By Brent Adams

The office phone rings and it’s a reporter on the other end of the line. He wants to speak to someone about the recent massive recall of romaine lettuce that USDA inspectors have traced back to your farm. You were just informed of the subsequent inspection results less than 24 hours earlier, and the time since has been a whirlwind, working with inspectors and informing wholesalers and employees.

Dealing with the media, frankly, was the last thing on your mind, but here you are, confronted with a crisis you can’t duck.

Holly Carter, president and CEO of Fresno, California-based crisis communications firm Carter & Co. Ag Communications Inc. said that in the midst of a calamity is the wrong time to begin formulating a crisis communication strategy.

Such a strategy should be implemented much the same way a business purchases liability or business interruption insurance—from the time the business is established, in hopes that it never is needed.

“We try to really drive it home over and over again that we really need to get our communication efforts organized and in order so that we can communicate with our customers, our stakeholders, our vendors, whoever we need to whenever a crisis happens,” Carter said, adding that many business owners discount the importance of having such a plan in place.

“It’s difficult to get people to step up and do it on the front end, but boy, they sure are fast to jump to it once something goes wrong,” Carter said.

Putting a plan in place 

A starting point in devising a crisis communication plan is an honest and thorough vulnerability assessment, Carter said.

“The first thing to do is to figure out all the ways that your business could fail,” Carter said. “Try to bridge the gap you identify and make sure that you have an answer for that.”

Business operators also need to understand that even the most comprehensive plan might not adequately address every crisis scenario.

“There will be things that will just plain go wrong that we can’t control,” Carter said. “There’s all kinds of those things going on in the world today. I mean, for heaven’s sake, never before have we been in a world where the president tweets out something and a company’s stock takes a dive. There are just so many things business owners have to deal with now.”

When a crisis arises, business owners should be prepared to communicate what went wrong what they are doing to rectify the situation, and steps to ensure there will not be a similar occurrence in the future, Carter said. This should be done as soon as possible.

“Just something as simple as having the email addresses or the cell numbers of your customers is so important,” Carter said. “When you need to talk to them, you need to talk to them, and especially in the ag world, it’s just not common to have organized communication infrastructure in place, so when something does go wrong, you find a lot of them posting something maybe on their website about it, and really making people look hard to find information about what has happened. That seems to breed some distrust on the part of the public.”

Putting together an effective crisis communication plan begins with preparation.

“We need to be able to communicate with the people who are affected by what we do, and we need to be able to communicate with them effectively, we need to have anticipated what our most likely crises are and have some essential holding statements” prepared to distribute to the media,” Carter said. “It could be something as simple as ‘As you know, XYZ happened today. We are aware of this, we’ve launched an investigation, our top priority is the safety of our employees and we remain committed to’ and then say what your vision statement is, and then ‘We will be issuing a statement as soon as more information is available.’ That alone will stave off so many negative stories.”

She added that one of the worst approaches a company can take when confronted with a crisis is to hide or become evasive or abrupt with the media.

“It’s a common thing because your first instinct is to huddle up with your attorney or if you don’t have an attorney, get an attorney and their response to you is going to be “Just don’t say anything because that could put risk out there,” Carter said. “But in the world of public persuasion and reputation management, the most important thing is that the customer sees you as being approachable, visible, transparent, honest and proactive when a crisis hits.”

Doing the right thing in the face of a crisis can actually help build trust with consumers, Carter said.

“People are actually very forgiving,” she said. “Any time somebody goes through a crisis the public wants to forgive and get behind them and help them rebuild, so it’s just a matter of surrounding yourself with at least one person who has an understanding of that in your organization or train them to have that.”

See Tips for Crisis Communication Planning from Holly Carter in this post

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