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Experts share tips on surviving disasters in a social media age, from forming community advisory panels to managing fallout

IN the age of social media, “citizen journalists” and 24-hour news cycles, companies are under greater scrutiny than ever, and every incident, whether large or small, is magnified for the masses—often before executives are fully informed.

To best navigate this online minefield, it helps to have friends in the real world—and not just in high places.

That’s why Tim Johnson, founder and president of the TJC Group consulting firm, recommends forming community advisory panels (CAPs) with the everyday stakeholders who are familiar with the companies operating in their area, and can help keep their neighbors from pulling out the pitchforks whenever a problem arises.

“We are, as communities, most concerned about those things we know the least about, right?” Johnson said. “When we peel back the onion, when we take away the veil, and we communicate more clearly and openly with our neighbors, I have seen it reduce fear, reduce concern and reduce activism, demonstratively.”

Of course, CAPs are only one piece of a comprehensive communications plan that every company needs to have in place in the event of a crisis, which most companies will experience at one point or another. That’s when knowing what to say, when to say it and how best to convey the message is critically important.

“If you’ve ever experienced a crisis, then you know firsthand that managing the media is difficult,” said Patricia Prebula, president of Prebula Public Relations. “It’s like herding cats. Not only are you managing the media, you’re trying to manage your stakeholders, as well as your regulatory agencies, your elected officials, your communities, and now you have social media on top of that. It’s serious, but it can be managed.”

Johnson and Prebula, who was joined by Terri Ammerman, president and CEO of The Ammerman Experience, addressed these issues in separate presentations delivered during the International Liquid Terminals Association’s 39th annual International Operating Conference in Houston, Texas.

Building relationships

The people at Johnson’s firm, which is nearly 30 years old, consider themselves the country’s leading authorities on creating, managing and facilitating industry-based CAPs. They’ve created 30 panels across seven states and currently manage 21 individual CAPs that assist more than 65 industrial facilities, helping their management to listen more effectively to and communicate more effectively with their local communities.

Clients include Kinder Morgan, LBC Terminals, NuStar Terminal, ExxonMobil, Shell, OxyChem and Total Petrochemicals, to name a few.

“We help companies build relationships in their communities, and with their elected officials and decision makers, and all those in government, and we make sure that our clients are doing the best job they can building those relationships, maintaining those relationships and staying consistent with their communication,” Johnson explained.

Johnson said CAPs first began to evolve in the early years of environmental activism in response to the antiquated ideas of “if it’s happening inside our fence, it’s our business,” and not yours. But as industry steadily improved its performance in the environmental arena, concerns slowly subsided, and so, too, did activism.

“Now, with social media, and a renewed vigor around activism, I am seeing more activity today, specifically in the last 18 to 24 months, than I have seen in the last 25 years,” Johnson claimed. “The difference this time is, because of social media, and because of the platforms that they have, I don’t think it’s going away. Even with the significantly improved performance around environment, this social media platform … leads me to believe that this is the new state of normal, and that we’re going to, as an industry, have to deal with this in a different way.

“Community engagement, for all of you, is no longer an option. It’s simply no longer an option.”

Before deep diving into CAPs, here are key elements to consider when putting together any community relations plan:

• Consider objectives and goals. What is the overarching goal of this public relations campaign? What does the company hope to achieve, and what does success look like?

• Establish an understanding, gain trust and build goodwill through communication, relationships, education, transparency and consistency.

• Identify the audience. Is this plan for the nearest neighbors, civic associations, grass roots leaders, elected officials, schools/educational institutions, local first responders or activists?

• Commit to regular face-to-face visits. Constant contact and communication are the keys to maintaining relationships.

• Engagement, support and regular attendance is critical. Factors here include attendance at meetings, sponsorships (foundation/employee committee), community events, volunteering (employees) and advertising.

• A social media presence is important.

• Consider involving schools through STEM programs and mentoring.

• Boost employment in the surrounding community through internships and local hiring programs.

• Remember, community engagement is a team effort, requiring participation from terminal managers, HSSE managers, public affairs managers, human resource managers and employees, who often are a company’s best ambassadors.

“If you do these things, and you do them not just when you have a need, not just when you are going before your public body to ask for a permit, or you’re trying to expand, or there is some other issue that has taken place—God forbid an incident that has caused concern in the community—and put that goodwill in the bank, built and established the understanding and gained the trust, not only of the community but all of the stakeholders there, you’re going to be in a much better position,” Johnson maintained.

