Sharon M. Reis
Sharon Reis

Travel experts tell us that one of the best things you can do to save yourself in a plane crash is to count the number of rows to the nearest exit, program those numbers into your brain and then make an escape plan in case of the unthinkable.

We all know airplanes are among the safest forms of travel and that a plane crashing is highly unlikely. Yet we can learn from this lesson of preparedness: once the cabin is filling with smoke, it’s too late to develop your plan. The environment is absolute chaos and your brain is frozen in fear. But if you already have a plan, one that only took a few seconds to create at the start of your flight, your chance of survival increases dramatically. You anticipated a potential emergency — or imagined the unimaginable — and you planned how to get off a burning plane in 90 seconds or less.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR MagazineO'Dwyer's Oct. '18 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

In a sudden media crisis, you’ll likely have a bit more time to respond, but the basic approach is the same. For every one of our clients who want to generate proactive earned media stories, we recommend preparing an issues management plan. Most clients are comfortable with this idea, yet many shy away out of fear of looking at uncomfortable issues or fear that they can’t anticipate all scenarios.

Many medical associations and non-profits don’t have budgets to support ambitious issues management and ongoing crisis support. And that’s one of the best reasons for developing a plan upfront. Our job is to expect the unexpected, plan for the unplannable and prepare for the unknown. While many clients don’t want to talk about the worst possible scenarios, we encourage them to imagine them, write them down and create responses. Only by acknowledging the potential threats can we plan for them and survive them.

Medical societies are increasingly under scrutiny about relationships with industry, and we frequently remind them that creating transparency around outside funding is an important aspect of issues management. A medical society, long admired as a leader in the field, was questioned by an investigative journalist about funding for the organization. Unfortunately, the society’s latest list of funders and conflict-of-interest and disclosure policies were not posted on their web site. By not keeping the web content updated, this unfortunate oversight turned into a “gotcha” moment for a hard-charging reporter who questioned the association in the media. It was a big lesson learned. Always, always, always post, update and prominently display your funders and conflict-of-interest and disclosure policies on your web site.

In today’s environment, any research that is supported by industry is immediately questioned, which means a scientist’s reputation that took decades to build could face intense scrutiny in a matter of minutes. All relationships with industry must be fully acknowledged up front with serious consequences for non-disclosure. Therefore, planning for these challenges and having clear disclosure policies is a must whenever scientific endeavors are involved.

Another good piece of advice for surviving a plane crash is wearing the right shoes. We equate that to starting with a solid foundation. Do your homework. Conduct market research, which can be done on a shoestring budget and include message testing and a media audit.

One of our foundation clients was getting ready to introduce a new strategic plan and new criteria for grant-making. They knew that while some of the current grantees would still receive funding under the new direction, others would experience cuts. So, we recommended talking to the grantees, learning what was on their mind and identifying their biggest fears associated with decreased funding. Only by anticipating these concerns could we take the time to think about the implications, develop a plan to mitigate any challenges and soften the landing.

Another important element of an issues management plan is knowing what not to do. In an emergency, do you leap toward the exit door that you see first in front of you or do you check to learn whether the exit behind you is a better choice? There will be times when it is in the best interest of the organization to not respond directly to a critic. Consider the following: Does your potential adversary have more to gain from your organization responding to their issue? Will it bolster credibility to their side of the equation? Will your response add fuel to the flames? It is essential to outline scenarios that do not warrant action so you don’t make your situation worse by heading toward the wrong exit.

Taking a proactive approach to issues management helps organizations to:

• Identify a potential trend or vulnerability in the environment that could negatively impact an organization’s reputation or its positioning with key audiences.

• Use research to anticipate how important stakeholders will react to different messages, materials and channels.

• Identify potential friends, foes and fence-sitters in earned and social media and among stakeholder groups.

• Control the message, prepare spokespersons and effectively manage issues before they become crises.

Our team has worked closely with associations, foundations, corporations and nonprofits to identify and manage important issues and bolster their reputations. These efforts require a plan of the possible scenarios and responses that are grounded in research.

To assure your survival, plan ahead, sort through the chaos now and make sure that you wear the right shoes.

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Sharon M. Reis is Principal with The Reis Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm focused on healthcare and social causes. She can be reached at SReis@TheReisGroup.com.