n

othing is perfect. So when problems—accidents, product recalls or other crises—occur, a corporation or privately held company doesn’t have to suffer fatal damage to its brand and/or reputation. Just remember the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

That’s the mantra of public relations firms that offer crisis-management and crisis-preparation programs. These PR services have become increasingly important in recent years, even before the recent Bridgestone/Firestone-Ford debacle made worldwide headlines and prime time.

“Companies should anticipate a worst-case scenario and make plans in advance to handle it,” says Robin Cohn, president of Robin Cohn and Co., a New York public relations firm that specializes in crisis management and crisis preparation.

Smart companies, says Cohn, need to know how to handle a systematic product recall, the media and everyone affected by the crisis, including consumers and the affected company’s employees.

Also critical to successful crisis management, says Cohn, is to act quickly, provide the media with accurate, credible information and provide access to senior management.

“The outcome of a crisis depends on the top people, the CEO and president of the company,” says Cohn. “If they don’t buy into responsible action, the rest of the company won’t either.”

Cohn, who founded her firm in 1989, managed her first major crisis as director of public relations for Air Florida in 1982. On Jan. 13 of that year an Air Florida 737 crashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Seventy-four people were killed. “Even if you’re prepared—and we were—it was a shock,” says Cohn.

“I was talking to the media right away,” she recalls. “We set up a press room, brought in food, distributed press kits with background information. It was before cell phones, so it was hard to get information. We had a group designated to work with the families [of passengers and crew] and they did a remarkable job, notifying them and flying them up to the scene.”

Because Air Florida’s president and CEO was in Seattle at the time, Cohn asked the next senior person, the executive vp, who had also been prepared for such a crisis, to act initially as company spokesman.

The press room was kept open for the duration of the crisis and by the end of the week, the media had all the information it needed, says Cohn.

Since the Air Florida crash, however, a new communications tool—the Internet—has become an integral part of any crisis-management plan.

“A lot of the advance preparation work we do includes modeling how the client’s Web site should look during a crisis,” says Matthew Harrington, president of Edelman Public Relations, New York, who heads up the firm’s crisis-management group.

“We try to identify all the audiences and constituents that might be impacted by a crisis,” he says. “The Web is very helpful for this. We also try to assess through the Web where the [affected] company is likely to generate community chat rooms and what online news sources we want to reach.”

For example, the Web played a crucial role in a recent crisis managed by Harrington: the Odwalla juice contamination. Odwalla is a natural juice manufacturer and an industry leader. In November 1997, e-coli bacteria was discovered in its apple juice and consumers in Colorado, California and Washington state were affected.

“I was the project manager, and we put up a Web site within 12 hours of the start of the crisis,” says Harrington. “This served the needs of the consuming public and gave them access to information from the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and the CDC [Center for Disease Control] on e-coli and background information on the company.”

“Over the past few years, crisis management and crisis preparation have taken on new importance,” says Cohn. “And after these recent public relations disasters [Firestone, Ford], there’s even more recognition among companies of the necessity for a crisis-management plan to be in place before a crisis occurs.”