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Kristy McCluskey
Dr. Paul LeSage
Public Relations and Crisis Management
October 19, 2010

The Five W‟s of Crisis Management

Crisis management focuses on planning. It means analyzing situations and trends to see

what sort of crises the company might be faced with. Crisis management then takes those

analyses a step further to establish steps to prevent the company from experiencing such a crisis,

and to develop a plan of action should the company experience a crisis despite its best efforts. It

means establishing a team of experts, who can put their unique perspectives together to create a

solid plan and who can remain collected and composed in the face of a crisis. These individuals

will create a crisis management plan that allows the company to resolve the crisis while

simultaneously addressing its internal and external audiences such as employees and

stakeholders as well as the general public and the media.

Prior to taking this course, I believed that crisis management was centered around post-

crisis resolutions. I shared the mentality of many big businesses: that a crisis is unlikely to occur

within a company, and that should a crisis occur, a plan should be put into place to resolve the

situation. I knew that with a larger crisis, arriving at a prompt solution could be difficult, but

didn‟t understand how one could have a solution prior to the crisis, since it did not seem possible

to predict what might occur in any particular situation. But the course material has expanded my

horizons, and now I see that a crisis management plan is not just a good idea, but a necessary


A crisis is a low-probability event, but „low probability‟ doesn‟t translate to „impossible,‟

and preventative steps have proven beneficial in everyday situations. For example, students have
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been practicing safe evacuation plans in fire drills and bus evacuations since preschool. Though

I‟ve never experienced a situation in which such plans needed to be executed, I recognize their

value. It would seem absurd not to teach large groups of people how to safely remove themselves

from an unsafe situation, just as it seems absurd for any business, company, or corporation to not

have a crisis management plan in place for resolving a crisis. My assumptions prior to this

course—that it‟s impossible to predict and to plan for every facet of a particular crisis—hold

true, but any preparation done prior to the occurrence of a crisis is a step in the right direction.

The better prepared a company is, the more likely it is to emerge from a crisis with relatively

little damage to persons, reputation, or financial standing.

The ideal crisis management plan addresses every conceivable aspect of a crisis.

Communicating with the media is a hugely important aspect in the face of a crisis, and the media

communicate the information they receive to the public. Since reporters are trained to address the

„Five W‟s,‟ I believe the perfect crisis management plan addresses these exact questions.

Successful crisis management means being prepared, and by leaving no question unanswered in

the face of a crisis, a company increases its chances of recovering from the crisis.

The crisis management plan should state the responsibilities of particular individuals and

departments in the event of a crisis (the „who‟ component). When Subway was accused of

serving a woman a sandwich with a severed finger inside, its spokesperson swiftly addressed the

situation by acknowledging the claim, stating that the situation was under investigation, and that

he preferred not to comment until there was more information. Though the spokesperson didn‟t

have too much information on the situation, he was quick to respond to the media‟s questions.

The company‟s reputation would have been at risk had it taken longer to respond, for while

Subway was busy deciding what to do, people would have had time to speculate about the
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situation. The spokesperson‟s quick thinking and prompt actions helped preserve the company‟s

reputation, which would not have been possible without prior planning.

The very existence of the spokesperson designation is important, as well, for every

moment the company could have spent trying to figure out who should address the public and

what they should say was a moment their reputation would have been at risk. It is for this reason

that the “who” component of a crisis management plan is a crucial first step in resolving a crisis.

Though it‟s impossible to predict every component of a crisis that has not yet occurred, every

step toward resolution that a company can take in advance—such as designating specific roles

for members of the crisis management team—is a step in the right direction. Other important

designations include an „inside‟ spokesperson: who will communicate with the employees, who

are certain to be impacted by the circumstances affecting the company they work for? Who will

work to resolve the crisis at hand? When several Tylenol products were found to be laced with

cyanide, Johnson and Johnson‟s preparedness and quick response helped the company to remain

in a positive light in the public‟s eyes. The products were swiftly removed from the shelves, and

the company soon debuted new tamper-proof packaging to ensure the safety of their products.

