Practice Makes Perfect: Increasing the Effectivenes of Your Crisis Communications

Utility Crisis Communications: Why You Need to Practice Your Plan

After Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW) received an FBI subpoena in February 2007, it was quickly engulfed by a political scandal and a media firestorm. Allegations of political corruption eventually forced MLGW’s president and its general counsel to resign. The utility’s image plummeted. Public confidence in the utility evaporated. MLGW’s spokespeople could not get their story out, hampered by a variety of internal operational and cultural factors.

After the scandal receded from the front pages and the evening news, MLGW’s communicators decided to sharpen their crisis-communications skills. They hired a consulting firm—The Media Trainers—and took the highly unusual step of conducting weekly crisis-communications drills. These drills came in handy when a new negative story broke in April 2008.

Utility communicators could learn valuable lessons from MLGW’s experience with crisis communications:

  • A utility needs to have a humble public persona.
  • It must admit when it’s wrong and then show the public what it is doing to fix the problem.
  • There needs to be a crisp internal approval process for statements to the media.
  • Internal documents need to be reviewed by media relations representatives and lawyers before being released to the media. In the court of public opinion, the accused is always guilty until proven innocent.
  • Regular noncrisis interactions with the news media give each side a better appreciation for the concerns and needs of the other.
  • Effective messaging is a skill that takes time to develop and practice.

Most importantly, MLGW’s communicators learned what professional athletes already know: Practice is the only way to keep your skills sharp, and there’s no substitute for real-world experience. It’s not enough to periodically review your utility’s crisis-communications plan—you need to take it off the shelf and make it real by conducting drills so spokespeople can hone their skills and learn from their mistakes.

© 2009 E SOURCE Companies LLC
Author, John Egan
This report excerpt has been reproduced and posted by permission of E SOURCE. To purchase the full report, contact E SOURCE at esource@esource.com or call 303-444-7788. Please reference UCS-F-6.

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