I got to thinking about this subject while reading daily newspaper accounts of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occupied headlines throughout Spring of 2010. Eleven oil platform workers lost their lives, and many more were injured in the accident leading to the environmental catastrophe, which is still being played out as I write this in mid-June.

Vessels conduct skimming operations in the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident May 16, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Stephanie Brown, Naval Sea Systems Command. Photo courtesy of FEMA News Photo.

I got to thinking about this subject while reading daily newspaper accounts of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occupied headlines throughout Spring of 2010. Eleven oil platform workers lost their lives, and many more were injured in the accident leading to the environmental catastrophe, which is still being played out as I write this in mid-June.

Another casualty is the reputation of BP, the British oil giant that operated the doomed rig. The company stands to lose billions of dollars in cleanup costs, fines and lawsuits. Perhaps most costly of all in the long run might be the damage done to its reputation, which will impact the company’s ability to obtain future drilling permits needed to supply the company’s lifeblood. At writing, it remains to be seen if the company can remain a viable business entity when all is said and done.

Preliminary evidence suggests that some employees of BP made unwise and perhaps negligent decisions that led to the disaster. This has led to a tedious reality show featuring hordes of politicians and news media posturing for the cameras in condemning BP.

The piling on by all those blowhards has done nothing to plug the leak or mitigate the environmental damage, but fills me with at least a tinge of sympathy for BP, which is - at least for the time being - a thriving business employing more than 80,000 people and playing a big role in helping to fuel all those vehicles and machinery we depend on to cope with modern life. A lot of competent, hardworking people who had nothing to do with the accident are going to get penalized for mistakes made by a few. And no matter how much we may wish for renewable fuels to transform the way we live, we’ll be stuck with a large dependence on oil for a long time. We need companies skilled in finding and extracting new supplies.

A catastrophe could happen to any company, big or small, including yours. No matter how well you know your trade, no matter how tightly you run your ship, mistakes will happen. A disaster that implicates your company can occur at any time, maybe not even due to any fault of your people, but for which outsiders will point fingers at you anyway. It could involve a jobsite fatality or serious injury, an environmental violation, damage to utility lines or other property, business or employee lawsuits, or any number of other things that can go wrong and draw unwelcome attention from the media and publicity crazed politicians.

What do you do then?

It’s impossible to answer that precisely without knowing the nature of the emergency, except for one aspect that you need to control in every circumstance - the PR problem. No matter what happens or who is to blame, it’s important to gain control of the information flow in a way that minimizes damage to your business reputation.

Janine Reid is an author (Crisis Management: Planning and Media Relations for the Design and Construction Industry, available from www.amazon.com) and leading authority on crisis management planning and working with the news media in a crisis. I got to know her through membership in the Construction Writers Association and have run articles by her in publications I edited. Here’s some of her advice drawn from a 1995 article that is just as valid today as it was back then.

The first step is to organize an emergency management team to deal with any potential crisis.  Typically, in big companies this would include people such as a project superintendent, safety manager, project manager, HR manager, legal counsel and, of course, a high-ranking executive, preferably the CEO. Select one of these to be the team leader charged with responsibility for quick reaction and damage control. The team leader will be the targeted recipient of all information leading to the emergency and responsible for disseminating that information to all other emergency team members.

From that team, designate one person as the sole spokesperson. “Dealing with the media is where contractors can get hurt the most,” Reid wrote. “Any executive who does not take the time to understand the media and become comfortable with them will probably get one-sided, inaccurate coverage. Once burned in the media, there is no practical recourse to set the record straight.” She continued: “Therefore, the spokesperson is the second most crucial member of your emergency team - in some cases, maybe even more important than the team leader.”

In many cases, the spokesperson would be the company owner/CEO. Yet Reid cautioned against turning automatically to the top honcho. “In some situations it might be good to insulate the CEO from media attention,” Reid said. “Some CEOs may be too gruff, inexperienced or for any other reason not the best person to deal with the media. Or else the CEO may be too engaged behind the scenes to devote time to this function.”

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with the news media:

• DO make sure the reporters know who the spokesperson is. The designated spokesperson should be the only one authorized to disseminate information to the outside world, and every other member of the crisis management team should clam up and refer all media inquiries to the spokesperson. “It is very important that you speak with one voice,” said Reid.

• DO talk up any awards or positive recognitions your company has received. “This is ammunition your spokesperson can use to turn a negative into a positive,” Reid noted.

• DON’T be taken by surprise if the news media dredges up skeletons in your closet. “If you’ve had any negative media attention in the past, assume reporters will know about it before they show up at your jobsite or place of business. Now is the time to prepare positive responses for any questions that may dredge up the past,” said Reid.

• DO talk to the media. “Saying something, no matter how little, is better than saying nothing. Explaining why you can’t talk more (don’t know all the facts yet, advice of counsel, etc.) is better than stonewalling. If you want your side of the story told, YOU must tell it,” Reid emphasized.

• DO tell the truth. “Reporters will find it out anyway, so be honest and accurate when giving information. This does not mean that you have to provide every detail, but lying to a reporter almost always comes back to haunt you,” she advised.

• DON’T say anything “off the record.” If you don’t want it reported, don’t say it. Period. Do you really trust reporters to keep silent with sensitive information that could help advance their careers?

• DO respond quickly. If you don’t, the wrong story may be told, and that can be very difficult to erase.

• DON’T say “no comment.” Anyone using this statement looks guilty as sin. If you don’t know the answer, tell the reporter that you don’t know but will try to find out. Avoid excuses and explain how you are planning to make things right.

• DO emphasize the positive and communicate your company’s message. In case of an accident, emphasize that all the safety measures taken minimized damage, thanks to the good teamwork of your employees, and what the company is doing on behalf of the family or community involved.

• DON’T talk about liability issues or who is responsible. Whatever you say may come back to haunt you in any subsequent litigation.

• DO take control. If there is bad news, release it before a reporter digs it up and tells the world, making it sound worse than it is.

• DON’T wear sunglasses when being interviewed. This will cause people to perceive you as shifty. Reid observed: “TV camera operators want the sun to be at their back, which may cause it to beat in your eyes. If so, request a different angle before the camera starts rolling.”

Jim Olsztynski is editorial director of Plumbing & Mechanical and editor of Supply House Times magazines. He can be reached at 630-694-4006 or wrdwzrd@aol.com.