date/time) (described the incident/situation).
Who or what is affected? Are/is people, property or the environment in danger? If so, what should people do (e.g., shelter-in place, return the product to their local grocery store for a refund, if you smell natural gas odors contact our emergency response department at 555-1111, do not swim at the Scott Beach until further notice, etc.) What are we doing about it? State primary concerns (e.g. the safety of our neighbors and employees, the supply of components to our customers, protecting the Lincoln Nature Preserve, etc.) Provide details about the actions the organization is taking to respond to the incident. Address stakeholders/audience concerns ("We are working with the fire department to ensure the area is safe so that people who were evacuated from their homes can return as soon as possible). If appropriate, mention a toll-free telephone number or website where people can obtain more information. Provide appropriate background information. Company/plant/facility/product background is useful here, e.g. RPM employs approximately 250 people at the Smithville plant, built in 1977, where we produce seats and interior trim products for the automotive industry. As is the case with most elements of crisis response this data must be prepared before it's needed and updated regularly. How/when/where will you provide updated information? We will provide updates through this briefing process at this location as more details become available. Updates and company information are also available on our website: www.rmpautocorp.com Media contact Contact information for an RPM Corporation spokesperson ### Other boilerplate statements you may wish to include in the plan are: • • • Media advisory for press conference/other information Information update Injuries and/or fatalities
• • • •
Press release Product recall Product tampering Website "dark page" with information about the incident
Website dark page: Design in advance A website "dark page" is a pre-prepared website page that page that can be quickly tailored to the situation and posted on your website to disseminate information. You must use your professional judgment regarding when to implement this communications tool. Two hours after an airplane crash I went to the website of the airline involved, who shall remain nameless in this example. The homepage was filled with travel deals but no information about the tragedy. As with other crisis response documents the dark page must be designed prior to an incident. If you decide to activate the dark page the only preparation that should be needed is specific information pertaining to the current situation. Management buy-in is essential To speed the process of composing and issuing statements, especially the initial statement, you must have management's approval for what you're going to say. There isn't time to obtain such approval during the early moments of a crisis. It behooves you to gain management approval of the basic structure and boilerplate messages before trouble strikes. Imagine mayhem that can ensue from discussing what should be done while reporters call or arrive at your offices with questions. Hint: Involve management in crisis drills and exercises where statements and content can be discussed and approved. The writer is in demand As we've discussed, boilerplates are time-savers especially when the writer can be asked to expand his or her role to include preparing communications for customers, public officials, Non- Governmental Agencies and industry groups. Then there are special projects such as opening statements for press conferences, talking points for briefing the Board of Directors and preparing text for video news releases. Depending on the crisis you might consider having more than one writer. Bring in outside assistance
Fortunately resources from outside the organization can assist your writer or take on the role completely. Of course, this arrangement must be planned in advance. If possible outside vendors should participate in drills and exercises to learn the organization's culture and writing style. Share your crisis response writing anecdotes If you have any anecdotes about crisis response writing you'd like to share with our readers please submit them. When the Balloon Goes Up: The Communicator's Guide to Crisis Response Communications is available at Amazon.com. © Bob Roemer
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