Monday, October 19, 2009

The Nine C's of Crisis Communications - Part One

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker

Oil spills in pristine waters make good headlines.

In the news there has been a major oil spill in the Timor Sea near Western Australia's north coast.

Oil has been leaking from the West Atlas drill site resulting in a slick stretching more than 30 kilometres.

As with many leaks, the cause is not known.

Industry leaders believe the oil leak is deeply regrettable and will harm the industry's reputation.

The oil industry hasn't got the best reputation in the eyes of the public.

A crisis is any situation that threatens the integrity or reputation of your company. It is usually brought about by adverse or negative media attention.

There are two types with different strategies - - "Acute" crises - sudden, unexpected disasters like an oil spill.

"Chronic" crises - long-term crisis situations can be viewed as issues mismanaged. Examples might be a lack of hospital beds in the health care system. They may spark periodic acute crises during their lifespan.

For the oil industry, their poor reputation all started just over 20 years ago.

On March 24, 1989 one of the world's worst environmental disasters began when the huge oil tanker the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

Around 240,000 barrels of oil were spilt polluting almost 1,800 kms of pristine coastline

The local fishing industry was decimated and more than 30,000 dead birds and 1,000 dead sea otters were counted.

What did Exxon do wrong?

Chairman Lawrence G. Rawl decided to stay in New York and sent lower-level officials to take charge in Alaska.

He decided all information should be released only at Valdez - the scene of the disaster. The remote town had limited facilities for the media preventing many journalists from getting their stories.

Exxon officials in New York refused to comment for nearly a week creating the impression of arrogance and the whiff of a cover-up.

Rawl made no public comment until 6 days after the accident and did not meet reporters or visit Alaska for over 3 weeks.

So what should you do in a crisis like an oil spill?

Here are the Nine C's of crisis communications, and the first three.

1. Commit to engage - no blame just facts

If you want to engage with stakeholders, do it quickly, accurately and stick to the facts and avoid the blame game. Especially in public.

Communicate with close relatives affected first, internal staff and key customers or suppliers second and thirdly external stakeholders via the media.

2. Clear plan

Having a crisis communications plan, team and resources in place is essential before a crisis happens.

3. Control agenda

Always control the agenda and the message.

Media training key spokespeople is essential. The next three of the nine will be in the next edition in Part Two.

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