Anticipate a Crisis = Best Response

The birth of an elephant calf at the Oregon Zoo excited the public and elicited a story about the calf's true owner, which escalated into a communications crisis for the Zoo. [Credit: Michael Durham/AP]The dust-up last week at the Oregon Zoo involving the ownership of a new elephant calf should remind all organizations to be prepared for a potential communications crisis.

When and how a crisis will strike is hard to predict. However, it is far easier to anticipate and plan for circumstances that can generate interest, controversy or a media firestorm.

The Oregon Zoo was surprised when The Seattle Times published a story indicating the female elephant calf, born amid media hoopla in Portland, was actually owned by a private company, Have Trunk Will Travel, which loaned a male elephant to the Zoo for breeding. The report raised questions and public anxiety about whether the as-yet-unnamed calf would remain in Portland.

Zoo officials immediately confirmed ownership of the calf, but were unnervingly vague about whether the baby elephant would remain at the zoo. It wasn't until a day later that Zoo officials made a declarative statement the calf would be kept in Portland. By then, the incident spawned stories about the reputation of the elephant's true owner and the whole idea of keeping elephants in the relative confines of zoos.

Even though Zoo officials had disclosed previously the basic terms of their elephant breeding program, they failed to be alert to what could go wrong when the calf was born and public interest and sympathies were at their peak.

They are hardly alone.

Here are some simple questions to ask about sensitive activities in your business, nonprofit or public agency to assess a potential crisis:

1. Are you doing something that somebody can criticize? There are a lot of critics in this world, so this question can paint with a fairly wide brushstroke. However, it is an essential starter question to anticipate the source of a complaint. The source could be neighbors, a special interest group or a persistent reporter. Thinking in advance about complaints or criticism will wake up the part of your brain that thinks about all the bad things that can happen.

2. Are you doing anything that is dangerous or unconventional? Sometimes you don't need to worry as much about critics as about the activity itself. Is there a significant potential for an accident or a spill? Who would be affected by your action and what would their reaction be if they knew? What safety precautions are you taking — and what ones did you decide not to take?

3. How could your activity reach the news media or touch off a buzz on social media? After you have given thought to the sources of bad news, it is important to think about what channel that bad news could ride. With the advent of high quality smartphone cameras, almost anything can be captured and shared on the spot. People on the street are better prepared to "show the news" than reporters and editors back at their desks or studios. Knowing how a story could break is useful in evaluating how to respond if something does break. What would you say to the press? What would you post on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest?

4. Mapping out a response. It won't be idle thought or wasted time to imagine a crisis and how you would respond. Being prepared can save time when and if a communications crisis arises. An effective, quick response can defuse an issue before it gains steam and wider exposure. The response itself can even be reputation-enhancing.

5. Believe it can happen to you. Maybe the biggest obstacle to effective crisis response is denial that a crisis can bedevil you or your organization. It can and probably will. Believing that is the first step to anticipating a crisis and responding effectively.