NACD: Communicating through crisis

03 December 2013 11:12 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

When Barton Solvents experienced an explosion and fire at its Valley Center, Kansas, plant in 2007, the company went to work. A crisis communications plan was implemented, and information was shared with employees and the public.

Still, while the overall results were good, they found that the plan – a simple list of to-dos and contacts – had a few gaps.


Managing an unexpected event is far more effective when an indepth strategy is employed

Copyright: Rex Features

“We did find that after the Valley Center fire that there were a few people who, while they were informed, we could have informed them earlier had we had the correct contact information,” says David Casten CEO of the Des Moines, Iowa-based company. “We worked to fix it.”

Today, the company’s crisis communication plan is a thick binder that has specific information and procedures for each of the company’s six locations, including the corporate headquarters in Des Moines.

The plan is updated annually, and everyone is aware of their roles – and whom to call – if another incident occurs. Several emergency scenarios are covered in the plan – covering everything from an active shooter on the premises or an explosion, to domestic violence issues in the workplace.

Crisis communications is key for any company. Industrial accidents, weather-related events and workplace incidents can be unpredictable, and can strike at any time.

For companies that make or distribute chemicals, such a plan is even more important. These companies – which already have to deal with negative public perception about their business and the impact on local areas – have to be extra transparent when a disaster strikes.

A plant explosion in West, Texas, earlier this year also shed light on the need for companies to have a plan for informing local residents in case of a major accident.

“When it comes to industrial chemicals, you have to be extra careful to keep the public informed about what’s going on,” Casten says. “People still have these negative views of the chemical industry, so we have to keep that in mind when something happens and make sure the right information is getting out there.”

Referring back to the 2007 Valley Center incident, Casten recalls a moment when incorrect information was reported via the media, and the company had to act immediately.

“I’ll give you one example,” Casten says. “Not too long after I had completed a live news press conference telling news agencies what we were going to do and how we were going to get through this, a reporter had a report out that completely got wrong what I had said. They got the whole story wrong.”

Some companies simply hire high-level media consultants during a crisis to handle communications. That’s what Barton did in 2007, Casten notes. Still, even with heavy media hitters representing them, messages can still get muddled.

Another example: the company held a fundraising event at a local church. The event would be an occasion where local residents, many of whom were displaced from their homes because of the accident, could receive reimbursement for expenses for hotels, food and other necessities. The company announced this event at a live press conference.

“The television newscasters screwed up the dates,” Casten says. “We had to correct that one pretty quick.”

Casten says that, as part of the company’s improved communications plan, they ensure that everyone’s contact information is updated. That includes employees and family members. Casten also points out that the company communicates via text messages and automated voice mail messages that updates employees in an emergency.

In this age of social media, it’s easy to recommend that a company set up Twitter and Facebook accounts as emergency communications vehicles. However, Casten says that Barton avoids social media.

“We personally don’t do anything with Facebook and Twitter,” Casten notes. “I think with social media, you have to consider your employees, and what’s the best way to reach them. For a lot of our employees, they work in an industrial setting, so using Facebook and Twitter isn’t the best way to reach them. I don’t think it’s always necessary, depending on whom your customer base is. Industrial customers aren’t necessarily going to communicate via social media.”

As for communicating with the public via social media, Casten adds that the company still believes working with local news agencies is the best strategy.


Berenson: always expect the unexpected

Heidi Berenson, CEO of Washington, D.C-based Berenson Communications, says the key to a strong crisis communications plan is to plan it – and practice. Berenson, a media consultant whose firm specializes in media and presentation training, has extensive experience in the media, including Emmy and Peabody award-winning experience at ABC News Good Morning America, CBS News & CNN’s Crossfire.

What steps should companies take to ensure they have a solid crisis communications plan in place?
All companies, particularly in an industry such as [chemicals], should always be in “pre-crisis” mode – that is, prepared in the event a crisis should strike. This means having a plan in place, and updating it at regular intervals, for example every 18 months. It should also contain the following: a master checklist, a list of emergency contact numbers, both internal and external contact information (staff, local emergency responders, key media contacts, and local, state and federal officials). Next, determine the crisis “chain of command” and be sure each person knows his or her specific role. Finally, especially in this social media era, it is critical to get out ahead of an issue before it snowballs; get the facts, get them on the record and post regularly. Then, it is important to monitor and stay ahead of the story.

How important is it to communicate that plan to employees?
Ensuring that employees are familiar with the overall crisis plan as well as with their individual roles is essential. Again, especially in this Twitter and Facebook era, you need a well-coordinated effort that involves everyone. Also, companies must regularly practice their plan before a crisis strikes. For example, with the recent shootings in Washington, D.C., companies and organizations are starting to have “shelter-in-place” drills. My mother, a successful entrepreneur had a saying: “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

What’s the first thing a company should do in relation to media relations when a crisis occurs?
As the British say: “Keep calm and carry on”. First and foremost, express heartfelt sentiments to those affected – the community, employees, and families. Then, demonstrate your corporate commitment to finding solutions. There should be one designated spokesperson. Also, we’ve found a few things to be particularly helpful with the public and the press. For the public, let them know how they can be part of the solution. For example, you could advise people to stay off the roads to allow emergency vehicles quick access. For the media, stick to the facts and be as specific as possible. Make it clear that you will keep them informed by briefing regularly as more information becomes available. At the same time, beware the blogosphere. Have someone monitor the internet, as “citizen journalists” may be spreading versions of the story that need addressing, especially if picked up by mainstream media.

By Andrew Guy