Crisis Communications Since 9/11: Where Do We Stand Now?

Op-ed submitted by Howard J. Rubenstein, Founder, Rubenstein Associates

On September 11, 2001 a few hate-filled individuals changed history for millions by destroying the World Trade Center (owned and operated by my longtime client, Larry Silverstein). Not only the larger sweep of history, but also the mindset of millions of individual Americans was forever transformed.

This change directly affects my approach to public relations. No longer can we wait in relative security until there’s a new crisis. Instead, public relations professionals have to begin advising clients on how to anticipate and prepare for a crisis that doesn’t yet exist—and that could take any number of forms, including terrorism, pandemics and economic downturn. We now need to be more serious and attentive than ever before. This transformation increases the value of having ready at hand a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for meeting a crisis of any type.

First off, when you see early signs of a brewing crisis, take them seriously. These signs might take various forms: information from an outside source, warnings from whistleblowers or disgruntled employees within a company, media calls, inquiries from government entities, etc. Whatever form they take, don’t ever assume they’ll go away if you avoid them. To the contrary, be as proactive as possible.

In other words, prepare in advance. Put together a crisis team composed of management, legal personnel, communications experts and human resources professionals. Designate one or two people who will respond to media calls. Once the team is together, ask yourselves, “What’s the right thing to do?” rather than, “What do we say?” Gather all the facts you can and identify the audiences you want to communicate with. These could include readers, public officials, stockholders, employees, the general public, etc. Respond quickly and, most important, accurately to all queries. Set the ground rules with reporters before you talk and, wherever possible, prepare written responses rather than winging it. But get the bad news out quickly—avoid “water torture.”

What you don’t want to do is lie, adopt a bunker mentality, automatically say “no comment” (doing so implies guilt) or make up answers. Never fight with reporters or gossip with them. Remember: The reporter has the last word in print and gossip almost always gets out.

If you put together your own aggressive crisis communications plan along the above lines, you’ll have a good chance of minimizing the damage of negative news. An Oxford University study found that corporations that managed crises effectively enhanced their stock prices while those that handled the crisis poorly damaged them.

September 11th got public relations professionals thinking about survival in a whole new way. You could say that because of the larger crisis in which the world is locked right now, we have more responsibility than ever before to manage those crises that can be controlled as professionally and effectively as possible. Public relations has become a key back-up system, like an emergency generator, that more and more people realize they can’t do without.

Howard Rubenstein founded Rubenstein Associates in 1954. The agency has an extensive list of over 450 clients, including the New York Yankees, The New York Post, the Guggenheim Museum, BMW, the Mt. Sinai/NYU Health System, the Bowery Mission, Rockefeller Center, Columbia University and the Empire State Building.

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