Turning Image Crises Into Solutions-Oriented Campaigns

With events like the 1973 energy crisis, the Exxon -Valdez oil spill of 1989, skyrocketing oil and gas prices in 2008 and the ongoing conversation surrounding climate change and energy conservation, the oil and energy sectors know a thing or two about crises—some would say they’ve written the book. Given today’s increasingly stringent regulatory environment for industries of all shapes and sizes, executives across the board need to be well versed in crisis management, even if they aren’t in traditionally risk-prone sectors like oil and energy.

Which is why professionals with this background are well equipped to educate all communicators about the ins and outs of crisis management in an increasingly turbulent business environment. Take the executives at multinational chemical company LyondellBasell Industries. After witnessing the aftermath of BP’s Texas City Refinery explosion in 2005, the team at LyondellBasell realized the staggering importance of advanced planning.

“The [Texas Refinery Explosion of 2005] prompted our public affairs team to conduct a global media training program,” says Aaron Woods, regional PR manager at LyondellBasell. “We placed stronger emphasis on regional public relations manager support, and we revised our crisis communications document and increased preparation.”

And it’s a good thing they did: On July 18, 2008, a 42-story crane operated by a contract company collapsed at LyondellBasell’s Houston Refinery, killing four and injuring seven. Within minutes of the collapse, the public affairs and corporate communications teams had swung into action, implementing the crisis plan and alerting the company’s regional PR managers. Just over an hour after the incident, divisional vice president Jim Roecker held the first of three press briefings that day—this in addition to a media interview with Reuters via phone, which took place less than 30 minutes after the collapse.

In the hours and days following the crisis, the team carried out the various crisis-response strategies that had been so carefully crafted and reiterated during previous training efforts.

With that in mind, then, communications executives should consider the following outline for turning a crisis into a solutions-oriented campaign:

â–¶ Take measures for advanced preparation, and expect the unexpected. LyondellBasell executives couldn’t have known in 2005 that their new commitment to crisis planning and training would help them survive a serious incident three years later, but they still invested time and money—and it paid off.

Likewise, all communications execs should conduct vulnerability assessments of their own organizations and industries. “List potential worst-case scenarios,” says Michael Konczal, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications. “Ask yourself what bad things could happen, and what the expected impact on the company’s reputation and credibility would be.”

â–¶ Take advantage of quiet times. “Use your peacetime wisely; assemble your crisis team now with representatives from all major departments,” Konczal says. “Determine who’s going to do what, when and how. And remember: If you can’t engage them at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, it’s not a crisis team.”

Konczal also recommends taking the following steps during proverbial peacetime:

• Know key stakeholders, journalists and regulators, and build relationships with them.

• Run crisis drills at least twice a year.

• Make regular deposits into the “bank of goodwill.”

• Participate in media/presentation training to learn to speak concisely and use sound bites that paint a picture.

â–¶ Take a moment to evaluate the situation and determine the proper response. When an incident does occur, immediate action is completely necessary, but executives still should pause and take stock of the situation to determine the best course of action.

“You have to distinguish whether it’s an issue, an emergency or a crisis,” Konczal says. “PR professionals must help determine what constitutes a crisis.”

â–¶ Be available and cooperative. Throughout the course of a crisis, constant communication with key stakeholders is crucial. The media should never be avoided; instead, tell them everything you can, even if that means repeating the same messages over and over again.

As for situations that involve regulators, “The more you cooperate, the less likely it is that they will make you a target,” Konczal says. “Their endorsement will speak volumes.”

â–¶ Don’t overlook the most important stakeholder group: employees. Employees become de facto spokespeople during a crisis no matter what, so senior management must keep them in the loop at all times and arm them with key messages. Other essential practices, according to Konczal:

• Encourage two-way communications, and provide mechanisms for employees to ask questions.

• Be consistent in messaging, and address rumors/misinformation quickly and aggressively.

• Involve senior management in internal responses, and make officials available to communicate directly with employees.

• Empower a select group of trusted employees throughout the organization to act as internal spokespeople, and make all communications channels available to them.

And, last but not least: “Be prepared for leaks,” Konczal says. “Expect that anything said to employees will make it outside the company. Never distribute anything you don’t want to see in tomorrow’s headlines.” PRN


Aaron Woods, aaron.woods@lyondellbasell.com; Adam Wine, adam.m.wine@uscg.mil; Michael Konczal, mkonczal@levick.com