Public relations professionals often speak about crisis communication, but when a real crisis strikes, we all have a tendency to act on impulse. Strategy is something that happens on the fly. Decisions are made as conditions dictate. Surprisingly, this works reasonably well most of the time, but clearly it is not a sound or prudent approach.

The better alternative was in full evidence as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the United States last week. In advance, our utility client, Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI), and its operating companies Pepco, Delmarva Power and Atlantic City Electric, quickly activated the Stanton Communications team. Our job was to supplement PHI’s own staff of media response and outreach professionals who were responsible for updating customers, the media and other stakeholders on the status of outages and restoration efforts. In the days immediately prior to Sandy’s arrival, we deployed to client locations, activated media monitoring and reporting protocols, and initiated an around-the-clock mobilization to ensure additional resources were available whenever needed.

But it was PHI’s foresight – and more than a little prior experience – that recognized the importance of a structured and disciplined crisis communication capability. They made decisions in advance about roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, reporting mechanisms, data collection and more. They tested their procedures in drills and small scale real life scenarios, and refined their approach based on what they learned and observed. They also identified areas where outside support from the likes of Stanton Communications and others would be beneficial.

The advantage of all this was that when the storm appeared on the horizon, everyone was ready to go. When the call came to mobilize, there was no confusion about who would do what, where or when. Everything worked, not always perfectly, but well enough that company and agency professionals could adapt to changing conditions and course correct in real time.

When building a crisis communications initiative, the impulse is to anticipate a specific scenario and create a response plan suited to that contingency.  The better approach is to determine how people will be assigned, how resources will be engaged, and how decisions will be made in a hurry and under pressure. Above all else, a tested regimen for consistent and routine communication, team coordination, action and statement approvals and media liaison proves to be the greatest asset during a crisis. Those plans must be continually updated to stay abreast of changes in personnel and the company’s evolution. This rigorous approach ensures that when the time comes, no one is forced to make real-time changes to a dusty plan with outdated tactics and methods of operation. A crisis communication plan that was very well developed a few years ago might not be as effective any longer if, for example, it relied on fax notifications or MySpace updates to keep customers informed.

In this case, once power is fully restored to all who lost service during Sandy, PHI and its partners will again evaluate communications systems, recalibrate and refine strategies, and make further improvements. A key lesson learned will surely be that advance planning, preparation and training ensured the company’s PR SWAT team worked with precision. That’s a far better “learning” than that their impulses were right.

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