The following transcript excerpt is Part 2 of an interview conducted by Chuck Gose of ICology with Paul Barton, ABC, on crisis communication.
CHUCK: Is there such a thing as over-communicating during crisis?
PAUL: Well I’m going to view that as somewhat of a trick question because I’m going to define communication as the ability to not just sending messages out, but actually getting through. And under that definition you cannot over-communicate. If you’re continuing to get through with new and valuable information, it helps employees respond quickly and appropriately, then you’re not over-communicating. If you’re sending messages out that are cluttering the information flow, then that’s a different story.
CHUCK: I didn’t mean it to be a trick question, but you provided a great answer. And then, sort of a little bit back to what we’re seeing now in social media. In a crisis, every minute, you could argue even every second, counts. There is, you would hope, typically a sense of urgency in this crisis, but talk a little bit about the tug-of-way between being quick and being urgent, but also being appropriate and accurate.
PAUL: Well, you’re under pressure, you’re completely out of time. When every person has a smartphone, it’s not seconds, there is no time. And the stakes are high because if you say the wrong thing it could really damage the company’s reputation or be a legal issue. So, you need to be not only quick in responding to get out in front of an issue, but you also need to have the appropriate correct messages. And there’s not one that’s more important than the other — they’re both critical. And the way you do that is to go through those five Ps that you need to predict the most likely crisis scenarios and prepare for those. And then obviously something could come up that wasn’t in your top-five list, but you should be able to take the things that you’ve developed for those top five most likely crises and easily adapt them for whatever came up that you hadn’t thought about. And usually that will give you a pretty quick and appropriate response.
CHUCK: Now another great idea that I’ve heard you share, which I think is really smart, sort of from that preparation standpoint, it encouraging communicators to get to know the EAP benefit within their company. And most people, this is sort of that employee assistance in line, or that program you have that, employees are having difficulties or trouble, they can call. I don’t think that a lot of communicators have thought about the role that that benefit would apply in a crisis. I think most just seem to know that it’s a number, and sort of that evergreen content you talked about before. People sort of share it. But there’s a story you have where the EAP was really critical to your company during a crisis.
PAUL: Yeah, we used it pretty extensively at PetSmart. And again, the employee assistance program is typically something run through an HR department. So you might want to coordinate with those folks. But the idea is that you identify a number of things in advance – that’s part of the preparation stage and the EAP program is one of them, so that you have the telephone numbers and the people in place that when a crisis hits you can easily deploy grief counselors to the scene pretty quickly. And again, that goes back to what I was talking about of it’s better to tell what action you are taking than what you’re not doing, and deploying grief counselors to the scene is a great action that shows heart and care and concern to help your employees out. But I think the story you’re referring to is probably my recounting of the famous armed robbery. He actually robbed a store in a shopping plaza. This was in Canada. It was nearby, but ran into a PetSmart trying to hide out. He was wielding a knife and he stabbed some people on his way to try to hide in the restroom. The Mounties came into the store, and he tried to make his way out. He ended up getting gunned down in the front vestibule of the store in front of all the employees and customers. Several of the employees had actually been stabbed as he was swinging his knife wildly. So there was a bit of shock there, but we were able to have grief counselors, as well as a bunch of other things in place. But we had grief counselors onsite within about 45 minutes to talk to customers and to employees.
CHUCK: Yeah, that’s a definition of a crisis being brought to your door, right? You’re just there. It wasn’t anything the company did other than existing in that location. Nothing the employees did other than show up to work. But that really shows again the sophistication and care of being able to deploy that as a true benefit and as a service to employees who should never have to see such an awful thing. But the world we live in, especially now, with what we’re seeing with threats being made around the world. You know, this is a time for communicators not to step up and bump your chest and show what a great communicator you are, but what an asset you can be to your company to help them through tragedy or crisis like that.
PAUL: We actually derived that in the wake of 9/11, when we thought we had a pretty good crisis plan at PetSmart. But we discovered a number of gaps that we filled in as a result of that. I think that kind of rewrote a lot of people’s crisis plans. Because you would think, how could 9/11, 2,000 miles away, affect corporate headquarters at PetSmart or an affect company like PetSmart. Like all big companies, we had employees who were traveling, who were stranded. We had a store that sat across the street from the Pentagon that actually shook when the plane hit. We had employees and their managers huddled in the back break room huddled underneath a table, praying together. We had live product including live fish and pets that were transported primarily by air cargo that were stranded on runways. So, you know, if affected us quite a bit. And I remember distinctly the day after 9/11, sitting with the chairman of the board of PetSmart, going through the Blue Pages of the phonebook in an effort to try to find some government numbers because we wanted to step in and help FEMA with search and rescue dog teams. And we didn’t even have a number for FEMA or for any government thing because we didn’t think that that was every anything that would affect us. Immediately after, we had all kinds of issues of employees who wanted to donate to charities, who wanted to donate blood, who wanted to donate money, and we had to scramble and create bank accounts and figure out where these people were. So we added all of those things to our plan, we were able to then, when a crisis came up, let people know the phone numbers and places to go like immediately. We didn’t have to stop and look that stuff up – where to go to a bank, and how to give a bank number to deposit to a particular charity immediately. Because if you have take 24 or 48 hours to set something like that up you’ve really lost momentum.
CHUCK: Well, and then, you know, policies and plans, and things like that, they’re not sexy, right. They’re not necessarily a lot of fun to create. But I think the examples you’ve given show the true business value and employee value that communicators can bring by having them as a helpful resource. So one of the things I want to make sure is that this podcast and the content is very scalable. So, you know, for a business of any size, this could be a business of 20 people. 200 people, 200,000 people, why is it important not just to have a communication policy during a crisis but to also communicate the policy itself, so that people know that it exists, and what it can do for them?
PAUL: I mean I think every company needs to have a communication policy and the time to create it is not in the midst of a crisis. The time to decide who can talk to the media and what they can say, who can participate in social media, is not in the midst of a crisis. You should do that in the cool, calm, collectedness. Give the lawyers plenty of time to review your policies. Give everybody plenty of time to debate it and have it ready to go. I think it’s a policy you should have in place year-round. But when a crisis hits it’s just a time to remind employees of the communion policy. You could just send out, along with the rest of your crisis materials, you could have a link, “Here’s a reminder of our communication policy,” and then determine what that is.
CHUCK: We always talk about internal communications, but I think you certainly demonstrated that in a crisis, the role that a communicator plays is so important and I think, again, what I take away from this is when you shared that when you’re needed most is when your company needs your best. And so that’s really when a communicator can step up not just show their worth during only a crisis, but that’s really when a company probably has the greatest need for you to be at your best. So I definitely do appreciate your advice. Thanks again for listening.
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Listen to the Full Interview
Crisis communication: Top 5 mistakes to avoid (IABC Communication World article)
Why Employee Communication is key during a Crisis (Paul Barton’s Interview with StaffConnect)
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