During Emergency Situations, Manage the Message and Expectations

Andrew Stanten


Seventy hours. That’s how long I was without power at home after Hurricane Sandy socked us. And I was thankful for the work of PPL Electric Utilities.

Yes, that’s right; I was happy with the much-maligned utility’s speed in restoring power.

A few storms ago, I would have been peeved beyond belief if PPL told me it would be 70 hours before I had power. But PPL did an amazing job of managing the messaging and aligning expectations. Right from the get-go, 24 hours or more before the storm started, PPL spokespeople had their message well prepared and disseminated to public officials and the public at large. They stated this would likely be the most severe, longest-lasting power outage ever, and that we should prepare to be without power for more than a week. Message clear, expectation set.

So when the power clicked back on at work after “only” 55 hours and at home after 70, I was thrilled. My expectations had been exceeded.

Beyond effective management of expectations, there is a core customer service principle here that PPL nailed: Under-promise and over-deliver.

That’s how you gain favor with customers. They had a feature on their website, easy to navigate to from the homepage, where people could type in phone numbers and ZIP codes to get an estimate as to when they would – worst-case scenario – have power restored. The power-restore estimator also worked well with cell phones, providing an extra level of customer service. Don’t let the device a customer is using get in the way of getting what they need from you.

Clearly, PPL had a communication plan in place and was ready to pull the trigger when Sandy hit.

The lesson to be learned? Crisis preparedness starts with having a communication plan in place. PPL’s messaging and application of technology was part of their crisis preparedness plan and it worked quite well to align expectations and keep PPL’s image as being helpful and customer-centric.

So, after Sandy, as a matter of best practices, it’s a good idea to review your plan to gauge whether it’s sufficient.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you take a fresh look at your communications plan:

Keep it simple.
To succeed, a crisis plan can’t be complicated. If it’s a 200-page manual, no one will read it. It should be a checklist-based protocol. The goal is to make it easy to follow a logical order of tasks and responses during what could be a very emotional time.

Establish the chain of communication.
This includes many details – how the information will be shared, how often – but most importantly it spells out the chain of command. Every employee in each rank of the organization should know who needs to be contacted in the event of crisis. The CEO needs to be informed quickly – and with as few people as possible passing along the information. If it’s deemed a true crisis, a crisis communication team – usually the CEO, members of the executive team, the head of marketing/PR and legal counsel – needs to convene ASAP.

Pin down the message.
What are you going to tell employees, staff, customers and vendors? PPL nailed it. They got out ahead of it and told us to expect the worst – and then put a parameter around what the worst could be. They asked for patience. They talked about the proactive steps they were taking. Then they reiterated how bad it was going to be. And they asked for patience. Again. It worked.

How will you disseminate the message? What official channels will be used to distribute information? If Sandy taught us one thing, texting, which takes up a lot less battery power and requires less signal, may be a good way to go rather than posting to a website, sending out emails or changing a voice message. Likewise, social networks like Facebook and Twitter were primary sources of information for many. In the case of a natural disaster like Sandy, it is important to speak to corporate values about employee safety and customer service. Having a well prepared elevator speech that addresses what you do well is essential.

Identify and train spokespeople.
When a crisis hits, there should be no question about who is authorized to talk to the media. The message needs to be clear, concise and consistent. In addition, dealing with the media and addressing the public requires practice. Set up a video camera so the spokesperson can run practice interviews in privacy. Critique the results.

Anticipate and plan.
Not all emergency situations are Mother Nature-induced.

Some crises you can never anticipate – but most you can. At Altitude Marketing, when we develop a crisis communication plan for clients, we go through a process of scripting out the seven to 10 events that could, at some point, result in a crisis. We all now know that the plan should include contingencies for what to do when power is lost for a week or longer – both at home and remote locations. Beyond natural disaster, people in every aspect of your business from the loading dock to the C-suite can probably anticipate a situation where something might go wrong and why. Develop talking points around each topic.

Be helpful.
Provide your constituents with information that satisfies their needs and positions your company as helpful, transparent, responsive, solution-oriented and trusted. “No comment” is never acceptable. It looks like you have something to hide. Develop factual, detailed messages that reflect the status of the crisis, the company response, and, if possible, proactive steps you’re taking to resolve the situation.

Never speculate.
Stick to facts. Don’t be pushed into an answer from an enterprising reporter who backs you into a corner with a well-phrased question. When this happens, stick to your message.

Andrew Stanten

Andrew Stanten co-founded Altitude Marketing in 2004. As CEO, he ensures the right people are on board, delivering world-class marketing services to Altitude’s global client base, and staying true to Altitude’s mission, vision and values.
Andrew possesses an innate ability to process, organize and summarize massive volumes of client and market information and turn it into actionable, strategic thinking. This enables Team Altitude to get smart about a company quickly—and develop winning, integrated approaches that vault clients into a position of prominence and strength.
Andrew graduated from Syracuse University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University.