Crisis Communications—Planning for the Worst to Position Yourself for the Best

Mark Gale CEO | Partner Charleston Orwig

If your company or organization touches the agricultural or food industries—and obviously the dairy industry is smack in the middle of both—you need an up-to-date Crisis Communications Plan. If you do not have one, you are putting your company, brand and products at risk.

That may seem a little harsh. It’s not.

We live in an age where the sharing of information—including the transmission of images and videos—is almost instantaneous. Add to that the unrestrained pace of social media and the voracious 24-hour news cycle, and you could come under scrutiny, whether it’s fair or not, at virtually any time. For the dairy industry, animal welfare, environmental, labor, food safety and other issues can strike at any time. This is especially true as the general public has an increasing interest in food, but is becoming ever more removed from an understanding of where it comes from and how it is produced.

You must have a Crisis Communications Plan at-the-ready. That means not only drafting a thoughtful and detailed plan, but also updating it frequently. Think how often key managers change jobs, how quickly publications come into being or change their focus, how new and sometimes controversial issues emerge with almost every news cycle.

Below are five “Rules of the Road” to follow as you create and/or update your strategy for handling crisis and contentious communications. If you do not have a plan, these rules can help you get started. At the end of this article, after the rules, be sure to read the section on transparent communications. This concept is so important that goes beyond a rule to become a guiding principle.

Identify Crisis Team Members and Subject Experts.

Keep contact information (including customers) and media contacts current, since staffs constantly change, and identify potential industry advocates as they emerge. (Is there an executive director or a technical expert at an association who might speak on behalf of an issue?) Train your core team on procedures to follow and practice talking points on key issues with an eye on super-short news cycles and truncated digital feeds. Update at least quarterly.

Make sure you are current on emerging topics that could be thrown your way by a reporter. For dairy, this means having talking points and a position on everything from milk prices, to worker shortages, to A2 milk, to NAFTA. Don’t be caught off guard or say something you might regret if a reporter asks. Always be honest and admit when you don’t have the answer. But promise to follow up shortly.

Think Social.

Know which social media platforms are used most often by customers and clients. Be aware of and join closed interest groups to see conversations that impact your efforts; follow feeds on other platforms, too. And understand how to appropriately develop messaging and responses via each platform—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. If you don’t yet have this section in your plan, add it immediately.

Today, many conversations occur in closed Facebook groups or even message boards. Do you know these? The time to ask for moderator approval is prior to crisis, not during. You want to see what people are saying about you, your brands, your industry. It’s even good to see the gossip.

Update Action Plans

Conduct regular scenario planning exercises. Role play the development of responses to potential issues, realizing global is now local and vice versa. (Frontera’s foray into A2 milk, for example, might spur a question to you.) Confirm your actions are rapid, responsible, targeted and responsive—and that messaging is straight-forward, fittingly compassionate and on-point.

Scenario planning is particularly important: pretend the worst happened. How would you respond? If you were an outside interest that wanted to exploit a problem facing your organization, what unfair and negative questions would you ask? Make sure you can answer—on your terms.


Monitor Mentions and Discussions

Early detection is key. Assign internal monitors to note social and traditional media mentions of your organization and key topics. Monitor media/customer responses as a crisis evolves, intervening as needed. Digital tools keep evolving; what you used last year may not be the standard this year.

A number of digital tools such as NUVI, Mention and Brand Watch can be used to monitor key words, phrases and issues that are relevant to your situation. Setting up alerts and monitoring these regularly can help you spot emerging problems before they have an impact. An excellent free service is Google Analytics. You should have an expert on staff.

It’s Not Over Yet

The crisis may have ended, but online evidence—and often misinformation—continues to linger. Engage in a positive, proactive, searchable effort to populate accurate information backed by fact to ensure your story is told.

The content you build, on digital platforms you control and those across the industry, creates what we call Reputational Capital. It is the armor that provides a measure of trust and protection should you face difficulty again.

From Transparent to Hyper Transparency

Way back in 1982, the Johnson & Johnson company rewrote the rules for crisis and contentious communications and ended the era of PR spin. Rather than hide from the fact that altered Tylenol capsules had sickened and killed people, the company boldly took on the issue, warning consumers not to use the product. Arguably, a company had never stepped up to “own” a crisis in quite that way. As you know, Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol survived.

The idea of transparency has accelerated since that time. In the digital age, where global communication is instant, Hyper Transparency has emerged as a key point in contentious and crisis communications.

There are times, too many times, when an industry like dairy might be unfairly attacked. There are also times when a mistake has been made. In the latter case, it is essential to step up, own the situation and share your plans for solutions. It’s the right thing to do. Given digital records, it is also required since someone “will find out” if you are anything but transparent.


Yes, legal counsel, technical experts and experienced communicators can help guide you to ensure fairness and accuracy. But you must be transparent. There is no other way forward.

Unfair attacks are an entirely different matter. In such cases, transparency is coupled with a strategic defense. This is also when having built Reputational Capital is essential.

Materials to Help You in Crisis:

Download this shareable & printable infographic PDF. You can print out this piece and use it as a handy check list for developing or updating your crisis communications plan. Link to our “Five in 15” webinar for more depth on all five rules. Mark Gale, partner at Charleston|Orwig in Hartland, Wis., shares more detail within an informative 15-minute webinar. Perfect for busy people like you. You will also hear answers to questions from participants who viewed the webinar live.

C|O Insights

The pace of everything—including crisis communication—has accelerated, and so must your approach to this essential reputation tool. Now is the time to update your plan. We can help you be better prepared. Contact Mark Gale at [email protected] or call 262.563.5100.