How to Manage a PR Disaster

Last Updated Mar 21, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

By Herb Schaffner
As the catastrophic events in Japan continue to unfold, the question arises: how should you handle it if your company is enmeshed in a public disaster? BNET blogger Ira Kalb argues General Electric, which designed the troubled nuclear plants, should use fact procedure to restore its damaged image, while BNET blogger Kimberly Weisul explain why corporate apologies often fall short.

When it comes to crisis public relations, however, Robert Dilenschneider is a leading authority. He is the author of many books, including The AMA Handbook of Public Relations, and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, the public relations firm. (Disclosure: I published Dilenschneider, when I was an editor at McGraw-Hill.) So I contacted to see what thoughts he might have. In an email, Dilenschneider discussed everything from what the U.S. nuclear industry should be doing (but isn't) to how to calm a jittery public.

Q: You have counseled many CEOs on crisis management. Is Japan's nuke crisis really different from others?
Dilenschneider: This is a unique crisis--it happens once every few decades. It is also a crisis of incredible dimension in terms of loss of human life. The executives involved in handling this need to have a level of endurance and stamina that is required of few others. That is because things are changing and evolving so quickly.
There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to crisis communications. Everything is customized and that is certainly true in spades for what is taking place in Japan today. In the case of Japan, the first step is for the government and utility executives to tell all, and tell it fast.
Q: So how do you "tell it all," when, as in the case with Japan, the facts are changing?
Dilenschneider: The coverage is really scaring people because they don't understand precisely what terms like "meltdown" and "radiation" really mean. [Without context,] people can seriously over-react. For example, radiation is all around us, and we get short dosages of radiation from X-Rays and the like...This is not to minimize in any way the potential hazards; but when people are already afraid and in shock, the Japanese government, Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the nuclear plants), and the media need to communicate in clear detail what kinds of radiation are more dangerous and why.
Q: What else should they be doing?
Dilenschneider: The people in charge--in this case the utility and government executives in Japan--need to get together and make an exhaustive list of all the potential issues with their responses to each. No issue should be left unanswered and none should be avoided because it is uncomfortable. Every issue raised must be addressed with the public.
Q: A lot of critics complain that Tepco and the government are not doing that.
Dilenschneider: Part of the problem with what is happening in Japan is that the government and utility leaders are receiving and processing lots of information, without a strategy for releasing it. Therefore, every few hours something new emerges. The public is getting dribs and drabs of news. That powers that be at the site need to put a stake in the ground and create an informational platform--a comprehensive, fact-based position with as much detail as needed, that should be above challenge, and a platform for all communications that follow.
That, in turn, will begin to create calm and certainty over what unfolds going forward.
Q: What, if anything, should the nuclear industry in the US be saying or doing?
Dilenschneider: The crisis that occurred in Japan is a nuclear crisis, but its impact is essentially emotional for most Americans and others around the world. The nuclear industry needs to respond calmly and empathetically to win emotional arguments. They need to reach out to their employees, investors, suppliers and others with an interest in what they do and reassure them that matters are under control. They should let customers know that they have the situation in hand and set up 800 lines and online access so those with questions can get them answered. They should not wait for the media to call them. They should brief the press every six hours on the tiniest details of what is taking place, and demonstrate why they have it in hand.

Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Twitter and Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins.
image courtesy of flickr user, ssoosay
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.