Anyone faced with the possibility of having to handle a crisis communication ought to be prepared to do so and to present a simple message directed to no more than one or two of the most crucial audiences.
That was the advice from Wixted & Company media consultant and trainer Al Setka to members of the Dairy Business Association at their 2014 "Access Symposium." He has a background of 20 years in radio and television broadcasting in Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana.
The Wixted firm specializes in communications for agriculture, health care, financial, insurance, and nuclear energy entities. All of them need to have a communications plan that would be carried out in emergency situations and that should be geared to presenting a clear and concise message, Setka remarked.
"How the media work is quite predictable," Setka observed. Based on that predictability, he suggested any party that needs to protect its brand name, market, or business operation during a crisis situation can prepare a message going to one or more of its possible multiple groups of stakeholders.
Regarding agriculture's position for handling crisis communications, Setka said it starts with the fact that agriculture sector is taken for granted as long as there is a safe, accessible, and affordable food supply that can be purchased, on average, for no more than 10 percent of the consumer's income.
Another element is lots of misunderstanding about agriculture, Setka noted. Although Iowa is commonly considered a very agricultural state, the fact is that only six percent of its residents live on farms, he indicated. Two images that prevail are the Grant Wood drawing of a farm couple with bib overalls and a pitchfork and the more recent questions about the appropriateness of federal subsidies for large farms, he said.
The agriculture sector, starting with its pork sector and more recently beef and dairy, is under threat to the extent of demands by some groups that animals not be part of food production, Setka pointed out. He noted the electoral successes in some states for phasing out gestation crates for hogs.
Deal with such challenges by having a message because the alternative is that "people will believe the worst," Setka advised. "Others will create a message about you. If it's about you, you need to be in the message. I've been saying this for years. You need to be active."
To devise a message, start by identifying the goal of one's business and define the audience for a crisis management message, Setka indicated. Among the possible audiences such as employees, regulators, the related industry, lender, or legal system, gear the message to only one or two of them, he said.
Realize that listeners to a message are likely to retain only 7-10 percent of what is presented and that in many cases the reaction is mainly emotional, Setka pointed out. That's why it's important to keep the message short and simple, he stated.
When Mercy for Animals, which does not want animals to be used as a source for food, wants to make a point, it delivers "a very clear message," Setka indicated.
Beyond what's in a message itself, how the presenter comes across in interviews or formal statements given to the media is often very important in how the message is perceived, Setka emphasized. He pointed out that the trustworthiness, credibility, and non-verbal presence of the presenter can contribute greatly to the net impression.
"Bad things can happen to good people and organizations," Setka observed. "You have to own up to it." Whatever the situation, don't allow a lot of time to pass before issuing a communication, he stressed. "Speed leads today."
Setka showed clips from CNN in the wake of two disasters — a mining accident and an airplane crash. The spokesmen took very different approaches — one of which was very insensitive to the affected parties while the other was very appropriate, he indicated.
Change and conflict make news, Setka pointed out. "Victims and villains are identified."
With social media being in the mainstream today, a crisis communication should be geared to "ramping up fast and down fast. Address it and it will fade away. Don't let it linger."
In an era of social media, the number of publishers has exploded while editors have virtually disappeared, Setka remarked. "There are self-proclaimed experts on many topics. And they have many followers."
Before an occasion arises, "identify your risk," Setka said. He explained that "an accident" constitutes an incident but that a repeated pattern is a crisis that needs to be addressed.
When doing so, be concerned with people first, then the environment, the business assets, and reputation, Setka advised. "Tell what you're doing and have done."
In most cases, this should be done within 12 hours after something happens or a situation or event is disclosed, Setka continued. "Be a reliable source of information."
A second phase, typically focusing on narrowing a cause or assigning blame, should take place in the following 12-24 hours, Setka said. "That's when to address the 'why'."
Phase three arrives at 24-48 hours, Setka indicated. "That's when to back off. Say what you're doing to prevent a repeat occurrence. Show care and concern."
That's also a good time to identify cooperators on the response and to "show resolve," Setka advised. "It seems simple but it's not always done that way."