Someone had to be on hand (in other words, on the crisis management team, knowledgeable of

their role as problem-solver should the need arise, and prepared to resolve the crisis as quickly

and efficiently as possible) in order for the resolution to occur promptly and without error.

Because of its quick and crafty response, Johnson and Johnson was able to emerge from the

crisis; the company didn‟t just survive, but presented itself in a positive and caring light.

The Tylenol issue also demonstrates how crucial the components of the crisis

management team are. Tylenol was quickly pulled from the shelves once the company became

aware of the issue. That decision could not have been made without the permission of someone
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high up in the company. That person needed to be part of the crisis management team so that he

or she would be easy to contact and prepared to react. A crisis can come with so many

unpredictable components, but by having a solid and well-rounded team prepared to handle those

components, a company can weather a crisis.

The crisis management plan should also state what steps will be taken, should a crisis

occur. For example, Crandall writes that when Virginia Tech‟s website became a tool for

communicating with the public during a crisis, a „lite‟ version of the website was uploaded to

avoid taxing the website‟s resources. Crandall recommends having a „dark‟ version of the

company website available, which is a version of the website that contains relevant information

such as an easily accessible copy of the company‟s crisis management plan. The dark site is not

typically accessible, but should a crisis occur, that information will be available and ready to be

presented to the outside world. Prior planning has a clear benefit here, for a company that has an

alternate version of its website prepared can deliver that product to the public much more quickly

than a company that would need to design the site prior to making it available. When it comes to

addressing the public, especially the media, that timing proves crucial.

In an era of increasing internet usage, information distributed to consumers over the web

can have a profound impact on a company. According to Crandall, companies like Southwest

Airlines and Dell have specialists monitor and respond to online perspectives. I witnessed this

firsthand at my summer internship at the American Lung Association, which has an e-

philanthropy associate responsible for distributing information and addressing concerns over the

internet. Crandall stresses the growing importance of the internet as a public relations tool, and

designating a position centered around monitoring internet feedback would certainly be a step in

the right direction for a company. For instance, I recently heard that some Graco strollers were
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being recalled due to several infant deaths associated with the product, and I immediately took to

Google to find more information. In the midst of this crisis, it would do the company a world of

good to make itself aware of consumer concerns and respond to them.

The „what‟ designations might be specific to a company‟s particular industry or location.

For example, Crandall mentions that a hospital located in a neighborhood with increasing

violence should respond by increasing its security, since moving the location is not a feasible

option. This sort of response should certainly be a component of the crisis management plan. For

example, consider that the violence might be increasing but is not yet a direct threat to the

hospital. The crisis management team could modify its crisis management plan to include

instructions for bringing in extra security immediately after the need arises. That portion of the

plan might discuss budget, staffing, and other factors that would be considered in bringing in

extra security. Planning in advance and resolving all of the issues prior to the crisis would enable

the hospital to put the plan into action promptly. In the case of a Nissan headquarters located in

an area known for hail, the crisis management plan calls for releasing sonic waves into the air

every five seconds to prevent the formation of hail. This designation of a pre-crisis action that

must be taken helps Nissan avoid the crisis altogether.

If a company has never experienced a major crisis or is just compiling its first crisis

management plan, the execution of a mock disaster or crisis could be an important part of the

„what‟ component. „Practice makes perfect,‟ and by putting its crisis management plan into

effect through a mock disaster, the company could analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each

facet of its plan. It could then improve and modify the relevant aspects of its plan, which would

leave the company with a solid foundation for handling a crisis should one arise. Crandall gives

the example of the Concord College mock disaster, which enacted such crucial components of
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the crisis management plan as addressing the media, safely removing persons from harm‟s way,

and crowd control. One reporter burst onto the scene, demanding information, a factor that the

crisis management team may not have accounted for in the first draft of its crisis management

plan. The drill allowed Concord College to strengthen and modify its plan and left it better

prepared for the onset of a legitimate crisis.

