Crisis Communication can Clear Pathways for Weathering the Storm

News-CrisisCommunicationThe recent winter storms of ice, snowfall and arctic temperatures gave mid-Michigan businesses and organizations a literal crash course in the importance of crisis communication.

And while conventional media helped get messages out, businesses quickly learned that social media and “boots-on-the-ground” techniques were often faster and more effective than any press release, prepared statement or sound bite.

“Crisis communication is communicating in a way that ensures people get accurate, credible, regular and reliable communication in ways they are most likely to pay attention to,” said public relations expert Kelly Rossman-McKinney. “Crisis communication is for any business, and certainly necessary for those with customers who rely on them for services.”

Rossman-McKinney knows from experience — both as a customer of an organization in crisis and as a skilled crisis communication professional. As the CEO of Truscott Rossman, she has three steps she typically prescribes as a starting point for any crisis communication plan — steps she says can minimize the immediate and long-term effect on a company’s reputation.

“The rules for crisis communications are elegantly simple,” Rossman-McKinney said. “They’re so simple that it defies belief that crisis communication can’t be more consistently and carefully adhered to.”

Preserving the trust

As the Lansing Board of Water and Light worked to restore power to nearly 40 percent of distribution systems after the 2013 holiday ice storm, public relations experts across Michigan watched as the municipal utility scrambled to communicate the situation. Rossman-McKinney was both an observer and a customer rendered powerless for days.

“While you’re always looking for best practices, PR professionals all say this was a great case study,” said Rossman-McKinney.

With BWL top-of-mind, Rossman-McKinney reflected on how other organizations handled communications during trying times. Many, she said, have managed well by following three rules similar to those posted on her website: (

  1. Acknowledge and own up to the problem.
  2. Apologize for the situation.
  3. Actively fix the problems and explain how action will be taken.

“The biggest mistake an organization can make is the failure to communicate,” she said. “It’s possible to recover if you don’t, but the first thing you have to do is to get into a crisis communication mode and tell us you’re sorry. That goes a long way toward people forgiving you — and that’s what you want: forgiveness.”

Rossman-McKinney acknowledged that while more organizations than ever are sensitive to crisis communication, many don’t have detailed plans.

“Essentially, your plan should identify your internal go-to people, who communicates with the media and how often you should communicate,” said Rossman-McKinney, pointing out that guidelines and sample emergency plans are available through online sources and private PR firms. “You also need to know exactly who your target audience is, who’s responsible for reaching out to those people and the best way to do that.”

Traditional media isn’t always the best way, but simply part of the mix. Social media is playing an increasingly larger role, and “boots-on-the-ground” approaches demonstrate an assertive yet empathic image.

“Years ago, there was an explosion at the Ford River Rouge Plant where a couple employees were killed and dozens more were injured,” said Rossman-McKinney of the massive boiler explosion that destroyed the Dearborn power station in 1999. “Bill Ford went to the site immediately to reassure employees he was on top of the situation. He was very hands-on throughout. And that’s what a leader does — he not only makes sure everything operationally is being done to fix the situation, he’s doing everything possible to maintain the reputation of the company.”

A case in point: Consumers Energy

The Jackson-based Consumers Energy is among the companies Rossman-McKinney mentioned as having a solid grasp on crisis communication planning and implementation.

“We have a crisis communication plan for all areas of our business,” said Dan Bishop, director of media relations for Consumers Energy. “We emphasize transparent communication with customers, employees and regulators, and have close working relationships with the communities we serve.”

That foundation, Bishop said, worked well when a February 2013 gas explosion in Royal Oak destroyed one home, damaged others and resulted in the death of one individual. Consumers Energy was on the scene within the hour, while senior leadership began exchanging phone calls and emails within minutes.

From the start, senior leadership reviewed the incident, provided direction in communicating and safety responses, and relayed information to the press. Communication involved social media, letters, door-to-door inspections, information sharing at substations and personal presence on site. Within 24 hours, Consumers Energy took responsibility for the incident, communicating that an employee action had led to the explosion.

“Kudos to our senior management who decided to come forth with info and didn’t hold on to it,” said Debra Dodd, Consumers Energy senior public information director in southeast Michigan. “We had a lot of good comments about being open, honest and accountable.”

Dodd and Bishop agree that a business can’t communicate too much in a crisis, and that it’s good to be engaged and out in the open no matter the situation. That point-of-view is mirrored through a periodic evaluation of the company’s crisis communication plan, including practice exercises that replicate real-life events. Consumer’s Energy also employs an emergency operations professional and staff who specialize in social media, further enabling the company to be nimble and communicate beyond the traditional news cycle.

“A crisis communication plan only works if the entire organization is committed to it from the top down,” said Bishop. “Getting that commitment doesn’t take a lot of persuading when there’s recognition that transparent communication is in the best interest of the organization. And in the media world we live in, we’re all living in glass houses these days. There’s little that is not known or knowable.”

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