BOOM! Now, don’t say ANYTHING!

BOOM! Now, don’t say ANYTHING!

It doesn’t matter what kind of business you run, but let’s say your company is a blasting contractor and a blast gets away from you. BOOM! Boulders start flying. Vehicles are damaged. Rocks rain through the windows of adjacent properties. Neighbors are running for cover. The job site is shut down and the news crews are on their way.

OK – now what? Call your lawyer and the insurance agent.

Your lawyer is likely to say “Don’t say ANYTHING!” Why? There are liability issues involved and comments to the media or others can be misconstrued or open you to allegations or litigation. Saying nothing can save your company from a lot of hassles. But, what does silence cost?

You have a reputation to protect. People want answers. “What’s going to happen to my car?”, “Who’s going to fix my windows?”, ”Who’s responsible?” and “How could this have happened?”

Silence can imply guilt or responsibility. It can anger victims and create ill-will. A mismanaged crisis can prompt people to start calling plaintiff’s attorneys. As an owner or manager, you have to make some decisions. If you have done your homework about responding to the unexpected, you may already have a game plan for handling a crisis. If not, here is what you ought to be thinking about and preparing for. You also should call a communications professional with crisis communications experience.

First, ask yourself “Who cares?” That will help you identify the stakeholders to a crisis. Put at the very top of the list your EMPLOYEES. They are the people who need good information as opposed to speculation. They are your unauthorized but credible spokespeople. They need facts.

Other stakeholders to a crisis include customers, victims, neighbors, government authorities (e.g. police, fire, rescue, regulators, policymakers, etc.), vendors, and even your competitors.

Message: Once you know who cares, then decide what the message has to be to inform each group. The facts should be the same but the nuance for each may be different. Employees want to know they are safe. They also want to know the status of their jobs. Victims want to know if they’ll be made whole. Authorities want to know what happened, who’s responsible and why something like this will never happen again.

Messenger: Then you have to decide the best messenger for the message. Almost without exception, a major crisis requires the owner or CEO to deliver the message whether in person or in writing. People want to know who’s in charge and who has answers. Transparency goes a long way and if there are layers between the boss and those asking questions, it can feed speculation and anger. If it’s a lower level crisis, the people with the most expertise in the subject may be the strongest messengers if they are comfortable doing so.

Media: How are you going to deliver your message? The carefully written word creates a record to which your stakeholders and the news media can refer. It affirms the spoken word when the two are the same. The written word can be delivered as a news release, a direct mailer or a handout. It can appear as an “advertorial” in newspapers or on your web site and in emails. You also can write a letter to the editor and to groups or associations if your stakeholders have those affiliations. The written word also creates a discipline to ensure people stay focused.

Of greatest value in managing a crisis is having the comfort that you thought about the unthinkable. Accidents, deaths, product failures, layoffs, mismanagement, fire, natural disasters, robbery, work place violence –they all happen and you hope that they don’t happen to you. But, you need to think of everything that could happen and then plan for the five or ten that are most likely. Beyond the communications, you also have to plan for disaster recovery – a whole other drill to get you back to business as quickly as possible. In the area of disaster recovery, you need to work with an insurance agent who knows your business and will stick with you through the entire recovery.

In the end, you want to be sure these few facts are communicated:

  • It happened. (acknowledge the crisis)
  • We’re sorry it happened. (express some empathy for all those impacted)
  • We are trying to make whole those who have suffered a loss. (accepting as much responsibility as is realistic goes a long way)
  • We are going to find out what happened so it never happens again. (this is a promise of intent and a goal that people will appreciate)

Even if you do all of the above AND work closely with your lawyer and insurance agent, you may still face liability issues or allegations. If you have shared good information in a timely fashion, however, you may avoid the cost of silence.

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