After seven days, all our fish were dead. House plants – dead. Pipes – frozen and burst. It was a Christmas we’ll never forget, and while it could’ve been so much worse, when the house dropped to 38 degrees and we moved Christmas to my mom’s, it didn’t feel like it.
What we needed then was a glimmer of hope. Some sort of reassurance that power would eventually be restored and things would once again be bright, warm and fuzzy.
But instead, we got silence.
When I called to report the power outage, the recording told me there were system problems and to call back later. When I did, I got the same message – a dozen times. At the same time, I checked Facebook and Twitter hoping for updates – nothing.
For days, our utility company, Lansing Board of Water and Light, left thousands of us in the dark. Stores ran out of generators, food spoiled and people got sick. And still nothing from BWL.
By now, many of you may have heard about the epic public relations failure of BWL in response to mid-Michigan’s days-long power outage after a major ice storm, dubbed “Icepocalypse.”
BWL pretty much broke every rule of PR 101. In fact, it’s a great case study for public relations students, and researchers and PR firms will have a field day analyzing this communications disaster.
First, media reported that BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark left town to visit family during the outage, thinking it wouldn’t really be “that bad.” At the same time, the company admitted it had no emergency plan in place.
In other words: mid-Michigan’s second largest utility company had no idea what to do and therefore nothing to communicate – which is probably why it took three days for messaging to trickle out on social media.
There have since been a couple public meetings, at which BWL employees mostly carried the floor to praise their leader. And this weekend, BWL took out a full-page ad apologizing for the situation. But most PR pros agree it’s too little, too late.
As a trained crisis communicator, I’ve learned that an organization has about 30 minutes to respond to a situation, even if it’s just with a holding statement. Someone needs to say something to let stakeholders know they’re engaged. And it’s just common sense that the leader should never leave the scene, but instead, rally the troops.
“Your reputation rides on how well you perform – especially in a crisis,” said Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Truscott Rossman, a Michigan-based strategic communications firm. “Your failure to rise to the occasion will undermine your reputation, short- and probably long-term. If your customers respect and trust you now, don’t lose them because you can’t meet their expectations under difficult circumstances.”
Crisis communications isn’t hard, but it does require preparation. If your organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, start one now, while things are calm.
According to Rossman-McKinney, there are three basic rules to crisis communications:
1. Acknowledge the problem with honesty, integrity and credibility. Don’t sugarcoat the facts.
2. Apologize for the situation sincerely and with care, compassion and concern.
3. Actively fix the problem and explain how and when action will be taken, what steps are involved, what challenges may arise, etc.
With these rules in mind, an organization can design its plan. Here are some must-haves, according to Truscott Rossman:
1. Identify your internal crisis team. Usually it’s your executive team and includes the CEO (always!), the COO, legal, HR, PR, etc. The team may vary based on the type of crisis but these are invariably the essential players.
2. Identify all your potential audiences and tier them based on type of crisis: internal (board members, employees, retirees, volunteers, donors, etc.) and external (starting with those directly impacted by the crisis, plus other customers/clients, vendors, suppliers, law enforcement, elected officials, media, etc.)
3. Determine your communications tools and tactics – and make sure you consider access to and credibility of those tools from your audiences’ perspectives. Traditional and digital/social media are both essential but also be prepared to think out of the box. Will phone calls, door-to-door, etc. be necessary under certain circumstances?
4. Know who will be responsible for what aspect of the crisis communications plan and have those folks prepared before a crisis. For example, if you know you will need outside expertise to implement portions of the plan, identify them now. Also, make sure your spokesperson is the best, most credible individual. Don’t send out the top dog if he or she comes across as arrogant, defensive, angry and patronizing. Care, compassion and concern are the leading attributes for a spokesperson in a crisis. Hire out if necessary – but make sure you hire credibility as well.
5. Don’t over promise. It’s better to exceed expectations by fixing the situation earlier than people expected than to let them down by missing a deadline.
6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. A vacuum of information from you will be quickly filled by others – and it won’t be pretty. Be clear on what you know, what you don’t know and how and when you’ll provide additional information – and meet and exceed everything you promise.
Does your organization have a crisis communications or emergency communications plan? We’d love for you to share it.