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Whether you are part of a large corporation or a small family business, no one is exempt from a crisis. Information is passed to the public through the media, and news is, to some degree, a negative product.

Crises appear in the news all the time--the U.S. Air crash in Los Angeles, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, product tampering, and a variety of lawsuits. If something were to happen at your place of business, would you be prepared? It's too late to develop a crisis plan once the crisis hits. You need to have a plan in place with professionals "on call," know how to communicate both internally and to the media, know who the "quarterback" is going to be to get you through this stressful time and what message you'll want to transmit.

This crisis or disaster plan should be developed by a "team" and communicated to all appropriate parties. A crisis plan needs to have systems developed to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, internally and externally, before and after a crisis strikes.

When I was called in to Waco, Texas, to handle the media relations for a large organization a week after the ATF shoot-out at the Davidian cult compound, I found out the organization already had a crisis communications plan. It was on paper, but either no one knew about it or they didn't know how to activate it. So my job the first day was to try to "undue" some of the damage to their public image which had been created during that first week

Proactive media and community relations programs should be part of your comprehensive disaster plan. Having an on-going public relations program with pre-existing, positive relationships with the media and your community will help minimize the impact of many crises.

During a crisis, you'll be dealing with perceptions as much as, or more than, realities. The main thing to remember is--expect the unexpected. Internally, you'll need to "over communicate" to strengthen your internal team and for rumor control. Providing no information leaves a vacuum which is quickly filled with speculation--usually erroneous.

It may be hard to keep up with all of the media demands, especially if the story is national in scope., If appropriate, use this opportunity to pitch positive stories and angles. This may help to re-focus media attention and position your facility more positively. Try to make your response "proactive" rather than reactive. This gives you additional, positive coverage, allows you more control over the media and enhances your long-term media and community relationships.

Activating your crisis plan does not necessarily mean a "negative" event has happened. Winning the lottery could constitute a crisis. Many times, the heavy volume of media attention received connected with an event--be it a crisis or not--can create it's own crisis. If you're in the media spotlight, there are definitely ways to turn that to your advantage and do more than just answer reporters' questions. Some simple media training in advance is not only a good precautionary step, but can also be fun!

Obviously, you can't afford to keep a media crisis relations expert on staff or retainer. Be sure to work out the details of your working relationship and fees with an agency or consultant in advance. The key to the entire concept is to have the plan in advance. Don't let a crisis turn into a disaster.

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