The sky really is falling — what do you do?

It’s not something I like to think about, and you probably don’t either. But sometimes really terrible things happen. We need look no further than the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy to see that. So, when I had the chance recently to talk to crisis management expert Susan Tellem, I hit her up for an article to give us some advice on preparing for the worst, before it happens — and hopefully, it wont.

It’s crisis time – do PMA members really need to be prepared?

By Susan M. Tellem, APR

Once upon a time, many business owners small and large thought that Hurricane Sandy would be just a blip on the weather radar. Sadly, it killed people and left homeowners and businesses either totally demolished or in total disarray. Millions of dollars of inventory was destroyed or blew away. This incident was followed closely by the Petraeus affair which took on a life of its own because of email trails. Boy Scouts. Tickle Me Elmo. BP. The crisis list is endless.

So ask yourself before you read further: Has my business thought about crisis preparedness? Am I prepared to face a business interruption via a crisis? Do I know how to talk with media once a crisis occurs?

If you answered yes to those three questions, do not bother reading further. But if learning about crisis preparedness and management is something you have been meaning to do, the following information should get you started on the right track.

Typical Business Crises

A crisis takes everyone involved by surprise – it’s a sudden, unplanned series of events. We can all agree that 9/11 was one of the top crises of all time. Almost no one was ready for an event of that scope. But you can plan for typical crises that can affect your business, such as:

• Fire

• Power outage

• Natural disaster

• Bomb threat

• Harassment

• Shooting or other crimes

• Employee or managerial misconduct

The Crisis Plan

Don’t feel bad if you don’t have a crisis plan in writing. Many companies, even Fortune 500 companies don’t. But just like an employee policy manual, you need a written crisis plan to follow when the bad thing happens. It does not need to be a huge tome. In fact, you are more likely to crack it open and follow it, if it is succinct and easy to implement.

There are a number of crisis plans on the internet that as a small company, you can adapt to your own situation. Just grab one and fill in your relevant information.

Larger companies should consider hiring a crisis expert to do an complete audit and draft a plan that is tailored to your company. You will need a top to bottom survey of past incidents and what could go wrong today, as well as rehearsals to make sure that the plan works well.

Who’s on Your Crisis Team?

Being in charge doesn’t mean you should stand alone in a crisis. In fact, more than likely you will be up to your eyeballs in alligators so pick team members who can think on their feet, have relevant experience, know how to talk to media and are close geographically to the business. They should be able to gather together quickly to implement the crisis preparedness program.

Keep Employees in the Loop

When we were young, most of us played the “telephone” game and it demonstrated how messages become garbled as they move through the telephone line. The rumor mill churns wildly in a crisis, and with the advent of social media, it is easily out of control within hours if not minutes.

This means employees know what will happen in a crisis – where to go, how to get information from a reliable source, and what they can or cannot say during a crisis and to whom. Most companies I work with have a strict “media” policy – meaning who can talk to the media and who cannot.

It’s best to have a person within the company assigned to the task. And it is imperative to have a written policy in place that stipulates that no employees are to speak with media or there are serious consequences. All inquiries are to be directed to the designated media representative. This must be enforced especially in these days of twitter and Facebook where rumors can make a company that is handling a crisis well look instead like a circus of buffoons.

Talking to Media

Make sure that the person you select to be the media contact has a good understanding of how media operate during a disaster or company crisis. Provide ongoing information as things change, but remember “less is more.” You can issue brief statements about how things are being handled but if you are too busy to do interviews, a phone call or email will suffice. Do not stonewall media – they will write what they want to with to without your help, so it is better that they hear your side of the story to balance things out.

Dealing with media is complex and not for the amateur. Take some classes or do media training with a professional to make sure that you understand how they work and what to say.

Take the Quick Vulnerability Audit

Take this short 10 point vulnerability audit to get your businesses on a crisis prevention track now.

1. Who is on your crisis team? (Pick people who can think on their feet, are good spokespeople and have related experience – do not choose the CEO unless you have to.)

2. Do you have friends in your court if you need them? This would include reporters/regulators/inspectors/politicians/police, etc.

3. Do you regularly monitor possible problems that could lead to a crisis like employee relationships, safety issues, confidentiality issues or termination problems?

4. Do you have a written book of company policies?

5. Do you have a list of emergency numbers/cell phones to be able to reach managers/owners at a second’s notice?

6. Who is your spokesperson (and backup) if something negative happens?

7. How do you handle belligerent employees? What about employees who have been terminated – is there a management plan if they enter the building for any reason?

8. How do you handle sexual harassment accusations?

9. Are you familiar with emergency response teams in your area?

10. When was the last time that you had an emergency evacuation drill?


Use this information to build a crisis preparedness and management philosophy and guidebook for your business before the next Hurricane Sandy. It will do more than prepare you…it will make your confidence during a crisis soar and will help you realize that this too will pass, albeit more quickly if you are prepared.

Susan Tellem, APR, RN, BSN is a partner in Tellem Grody Public Relations Inc. where she leads the crisis team. She also has served on crisis management teams at Burson Marsteller and the Rowland Co.. Follow her on LinkedIn at and on Twitter @susantellem.