Hal Dash, Chris Gilbride, Brandon Stephenson
This piece authored by (L to R) Hal Dash, Chris Gilbride & Brandon Stephenson

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In the PR world, this adage rings especially true, especially in regard to a lack of good crisis planning in the energy and environmental arena.

Even today, too many companies do not have instantly deployable crisis communications plans, as well as a skilled implementation team, in case of an incident that could significantly hurt the company’s brand, reputation, image and earnings.

The energy and environment sector is particularly vulnerable to crisis situations because of the various kinds of projects they deal with: exploration, processing, distribution, transportation, etc. Accidents involving fires, explosions, leaks, discharges, emissions and construction glitches are often handled poorly, instantly leading to intense coverage across all platforms – television, radio, newspapers, online publications, social media, blogs plus on activist and community websites.

It’s amazing that in our current digital age, and with the sophistication of community and environmental activists, many businesses do not have crisis communication plans.

We’ve heard several explanations for this general lack of preparedness:

• Even though the economy has rebounded robustly in many sectors, the recession forced many businesses to down size, reorganize or merge, pushing communications planning aside.
• The ongoing transition from more senior practitioners that have left the sector to younger professionals that lack the real world experience with crisis communications.
• Many companies don’t see communications activities as a worthwhile investment, as it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line.
• Some believe that they can handle crises with whatever communications staff they have as a situation comes up, or worse … that high-profile incidents will never happen to them.

Regardless of the excuse, these corporations have been left vulnerable to PR catastrophes.

The digital age demands that companies have plans in place to rapidly assess crises as they unfold, and actively engage in the type of real-time dialogue that they aren’t accustomed to.

The convenience and prevalence of social media has made traditional media deadlines irrelevant. “Citizen reporters” are able to instantly share uncensored information, including photos and videos of breaking news events, with an enormous audience. Established news organizations are often quick to follow, covering events breaking on social media and filling airtime with talking heads and speculation while they wait for an official response.

This atmosphere can make it challenging for companies to frame the story or manage the public narrative during the early stages of an emergency, but it doesn’t have to.

Social media tools like Twitter and Instagram can provide decision makers with invaluable situational awareness about unfolding events that they may have waited hours for in years gone by. The next time you hear about a breaking news event, try searching for it on Twitter. In seconds, you will likely find photos, videos, and a host of comments and opinions about the situation. That is the exact information that can help companies assess a situation and craft preliminary messages to engage their stakeholders.

The bottom line is that companies responding to crisis situations risk having their story be told by someone else if an emphasis is not placed on providing timely, frequent and accurate updates during emergencies.

This is especially true as tech-savvy activists who live, eat and breathe environmental justice, weigh in on any industrial accident. Many of these activists are also subject-matter experts with technical knowledge who can jump into a crisis instantly, grab the headlines and direct the conversation.

Over the years, our firm has seen an incredible growth in the sophistication and knowledge of established advocacy groups, who have also become strong advocates with the media, elected officials and regulators. This expertise has now filtered down to community groups and neighborhood councils all over our state and across the country.

The focus and effectiveness of today’s advocacy tools — websites, e-newsletters, social media, blogs and other digital platforms — is truly amazing. These groups can now use digital tools to immediately rally, organize and mobilize a community when a crisis situation occurs.

Corporations in the energy and environment sector are so often slow to respond to a crisis just because of their size and inability to move quickly. Many management levels at a company often have to weigh in on appropriate responses, as well as outside counsel, with an eye not only toward the crisis but also shareholders’ reactions and the bottom line.
This is just one reason why energy and environment businesses are often beaten to the punch by more nimble environmental organizations, activists and community groups.

Just recently, there have been numerous examples of multinational corporations fumbling crisis situations: BP, Pacific Gas and Electric in the energy space, as well as Facebook, FIFA, Malaysia Airlines, NFL, Sony, Lufthansa, General Motors, VW and Chipotle in other sectors of the economy. The list is long, but is in no way complete.

What these organizations have in common is that they were slow to respond, muddled their messages, did not take responsibility, and/or failed to drive the conversation or the direction of the issue(s). As a result, they ended up behind the curve and, in some cases, still have not fully recovered.

We’ve seen this trend consistently over the decades and we are constantly amazed at how little has changed in the lack of crisis management preparedness and training both here and abroad. And companies in the environmental sector seem to lag behind in having robust crisis plans and teams ready to go when an incident occurs, even though catastrophic events can have more lasting impacts than incidents in non-energy spaces.

Just as these negative traits run rampant among corporations that have botched crisis situations, there are trends that are consistent in companies that understand how to plan for a crisis and manage it.

Companies that respond well uniformly have a dedicated person or persons who own crisis communications activities; they have an up-to-date plan with messaging, scenarios and an identified spokesperson(s); and either internal or external digital expertise that can be turned on instantly.

To further protect their brand, these successful companies have an engaged CEO who is media savvy and can engage with their communities, elected officials, regulators and the media. Finally, they have established relationships within their communities, established by their community relations team that can quickly be deployed when an incident occurs.
Even though we shouldn’t be, we’re still surprised that most clients don’t have a crisis management plan. This is unacceptable in this evolving digital communications age.

As public affairs and public relations counselors, it is our responsibility to immediately begin exploring potential crisis issues and how best to manage them from a PR perspective. Ask all of your clients, but especially those in this sector, the following questions to determine if a plan must be created or refreshed, why your client must have one and what the price tag will be:

• What could go wrong in your business?
• Do you have a crisis plan?
• If you don’t, why not?
• If you do, when was it refreshed, rehearsed, etc.?
• Who is in charge of managing each crisis scenario?
• Have you practiced rapidly responding to a crisis?
• What is your level of digital expertise and does it have a place in an existing plan?

Crisis communications plans need to have all these elements: strong and focused messaging that can evolve as a situation changes; a high-level spokesperson and other company contacts with expertise in the specific crisis situation; scenarios of what could go wrong and a team assigned to specific roles.

If you or your client does not have current digital communications skills, you must find that resource ASAP! Your adversaries communicate digitally 24/7 and so do your supporters and stakeholders. Yet, many firms are so far behind in their digital capabilities and knowledge that they would enter a crisis situation with two strikes already against them.

Both agency and client staff must also be up-to-speed on environmental rules, regulations, relevant agencies, information, local community groups, and elected officials who represent a facility. Are your lists up to date so you can you get out a message instantly from your company through digital portals? All of these entities will invariably jump on an incident, and generally take the side of the community versus the industry, which makes getting out in front of a crisis situation mandatory. And they use every platform social media has to offer. So should you and your client!

At the end of the day, good crisis planning, preparation and execution is an incredibly valuable and priceless service that public affairs firms can provide their clients. Don’t hesitate to discuss this issue with them and guide them toward constructing a plan. The digital age and their very survival demands it. And there is no time like the present, because the clock is ticking.

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Hal Dash is Chairman and CEO of Cerrell Associates. Brandon Stephenson is Chief Strategic Officer and Chris Gilbride is a Senior Public Affairs Director at Cerrell Associates.