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APCO Worldwide's senior vice president and director of litigation communications offers a wide variety of solid counsel on planning for and responding to a crisis. In creating a crisis-communications plan, he recommends going off site for a day with the general counsel and representatives from the public affairs department, the affected product line and the specialty area. The CEO should attend at least part of the meeting to give the plan his or her blessing; otherwise the plan will sit on the shelf.
Assessing risk: Identify a "red quadrant" event — the event that is most likely to go wrong and has the potential to destroy business. Also, look for over-the-horizon events. These are events that scare the general counsel — where opposition lawyers will come your way or that are a threat to another company and have a high risk of hitting you as well. Listen to employees and ponder the questions that government regulators and officials are asking of your industry right now.
Creating the crisis-communications plan: Develop principles, much like those contained in Johnson & Johnson's famous credo, because they will help a lot when a gray area develops in decision-making. Define what constitutes a crisis and what constitutes an incident. Determine if you have an incident team and a crisis team. Determine who will comprise the crisis team, and create the team around the expertise you will need plus the personalities involved. Select your spokespeople.
Logistically, develop a communications tree with everyone's phone numbers on it, including cell phones and Blackberries, and ensure they are updated. Contact a local motel or hotel and inform the proprietor that there may come a day when you will need all the rooms and you'll pay what he or she wants. Establish a war room and make sure there are enough phone lines in it. When planning the war room's food, don't just stock sweets and coffees but include fruit and hot food. After 12-hour stints, the effects of sweets and coffee can be numbing. Establish a separate press room away from the war room so that the media don't know who is in the war room.
Determine the outside help you will need for any type of crisis, possibly including outside counsel, an environmental clean-up facility, mental health workers for trauma victims, among others. Select and train spokespeople. Identify who they are and determine when they will be used. When, for instance, might a plant manager become the chief spokesperson?
Interface: Figure out how you cry help. Who gets notified up the chain and what do they need to know? Who has the authority to make decisions and who has what resources? Determine at what point you put the CEO in a corporate jet to the crisis situation.
Testing the plan: Plan a day-long mock scenario and get the word out countrywide to ensure that everyone understands you are prepared. Revise the plan and determine how often it should be reexamined.