PR News Q&A: C-Suite Getting Serious About Crisis Planning

Public Affairs executives must stay on top of the most urgent issues hitting the headlines like healthcare and economic turmoil. But Eliot Hoff, Senior Vice President for APCO Worldwide, prefers to prepare for issues way before they hit the headlines. Hoff specializes in developing plans and management strategies so his clients are ready to respond before a crisis hits. Hoff will share some of his strategies as a panelist at the PR News’ Public Affairs Conference on May 25 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In the following Q&A, Hoff touches on some of the topics he’ll be covering in the panel discussion, “Preparing for the Unexpected – Crisis Communications in 2010.”

PR News: Are crisis plans being taken more seriously on a corporate level?

Eliot Hoff: Yes, C-suite executives are taking more responsibility for crisis planning, especially after the financial meltdown and other high-profile crises that had a clear impact on the bottom line of almost every company. Communications in general is receiving a more prominent role in companies. One former CEO of a major consumer goods company told me that the only thing he would have done differently would have been to move communications from marketing into his portfolio. The issues and crises that he faced were drivers of the reputation, and ultimately the bottom line of his company.

PR News: What can PR executives do to get organizations to understand the importance of these plans?

Hoff: Organizations only need to read the news, from whatever source they like, to understand the importance of crisis preparedness—a couple of examples of what’s being faced by their peer group and they will get the message. However, they also need to understand that even with a strong crisis communications plan, each crisis is unique and preparation will only take them so far. The success of handling a crisis is not how well a company was prepared, but the execution during the event.

PR News: When creating a plan, what is a common blind spot? What do most people overlook?

Eliot Hoff: It is critical to make sure that all stakeholders and audiences are considered in the planning. There are the obvious stakeholders, possibly employees, customers and investors, but there are also members of Congress, local officials, regulators, competitors. It is interesting to see who becomes important in a crisis situation.

PR News: How are you measuring the success of your plans?

Hoff: The success of our plans is measured in two ways: (1) how they work when executed and (2) how comfortable the company executives are with the preparedness. One of the main goals of a crisis plan is to feel ready so business can move along as usual.

PR News: If you were training someone to create a plan, what would be the first thing you would tell them?

Hoff: Listen to the client—they know more about their business than you do. Take their cues and base your plan on their realistic needs.

PR News: What's the one PR tool public affairs executives should have in their back pocket?

Hoff: A strong, smart, committed and connected team.

Attend PR News’ Public Affairs Conference on May 25 and learn more from experts like APCO’s Eliot Hoff.