PR Field Still Negotiating Post-9/11 Communications


Before the September 11 attacks, Aetna Inc had in place various crisis communications plans for unforeseen events like weather-related disasters and airline accidents. But in the immediate aftermath of that horrible day, Roger Bolton, senior VP/communications at Aetna, noticed that, all told, the insurer's plans left a lot to be desired. "We noticed that [the plans] were not well coordinated, a lot of the responsibilities had been dispersed, and our lists were out of place and hadn't been updated," said Bolton, who is also a board member and treasurer of the Arthur W. Page Society, which represents corporate PR executives. To improve its overall security Aetna in 2001 created its "Crisis Event Response Team," or CERT, which reports directly to Aetna President-CEO Dr. John W. Rowe. The group, led by a former head of internal audits at Aetna, consists of Aetna executives from the communications, legal, business continuity and auditing areas. Bolton regularly keeps abreast of CERT's efforts. "It's critically important for senior communications to be directly involved with other elements of the company in being prepared for a broad range of disasters," he said. "While it's clear that any scenario can be unexpected, having a developed plan in place makes it much less likely that you'll make it up as you go along" should havoc strike. The group helps to coordinate quarterly crisis simulations and is constantly fine-tuning key messages and talking points for different types of crises. It also works to determine what level of visibility each sort of crisis would require from the company's CEO. Aetna's crisis crew has even created the "Dirty Dozen," a list of disasters the company might encounter, including chemical and biological attacks. "Companies have to put in place much stronger security procedures post-9/11," Bolton said, "as a lot of senior communication leaders are focusing on the threat of terrorism." Three years after the 9/11 attacks, however, a consensus has emerged in mainstream media that many companies are lagging when it comes to corporate security, in which senior PR execs can play a vital role. And without any serious attacks on U.S. soil during the period since Sept. 11, there is also a sense that complacency may have set in -- when what's really needed is a sense of urgency. "Few corporations are as ready as stakeholders may want them to be to deal with a crisis on the magnitude of 9/11,"said Patricia Thorp, president of Coral Gables, Fla.-based PR firm Thorp & Company, one of the largest independent agencies in the country. "It's very hard to cover every base in one document and most companies have relatively generic plans." PR executives who experienced the fallout from 9/11 first-hand amplified Thorp's comments. "I'm not sure enough companies do enough in advance [for potential disasters], whether it's identifying the right spokesperson or that person's backup," said Caroline Duffy, a partner in Atlanta-based PR firm Jackson Spalding Communications, which handled communications for Delta Airlines following the 9/11 attacks. "The bottom line is planning," Duffy said when asked how PR executives can improve crisis preparations. PR executives "need to ask every division, 'What's your greatest nightmare?' That's how we start the conversation. We then talk to what needs to be done operationally and how customers would perceive the crisis plan." While most companies are prepared for traditional threats, like workplace violence and cyber attacks, they generally haven't been able to assess the new, man-made dangers they face today, according to Bill DiMartini, senior VP for professional services for SunGard Availability Services (Wayne, Pa.), which provides disaster recovery services for more than 10,000 customers. DiMartini said for those companies that are taking a proactive approach, the function among senior PR executives has changed dramatically. For instance, in conducting crisis exercises with client companies prior to 9/11, DiMartini noticed that messages for a company's stakeholders were crafted after the (simulated) incident. Yet since 9/11, communication execs have taken it upon themselves to have the messages at the ready prior to the disaster scenario. In doing so, it enables [PR] executives to get one step ahead of the game and have a well-developed message (for all stakeholders as well as the residing community) before anything dastardly happens. In another exercise, a CEO will announce to the troops that "it's not a matter if something will happen but when," DiMartini added. "That's the mindset you need to have, [but] it doesn't have to be a terrorist threat, but a blackout or hazardous materials that have spilled on a highway near your headquarters." Yet PR pros also have to be careful to strike the right balance between properly preparing for crisis and setting off any alarm bells both internally and externally. "The PR person is in a good position to remind the CEO that crisis plans can't sit on the shelf and can't be evergreens," Thorp added. In the event of a disaster "companies can lose face if they don't communicate their values." Contacts: Roger Bolton, 860.273.1704, Bolton@aetna.com; Caroline Duffy, 404.724.2515, cnduffy@jacksonspalding.com Bill DiMartini, 484.582.5787, william.dimartini@sungard.com; Patricia Thorp, 305.446.2700, pthorp@thorp.com

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