Safety PR and Crisis Communication: Are You Ready?

A terrible accident has happened in your work place. An employee falls from a ladder, lands on his head, and dies at the scene. This is one of the most terrible events that can ever occur within any organization. Immediately after the employee’s death, there is confusion, guilt, sadness, anger, and a myriad of other emotions. What is the first thing you should do? What do you say? How do you say it? To whom do you say it? The decisions made and actions taken after any type of crisis situation can spell disaster for your organization.

Don’t think “It’ll Never Happen Here!” A crisis may happen anywhere – anytime, and high profile organizations are more susceptible to some crisis. It is a fact that bad things CAN and DO happen to good organizations. It’s essential to understand that new threats develop regularly, that we need to be aware and be ready.

Let me say first that I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. The information and suggestions here are from my own experiences and understanding of dealing with crisis situations in the workplace. I strongly encourage anyone that is dealing with a crisis to seek out qualified and experienced legal advice.

In a catastrophic event, your every word, every eye movement, every emotion that shows, will resonate with those around you. In a crisis event, communication is different. Uncertainty is one of the greatest concerns for most, so it’s important to reduce anxiety and demonstrate that things are under control. But instead of making promises about outcomes, express the uncertainty of the situation and a confident belief in the process you are using to fix the problem and to address public safety concerns.

The consequences of a crisis can be far and wide and can lead to devastating results. What happens or is done on one front will impact what happens on another. This includes issues like litigation, law enforcement, regulatory agencies, the community, clients/customers, the press, business partners, employees, etc.

Two key issues to consider in crisis communication include the need to instill confidence and to provide information to all concerned (employees, family, police, government investigators, local news media, and public). The bottom line is that we want to have the public respond, en mass, in a logical, predictable manner designed to ensure the greatest good to the greatest number.

One thing for sure is that we must act quickly as bad news travels fast, especially in today’s world of social media which tends to thrive on bad news. By acting quickly, we can preserve the organization’s reputation and control the information that the public, employees, etc. receive. It does take work, but it’s much simpler than rebuilding a damaged reputation.

The KEY to success or failure is effective, caring, and honest communication. Before with employees (training) and media. During with employees, media, outside responders, regulatory agencies. And After with employees, media, regulatory agencies, contractors.

No doubt, there will be lots of questions from every direction. While you can’t always prevent the crisis, you can be prepared by understanding what sort of information people will want to know, such as:
• What caused the accident?
• What is the organization’s procedure to handle such an incident?
• Will there be an investigation?
• What is being done to mitigate the risk?
• Has this happened before? If so, when?

Of course, there will also be lots of rumors going around. Immediately dismissing a rumor is a dangerous move. Take everything you hear seriously, but with a grain of salt and investigate rumors before you comment. Correct wrong information quickly and thoroughly. Try to persuade those with unconfirmed incident information not to publicize it until official confirmation is received. It is extremely easy for information to be published very rapidly on blogs and social media, and it can be extremely distressing if the next of kin of a victim finds out about an accident through such unofficial, unconfirmed channels.

The goals of your crisis communication should be to protect your organization’s reputation, reduce tension, demonstrate commitment to values, to communicate promptly and continuously, to maintain control of the flow of information, and, of course, to end the crisis.

So what can you do? Think carefully about the messages you send out. Consider using just two to three key messages that include things like: Facts, Concern, Commitment, and Actions to take. I suggest that these be no more than ten seconds each and no more than 30 words, and then keep repeating these three messages. . .
Famous Example: STOP! DROP! ROLL!

There are some keys to navigating a crisis; these include:
• Consider, above all other factors, the health/safety of visitors, employees, public and community.
• Gather all facts as rapidly as possible.
• Immediately notify, and maintain contact with, appropriate local authorities (Police, Fire, etc.).
• Notify legal advisers when appropriate.
• Maintain records of all proceedings.
• Encourage candid discussion of solutions.
• Communicate quickly and fully with one another and public.
• Develop answers to predictable questions.
• Monitor events and adapt as necessary.
• Lead and facilitate investigation.
• Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”.

There is much, much more to consider in crisis communication, including how to deal with the media, press releases, matching the message to the audience, how to use social media to your advantage, understanding risk communication, putting together a crisis management plan and team, and understanding the skills required of a spokesperson. All of these, and more, will be covered in my upcoming audio conference titled “Safety PR: What To Say When A Serious Incident Hits Your Organization”, February 3, 2015. Learn more or register at: http://www.theindustrycalendar.com/showWCDetails.asp?TCID=1014501&RID=1011610

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