This hasn’t been a good year for the Philippine transport industry, what with the occurrence of Cebu Pacific crash landing in Davao and the 2Go–Philippine Span Asia collision in Cebu. Beyond the loss of lives and safety issues, a subject that picked public attention was how the companies involved dealt with the aftermath.
Once an accident occurs, time becomes an adversary of the affected companies. Each second counts. And knowing how to respond with the right approach may only happen with serious preparedness.
“Reputable companies will always invest in a contingency plan…Otherwise you won’t be able to address the entire crisis situation,” said Gina Virtusio, a PR and crisis management expert. She said that a vulnerability audit is required to identify possible scenarios for crisis, which are then categorized under low, medium and high. Each of these issues requires specific actions under the three C’s: Control, Coordination and Communicate.
A fourth “C” is needed for crisis involving people and casualties: compassion.
Virtusio said it is always prudent to acknowledge there was an accident and what had happened, and, ideally, the company should issue an official statement within an hour of the accident. The statement should be worded very carefully. Refrain from expounding on too much details or simply keeping quiet.
The importance of being proactive cannot be stressed enough. “It’s easier to manage when you’re proactive,” said Virtusio pulling deep from a case she handled over a decade ago, when she was with the PR department of a shipping line. It is described as the “Philippines’ deadliest terrorist attack and the world’s deadliest terrorist attack at sea,” where 116 people died.
“We were ready,” she said, referring to that terrorist attack. “It is not how you predict; it’s how you manage. The three stages in crisis handling are rescue mode, then search and retrieval. And then you should have a closure. It is not a one-person decision, it is an organization.” In the contingency plan, she said they had a time frame for the search and rescue, and retrieval operations. She said weather should also be factored in.
She talked about the human element, which is one of the toughest facets to deal with. “We respect emotion. We cannot stop people from feeling bad about it. Because that’s an emotion. You have to be as objective; you don’t become emotional. In crisis communication, when you’re facing a reporter, halos kainin ka ng reporter. [You must be] emotionally detached but you have to answer; be objective,” she said.
“The rule of thumb is that everyone in the organization during a crisis should have a high EQ. Kung magtatagisan kayo ng galing, walang mangyayari. Ang kalaban mo ay galit; you have to be calm. You just have to take the heat.”
Keeping open communication lines includes allocating a media area where all information and updates are provided. It likewise involves providing updates in the corporate website and in the official Facebook account. The obvious downside of FB is not being able to stop people from “saying bad things”. This, however, is just a mere inconvenience. “What is important is that you have window that says the truth… But you have to continue communicating what’s happening. Use all the media,” she said.
Part of crisis communications is understanding how media work.” Give them the right content, give them the right information, and they will put it out. You should have good relationships with all these networks, all these media. And you should establish that even before any crisis happens; ‘yun ang trabaho ng PR. Kaya kapag may problema, nandyan sila sa yo, katabi nila. Hindi nila papatayin ang istorya pero balanse ang istorya,” she explained.
She stresses the importance of crisis communications, which competence in the PR work that needs to be constantly upgraded. “If you don’t know it you should learn. Because in every business there’s always a crisis, even a sari-sari store,” she said.
The company should designate the official spokesperson, who has been identified as part of the crisis contingency preparation. Asked if the CEO should be the corporate face in such situations, Virtusio said that this is not necessary. “The CEO should be in control, but doesn’t need to be out there. It’s seldom, if you look at cases globally. Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out favorable if the CEO comes out; it looks like you’re so guilty about the situation.” She explained that, normally, the CEO steps out only when “the gravity of the crisis” has reached very serious levels.
She said that it is wise to “play it by ear” because having the CEO speak might fan more interest over the incident and, thus, generate more news. “You really have to evaluate it; is there a need?” she cited.
Effective handling entails knowing the level of the crisis. “You know the level of crisis; you audit yourself. You have specific teams to handle [certain] levels. Kung low naman, bakit kailangang malaman ng big boss. All of those you have to know how to manage, how to give the right information,” she said.