It was early on a Tuesday when Vice President Chris Jones and Account Executive Travis Lawson got the call. After quickly packing their bags and laptops, the two Pierpont crisis communicators were on their way to provide on-site client support—activating crisis plans, developing messaging and talking points and serving as public information officers (PIOs).
While this particular crisis was a significant one, every crisis varies in size and scope. Yet, the common denominator is that every organization, regardless of industry, must be ready to respond in minutes. From fires and oil spills to weather-related incidents and product recalls, there are essential components every organization should consider when planning for and handling crisis situations.
We caught up with Chris and Travis who share some of the essential elements to crisis planning.
Q: How do you define a crisis situation?
Chris: It’s a spectrum – if it’s not a physical crisis, it can be a financial crisis or a corporate reputation hit. There’s a difference between responding to a financial issue and cleaning up oil spills. An operational response requires a very quick response within hours, but a reputational crisis might play out over weeks of lawsuits or accusations.
Q: What is your experience in managing crisis situations?
Chris: My oil and gas career has spanned over 22 years, and I’ve spent a little over 10 of those with a specialty in crisis management. During a crisis, we play a few different roles, but typically either the role of the PIO or of a strategic advisor. Serving as a PIO requires advanced FEMA certification training and an intense focus on detail along with an in-depth understanding of the situation.
Travis: With experience responding to actual incidents, several simulations and mentorship from Chris and other members of the Pierpont team, I’m fully prepared to serve on a crisis management team in a unified command structure.
Q: What are the first three steps you’d advise a client to take when a crisis develops?
Chris and Travis:
- Notify the company’s crisis team. In our clients’ cases, this involves notifying Pierpont.
- Gather all of the known facts – something that is not as easy as it sounds at 2 a.m. This helps conduct a thorough assessment of the situation as we know it.
- Assemble an initial statement as soon as possible. Ask your team to route everything back to crisis communicator, but if they can’t do that, focus all communications around the same message.
Q: What is the most challenging part of media relations during a crisis?
Chris: One challenging aspect is avoiding speculation. Everyone wants answers, but you cannot get ahead of the facts. Its human nature to round out the story or put people at ease, but you can’t do that without the facts.
Travis: Working with all of the different agencies, including groups like the Federal EPA, State EPA, local city officials and department of environmental quality. There are so many cooks in the kitchen and you have to ensure your message is unified. From a public information officer perspective, it’s just making sure you have the most accurate, up-to-date information at all times.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes you see employees make during a crisis?
Chris: One of the points of vulnerability involves social media posting among employees. Sometimes in the excitement of a crisis, employees forget the organization’s social media policy and share photos or comments with their networks. When you’re trying to stay consistent with known facts, rogue social media posts can end up as part of the media’s story.
Yet, social media listening and monitoring is critical in a crisis because it gives us an idea of what is being said on blogs or social channels, identify and trends, concerns or misinformation so we can correct or address it.
Travis: One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is treating crises the same from a media perspective and not taking into consideration the regional or even local differences. To follow on Chris’ example with social media, social channels are really important at the local level. It is important to listen and possibly respond to the community and media discussing the crisis online. If the community creates a negative Facebook page or a news organization is reporting inaccurate information, you need to be aware and have a strategy to combat it.
Q: Any final thoughts when managing a crisis?
Chris: I’d add that it’s critical to think through situations and have a plan before there is a crisis. There is no time to make this up as you go along.
Travis: I can sum it up into three phrases: Always be ready, never speculate and the devil is in the details.
When’s the last time you updated your crisis plan? Contact Chris, Travis and Pierpont’s crisis team to help with plan development, media training and on-site support.