A Force of Nature

by David D. Menzies
Here in North Carolina we're dealing with a substantial winter storm that brought with it snow, ice, and a big fat mess on the highways and byways. Schools, doctors' offices, and businesses were closing left and right as the storm hit. The responsible businesses and organizations made an effort to inform their stakeholders of accessibility through direct outreach as well as alerts sent to the news media. That's a great first step from a communication standpoint, but the savvy business leaders know that any type of exposure for their company, even in times of crisis, are opportunities to gain publicity for their products and services. What a company says, or doesn't say, in these instances can mean the difference between being viewed as a responsible entity and someone trying to take advantage of people.

Just the facts

Are you closed? Open? What are the specific details regarding hours of operation, parking lot access, road closures leading to your location? If you are closed, when will you be opening? And what communication vehicles can people use if they have specific questions: phone, email, Twitter? Also, if you are an operation that generally charges fees for no-shows, like a doctor's office, you will want to clearly define how you are handling those fees for customers/patients who cannot make appointments.

Connect with customers

In framing your outbound communication be empathetic with your content, whether it be a phone message, email or press release. "We value our customers and are concerned with your safety. For this reason, we are closing today..." is an example of a very basic message that shows you care. Same thing with employees -- they are an essential part of your operation, so instead of an email that says we are closed today, put one together showing that you care about them. This will also reflect positively with your customers who see that you value your employees.

Mention -- but don't sell -- your products or services

If you are selling widgets, it's perfectly fine to mention that in your outbound crisis communication: "Company X, a local provider of widgets, is closing its offices..." or "We will be re-opening on such-and-such a day to give our valued customers access to the widgets they love." That said, avoid overly "salesy" verbiage or any type of hard-sell. If your closure inconveniences a great number of customers, and you are in a position to offer some type of "make good" discount at a later date, highlight that in your communications.

Let people know you're back up and running

A post-crisis press release targeting local and industry media is a legitimate news item for consideration by reporters and editors. Think about it; how many of your competitors will have the wherewithal to reach out to media, let alone customers, to inform them they've re-opened? Handled with kid gloves, a short and sweet press release leading with the important facts of when you closed; what you did to keep customers updated; and when you've reopened, combined with strategic messaging about your products and services is a nice transition to a follow-up press release about 1.5 weeks later pushing your products and services with a little more of a hard sell.

When communicating before, during, and after a crisis be sure to hit multiple distribution streams for your communication: direct to consumer, store signage, voicemail, website, PR distribution lists, and of course social media. Not everyone uses the same methods to get information, so the wider the net the better.

David D. Menzies is president of Innovative Public Relations, a PR and media relations consultancy. He is a 22+ year public relations professional with expertise in strategic messaging, publicity and branding. For more information visit www.innovativepublicrelations.com. Copyright © 2014 Innovative Public Relations, Inc.