How to prepare for a crisis

First, you get a phone call. A police officer is on the other end. She explains your son went head-over-heels off his bicycle and is in the hospital. He lost consciousness briefly and is beat up. His friend, with whom he was biking, is with him and will call soon.

You prepare for the drive to the hospital, lingering for the call from the friend. Five minutes later, you haven’t heard from the kid. You call the hospital instead and you explain. The receptionist sounds concerned and connects you to the emergency room. You again explain why you’re calling and the nurse says to wait and puts you on hold.

How to prepare for a crisisThat gives you time to think. And to wonder why no one is coming to the phone. You try hard not to imagine the worst.

A short time later, another nurse comes on and listens as you give her the details of your concern one more time. She says your son is getting ready for a CT scan. He’s awake and is probably concussed. The scan is to check for broken bones or bleeding on the brain, but all things considered, he’s doing OK.

I walked downstairs to tell my wife, and broke down in her arms. She held me, and then we drove to the hospital.

I try to separate my personal and private life, but after we got through this family crisis (he’s fine and will recover fully) I compared these moments to the crises that occasionally threaten my organization’s reputation, and found many similarities.

Comparing home and work

In both instances, it helps to stay calm.

While everyone else is running around, your job as a PR person is to gather the information that will explain what is going on, steady everyone’s nerves if possible, and work on the future, immediate and long-term.

Like others on the crisis team, you will have to communicate with first-responders or lawyers, and keep communication flowing to your entire team.

And you can plan, but just as with crises that might hit your family, corporate disasters don’t fall into a neat box. You won’t have all the answers right away and people and events will careen out of control in ways you hadn’t imagined. You’ll have to adapt quickly and professionally, even if those around you are not.

Tabletop exercises, in which the team reacts to information or events prepared by a seminar leader, can be useful because they prepare team members to adjust to unexpected information and control emotions. It also helps to put together a list of reminders that you can quickly refer to when a crisis is unfolding and you are preparing to talk to the media. My to-do list

  • Be the calm one
  • Express empathy
  • Remember you are part of a team and you have to work with others in your organization even if they are being unreasonable
  • Nothing goes as planned
  • Think beforehand about what media will ask
  • Respond only to what is asked (Don’t blab)
  • Don’t answer questions you don’t know, or that are not in your scope of expertise

If you are the PR person, you will be in the center of the next disaster, asking questions, making calls, trying to figure out what to do next. As is the case with parenting, you may not be naturally fit for the job, but once you choose it, you had better start learning and practicing, for the good of everyone.

About Paul

I grew up in Marin County, California, and moved to Connecticut to join The News-Times, a community newspaper in Danbury where I eventually served as editor for 10 years. I joined Western Connecticut State University and ran the PR and development offices. I now serve as director of community relations and public affairs. I have four kids, all with the same wife, and now run Writing Associates, a consulting service that makes writing easier for my clients.