Community advisors

When considering a CAP, remember, the worst thing a company can do is begin to establish relationships and then go away, which can do more damage than not reaching out at all, Johnson said, so this is a long-term commitment.

The greatest effort should go into reaching the folks closest to the facility, typically within a ½-mile radius, but don’t forget those within 1, 3 and 5 miles who are potentially impacted by activities. And when reaching out to potential participants, check with civic associations for viable candidates with a proven commitment to their community. Grass roots leaders are ideal as well but sometimes harder to identify, Johnson said.

Once this cross-section of residents is identified and united as a community advisory panel, the TJC Group advises convening every other month, or six to 10 times a year, with the industrial facility’s top management, who all must be on board for the CAP to work. The goal then is to educate CAP members about the facility, including operational details, environmental performance, employment policies and procedures, incident prevention and response, emergency preparedness and anything else deemed important.

The CAP representatives, preferably 18-25 members with diversity in race, gender, age, occupation and geography, then are able to provide the facility’s leadership with feedback and advice from the community’s perspective.

“It’s a two-way conversation,” Johnson said. “CAP meetings are always candid, but they’re never confrontational. We create open dialogue and honest communication, we help the facility’s leadership better understand the community, and we help the community better understand the facility.”

CAPs do not serve as the company’s spokespeople in the community. “The critical information flow in the community advisory panel process is not from the facility, through the panel members back out to the community; it’s from the community, through the panel members to the facility’s leadership,” Johnson emphasized.

Crisis communications

When a crisis inevitably arrives, CAPs can help prevent a situation from spinning out of control, but success or failure ultimately comes down to the company’s ability to manage the message, and make sure they project an air of compassion and concern for any potential victims and all stakeholders affected.

“Every day, your organization runs the risk of being affected,” Prebula said. “From the moment it happens, your image, your reputation and your good name are all at risk. It takes years of hard work and energy to build up your reputation but it can be destroyed in an instant.”

By a Pew Research Center estimate, 3.2 billion people use social media, and 2/3 of US adults use Facebook, providing more transparency but also the potential for more disinformation, and social media sites aren’t the only sources of information. People still are turning to more traditional media, including TV, radio and newspapers; they’re blogging and texting; they’re paying attention to various consumer, environmental, labor and other advocacy groups; tracking opinion leaders—and even listening to the company’s own employees.

“Your incident has the potential for visibility, because of social media and citizen journalists, which we didn’t have only a few years ago, so managing your risk is essential,” Prebula said.

The goal of crisis management, Prebula maintained, is not to spin information, but to react quickly and meaningfully so as to stave off panic and fear among employees, in the community, and with suppliers and customers, and doing so requires credibility, an actionable plan—and the determination to meet an issue head on.

First, identify the risks—actual, perceived and potential—and make sure key personnel, including CEOs, managers, directors, frontline employees, public affairs professional and human resource officers, understand them. Potential risks include boycotts, legal issues, injuries, sexual harassment claims, plant closures, environmental or wildlife impacts, natural disasters, unplanned emissions or leaks, and cyber breakdowns.

When a crisis occurs, don’t panic, take immediate, corrective action to remedy the problem, and communicate, sometimes repeatedly, with all appropriate audiences. Failure to communicate creates the perception that the crisis is continuing out of control, Prebula warned. “The worst thing you can do is nothing,” she said.

The worst communications mistakes, Prebula maintained, include delaying crisis response or preparedness, relying on reputation to speak for you, treating media like the enemy, reactive vs proactive communications, ineffective communication, ignoring stakeholders, relying on perception over facts, and indifference.

And above all, she said, don’t ignore what’s happening on social media.

“There’s no easy answer for social media,” Prebula said. “It’s out there. If you have a crisis it’s important to have a plan in place, and every crisis is different, in the way you manage it, especially with social media.”

Crisis prevention tactics include creating organizational policies that allow for regular updates and changes, reducing the use of hazardous materials and processes, initiating safety training programs with incentives, acknowledging past problems and failures, and enhancing relationships with key stakeholders and influencers, either through CAPs or other forms of community involvement such as hosting community/employee events, sponsoring community activities and attending community meetings.

“It’s critically important that when you do speak … you are addressing the concerns of the people (involved)—anyone who’s been injured, first and foremost, and secondly, those who have been inconvenienced,” Ammerman said.

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