Monterey Bay Aquarium’s PR Chief Sounds Warning for Organizations With No Crisis Plan

This still-young year has felt like a midtown traffic scrum of competing, colliding crises, stoked by the overheated engine of a new presidential administration. Brands are nervously checking Twitter, seeing if the president has mentioned them for any reason, and if other pitched political voices are either supporting boycotts or defending them for any reason.

This is on top of the usual fears from brands: data breaches, product recalls, layoffs, rogue employees, indiscreet CEOs. The list goes on.

I was talking the other day about this with Randy Brasche, VP of marketing for media monitoring company Zignal Labs. He’s seen a change in the first weeks of 2017. “There’s been more business for us, which may be a good thing on one level,” he said. “But it’s scary out there.”

Shortly after that call I got on the phone with Ken Peterson, communications director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium who, like Randy, is a keen observer of trends in crisis communications and a fervent believer in formal crisis planning. I told Ken that 48% of respondents to a 2016 survey that PR News conducted with Nasdaq Corporate Solutions said they either lack a crisis communications plan or don’t know if they have one. Those survey results are no less shocking nearly a year later. Here’s what Ken said about the dangers inherent in a lack of formal crisis planning in the Trump era—or in any era.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, communications director, Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson, communications director, Monterey Bay Aquarium

PR News: How do you get started with creating a formal crisis plan if you’re a PR professional who sits squarely in the camp of the 48% who say they either don’t have a crisis plan or, perhaps even worse, are unsure if they have one?

Ken Peterson: All of us who are PR professionals are thinking about communication messages all the time. We’re developing press releases, talking points, we want to stay on message in situations where we have a specific story we want to tell. A crisis is no different, except that the story is not one that we’ve chosen to tell, and the timing is not under our control. But it’s even more important that we are thinking about how we are going to craft and send messages about those stories. We want to do it as well or better than any other story we tell about our organizations. So the starting point for people who have no crisis plan is for them to realize how fundamentally important it is to the survival of their organization that they have a plan in place. You need to get the key decision makers on board with that realization. A crisis affects not just how we’re perceived—it affects our financial health, the operations of our business, the employees who work there. So all of these parts of the organization have to be committed to a crisis response plan that includes communications.

PR News: How do you ensure that you are the person to lead the way in your organization and create a crisis plan—that PR is in charge?

Ken Peterson: For us at the Monterey Bay Aquarium it’s making sure that we have leadership buy-in and that all of the people involved in communications—PR, social media, any channel of communication—are at the table and ready to deliver messaging to their audiences in a time of crisis. We’re fortunate in Monterey because the PR pros are looked to as the ones to develop and shape those messages.

PR News: At the aquarium you’ve succeeded at working across departments to develop a crisis plan. How have you managed to build those bridges to other departments?

Ken Peterson: We bring the entire crisis response team together at least once a year. We do tabletop exercises based on realistic scenarios of crises we could face. And we make sure during the course of those exercises that we communicate with all of those groups we will need to draw on during a crisis. It’s like a football team practicing and drilling the plays they want to run, imagining how they’re going to respond. We’re not leaving it to chance that we can wing it and succeed in the moment.

PR News: Is there one particular potential crisis that is worrying crisis managers right now? A growing threat in 2017?

Ken Peterson: Any crisis has the potential to take down any company today because everything is unfolding at the speed of social media in real time. It can be a shooting, it can be a problem with food you’re serving, it can be an intemperate remark from your CEO about a topic in the news. Our reputations are more vulnerable today because we have less time to recover. There are examples of this every week now. In that context, it’s more important than ever to be prepared and have a process that gets you on message and keeps you on message, and to have the best messengers for the organization— the PR professionals—working hand in hand with the entire executive leadership team so your organization can weather any crisis in any form. It’s not a nice thing to do—it’s a critical thing to do for the long-term health of your organization.

Ken Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Randy Brasche of Zignal Labs will be joining me for a session on building crisis teams at PR News’ Crisis Management Boot Camp on Feb. 23 in Huntington Beach, CA.

—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI