Responding in crisis
by Melissa Barreca
Public Relations by Melissa Barreca & Kathy Callahan
Responding in crisis
Having a direct and detailed plan in place for emergency situations can reduce damaging effects and save face
Melissa Barreca is public relations manager at Ameristar Casino St. Charles in St. Charles, Mo. She can be reached at 1-800-325-7777, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Kathy Callahan is director of communications for Ameristar's corporate office in Las Vegas. She can be reached at 702-567-7053, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before you read this, make sure your building is not on fire. Check that your employees and guests are safe. Confirm there have been no major accidents on your property and all of your equipment is functioning properly. Is the coast clear? Good. Now close your door and relax. You still have time to prepare for a crisis.
Nothing tests the reputation of a company more than a crisis. These "make or break" moments are critical in protecting your brand and your reputation. Two classic examples from the 1980's-the Tylenol tampering scare (customer loyalty soon exceeded pre-crisis levels) and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (10,000 customers cancelled their Exxon credit cards)-clearly demonstrate how a company's response creates lasting impressions with far-reaching business implications.
A crisis is any occurrence-real or perceived-that could generate major negative publicity. It may involve a disputed jackpot payout, an employee relations issue, a violent incident on your property that claims casualties or any number of unexpected events. Some crises happen in an instant. Others smolder over time and suddenly flare up.
Either way, it pays to be prepared.
It's vital to have a plan in place well before a crisis, to assemble a team of responders and train them well, and to dust off these preparations periodically. This process could take some time, but there are some simple steps you can take now to increase your preparedness dramatically.
• First, designate a crisis response team and outline their roles. At minimum, include the general manager and department heads in the security, human resources, marketing, and public relations departments, as well as a complementary corporate team, especially legal. Depending on the issue, some or all of the members may be called to respond.
• Second, update your contact lists and keep them everywhere. The simplest and perhaps most critical tool to have on hand is up-to-date contact information. Each person on the team should have multiple copies of a laminated list with all possible contact information for response team members. Don't just keep copies in the office. You'll inevitably be elsewhere when you need it most. Put a copy in the car, at home, in your briefcase...and use an old-fashioned hard-copy in addition to your Palm Pilot or cell phone. Provide copies for PBX and property and corporate management as well.
• Third, create simple statements that can be tweaked for different scenarios. Every property should have a statement that lists the positive measures in place to ensure guest and employee safety, a statement of concern and a basic outline of your company's operating philosophy. These will need fine-tuning before being used, but you won't have to start from scratch.
Step by step
With these tools in place, now you just need a plan. Putting together a crisis plan is an exercise in anticipation. It's thinking through the potential issues and determining what your course of action would be in each case. While you can never be prepared for every possibility, simply completing this exercise will help you respond to anything.
These nine steps should form the basis of your crisis communications plan and an integral part of your emergency response.
1. Report and assess the extent of the crisis. The sooner a crisis is reported, the more control you'll have. Create a notification hierarchy to manage this process.
2. Activate the crisis response team. The GM or senior PR person alerts the team to the issue, drafts statements and press releases and prepares for interviews.
3. Communicate with management. Property and corporate management should be kept informed throughout the situation.
4. Reach out to victims' families. For employees, coordinate through the human resources department. In general, it's best not to release victim names publicly, but to defer this responsibility to the local authorities.
5. Communicate with employees. Employee communication must be a high priority. Any statements made to the public should be made first, or at least simultaneously, to employees. Utilize a cascade process to get information to management first and then to the front line.
6. Communicate with the media. PR will manage inquiries, develop statements and coach the spokesperson. Like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after September 11, 2001, the GM should be visible, speak shortly after the event to constituents, express sympathy when appropriate, and provide information on your company's good faith efforts. In addition, you may need to communicate directly with regulators, city officials and other important external constituents.
7. Keep logs and records. All members of the response team should document everything, especially incoming and outgoing phone calls, numbers and notes.
8. Re-establish back-to-normal posture for the company. As the situation draws to a close, re-establish business as usual, both to employees and the media.
9. Debrief. Once all is said and done, hold a debriefing session. Evaluate the response, what worked, what didn't, and anything you'd do differently. Look for ways the crisis could have been avoided in the first place.
And lastly, take a deep breath. With a crisis plan in place, you'll be prepared to deal with both the expected and the unexpected. That can make the difference between confusion and control. CJ