Consequences of failing to act

Depending on the size of your organization, an entire team devoted to crisis communication may not be feasible. Pamela Walaski, president of Pittsburgh-based consulting firm JC Safety & Environmental Inc., said one solution is to make crisis communication part of the emergency response plan. She said she has found that small organizations that put off crisis communication planning usually say: “We’re too small; we don’t have the resources” or “We’re too busy right now; we’ll get to that later.” Whatever the excuse, she noted, if a significant incident occurs, the employer likely will regret not taking time to prepare.

A study conducted by Keri Stephens, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, shows what can happen when customers do not receive adequate information from a company during a crisis. The study, published in the Journal of Public Relations Research (Vol. 21, No. 2), focused on a 2007 pet food recall. The pet food maker put very little information on its website and told people to check back or call a toll-free number. The number was busy, and angry pet owners turned to blogs and began sharing information online about their own sick pets and products being recalled.

“They were creating their own information source because the company was not fast enough and it wasn’t accessible to them,” Stephens said.

Consumers even started swapping attorney information to pursue lawsuits against the pet food company. Some linked to official sources on the chemical in the pet food, while others questioned why chemicals were used at all and promoted going organic.

“They would take the message and spin it sometimes toward their business interest, their personal interest,” Stephens said. “The bottom line was that there wasn’t enough information that people thought was reliable, and it wasn’t updated quickly enough so they created their own lists.”

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