Selecting a functional command center, the „where‟ aspect of a crisis management plan,

is crucial to the success of the crisis management team. The command center is the heart of the

crisis management team. . The location should be easily accessible to the members of the crisis

management team, as the command center will become their new home in the midst of handling

and resolving a crisis. It should be located in an area with the best technology available, which

allows the company to quickly receive and distribute information. Proximity to the media must

be considered when selecting a command center location. Representatives from the crisis

management team need to be close to the media to easily communicate information to the press,

but it‟s important that the media not be too close to the command center. In the case of the

Concord College mock disaster drill, reporters were able to intercept information meant to be

funneled to the command center, and subsequently demanded specific explanations from the

college president. The type of disasters a company may be faced with should also be taken into

account—for instance, a fire in the building may render a command center useless. Crisis

management plans should designate primary and secondary command center locations, at the

very least. In The China Syndrome, it was clear that the nuclear plant did not have a designated

command center. The public relations representative was forced to communicate details of the

disaster through hushed whispers while in the direct presence of the media, which was both

embarrassing and dangerous for the company.

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The ideal crisis management plan contains details about when components of the plan

should be put into action. For example, it may detail when it is appropriate for a public relations

person to make a statement for the company, and when it is best to stay quiet. When former Vice

President Dick Cheney shot a friend while hunting, it was clear that the event was an accident.

The ideal response would have been for a representative of Cheney to come forward, to explain

the situation, and to apologize. Acknowledging the event would have been beneficial for

Cheney‟s team, for the public could have seen the event as a genuine accident. But Cheney‟s

silence did not bode well for him. His silence seemed to be an attempt to brush the incident

under the rug, which would have meant deceiving the public. It‟s clear now that speaking out

early on would have been the strongest move, which is exactly what should be detailed in a crisis

management plan. In The China Syndrome, the nuclear plant would have benefited tremendously

from acknowledging the plant‟s troubles from the very beginning. If officials had shut down the

plant, investigated the troubles and then resolved the issues, the public could have given the

company the benefit of the doubt. When officials took a different course, they ended up with a

chaotic and devastating tragedy. The crisis management plan should review potential crises that

may confront the company, and designate appropriate plans as well as when they should be put

into action.

Though the probability of experiencing a crisis is rare, companies should absolutely

consider composing a crisis management team and a crisis management plan. This is the „why‟

component of a crisis management plan. Prior planning and getting ahead of the game is a good

business model. A company that possesses a crisis management team and plan is likely to be

looked on favorably by the public, who can appreciate the company‟s steps in guaranteeing their

safety. When BP failed to mention the restarting of a faulty machine to the hundreds of
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employees present at a morning safety meeting, it destroyed its relationship with both its internal

and external publics (employees, their families, and members of the community). The

development of a crisis management plan will likely bring the opposite response: respect and

admiration. If a company is in good standing with the public and shows that it is making every

effort to ensure safety and quality, the public is much more likely to forgive a crisis, for people

know that the company was trying. Johnson and Johnson demonstrated its concern for its public

when it pulled Tylenol off the shelves despite the economic hit, and continues to be a popular

and respectable company as a result.

Developing a crisis management plan is overwhelmingly beneficial for a company—for

when a crisis strikes, that plan serves as a manual designating the appropriate actions. A

thorough crisis management plan could contain all the answers before a problem even arises, and

every preventative measure taken serves to solidify a company‟s chance of recovery should a

crisis occur. A thorough crisis management plan results in a team of composed and prepared

individuals or representatives. It leaves no question from the media, internal public, or external

public unanswered, for it addresses every aspect of a potential crisis: who, what, where, when,

and why, and how each of these components will be addressed in the event of a crisis. The ideal

crisis management plan identifies crucial members in the company, as well as their roles in

managing a potential crisis. It designates locations, time frames, responses, communications, and

virtually every conceivable facet of a potential crisis. A crisis management plan is a handbook

for success.