Disaster recovery needs a media response plan

Paul Kirvan of the Business Continuity Institute’s U.S. chapter talks about the importance of including a media response plan in a company’s disaster recovery planning process.

Recently, we spoke with Paul Kirvan, CISA, CSSP, FBCI, CBCP, a board member with the Business Continuity Institute’s U.S. chapter, about the role a media response plan should play in disaster recovery (DR) planning. In this podcast, Paul offers some advice for incorporating a media response plan into your disaster recovery strategy, who in your organization needs to be involved, and why it's critical for every organization to have a media response plan.

Click here to listen to the podcast on media response plans and disaster recovery, or read the transcript below.

Is a media response plan part of a regular disaster recovery plan, or is it separate? Should media response plans be tested like regular DR plans, or is that impossible?

Media response plans can be part of business continuity (BC)/DR plans or a separate entity. Media response plans should be designed to address a number of situations, ranging from general press releases to facilitating a media onslaught at your place of business. Personally I like to include at least a reference or link in my BC/DR plans to a media response plan, so that if that level of response is needed there will be a way to quickly invoke the media activities.

Like any plan that is responding to an out-of-normal situation, media response plan procedures should be regularly reviewed, the documents and prewritten statements reviewed (especially by the PR and legal departments), and any special provisions for the media, such as a meeting room or assembly area, in place and ready to activate.

What role will IT administrators (if any) have in the media response planning process? 

IT administrators should provide technical and operational input to whoever is coordinating the media response, such as the HR or PR departments. Unless an IT person is designated as an official company spokesperson, IT personnel should avoid speaking to the media.

Who in the organization is responsible for organizing the media response plan?

Among the groups that typically coordinate with the media are public relations, corporate communications, human resources and corporate administration departments. Business continuity professionals should find out who is responsible for media response activities and offer their services in terms of providing expert testimony, technical input or other useful commentary. BC professionals may be designated as company spokespersons, but ideally there should only be a few people specifically responsible for speaking to the media. At least one media spokesperson should be sufficiently senior, such as the CEO and/or president, to speak authoritatively to the media. All official spokespersons should be trained by PR professionals—either in-house or using professional PR firms—in how to speak to the media.

Are there any companies who’ve experienced disasters lately that you know of that benefited from having a good media response plan?

The only firm I can think of at the moment is Johnson & Johnson and how well they responded to the Tylenol recall of 1982. A well-known example of how a poor media response can hurt a firm is the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989; another one is the more recent BP oil spill of 2010.

Given how easily information can be obtained via the internet, etc., can a company be asking for trouble if they do not communicate with the media following an incident?

Organizations of almost any size, regardless of private or public sector, must be aware of the possibility of dealing with the media. A well-organized media response plan—coordinated with other corporate emergency response activities—can make a huge difference in how the organization is perceived by the media, and therefore the public, stakeholders, investors and other interested parties.

The presence of social media adds to the potential for bad press to be released to the public. Virtually anyone who is present at a disaster scene can put a message out on Twitter or Facebook, for example, and the news could go viral, meaning the bad news will be disseminated faster than what is possible by the “regular” media. A poor showing when facing the traditional media—or getting hammered by social media—can damage the organization’s reputation, image, competitive position, credibility, and even the ability to hire and retain employees.

Savvy business continuity and disaster professionals should be members of their firms’ media response teams. If no media response team/plan exists, BC/DR professionals ought to initiate the activity.

Is it essential to have a professional public relations staffer assigned to this, or can media response be conducted by the CEO or another executive? In cases involving DR, should that be the head of your company’s IT department?

For medium-sized to large organizations, an internal public relations or corporate communications department should coordinate all media contact. Alternatively, third-party PR firms with suitable media expertise can be retained to handle media response planning, either as a standalone effort or to supplement internal PR efforts. Small businesses will probably designate the CEO, president, managing partner, managing director or some other very senior person to act as spokesperson. Make sure all these people are trained in how to deal with the media—this is very important.

An effective media response is best provided by the least number of company spokespersons. Each spokesperson must be briefed on what to say, and what not to say. Controls limiting media movements must be in place so that enterprising reporters and their camera crews don’t “wander” out into the crowd and solicit comments from unprepared and untrained company employees. Ideally, all communications to the media must be made through authorized and trained company spokespersons. Other employees, such as those in the IT department, can serve as subject matter experts.

Obviously, getting a message out to the media helps shape the public perception of your company. But what are the more tangible benefits of preparing a media relations plan as part of BC/DR?

It may be more prudent for BC/DR professionals to coordinate with the organization’s PR and/or HR departments when formulating a media response plan. Developing a separate media plan for a BC/DR function is not recommended. The number of media spokespersons must be limited, especially in the aftermath of a disaster or other disruptive event.

The Business Continuity Institute (BCI) was established in 1994 to help individual members obtain guidance and support from fellow business continuity practitioners. The BCI currently has 5000+ members in 90 countries.  Professional membership of the BCI provides internationally recognized status as this valued certification demonstrates a member’s competence to carry out business continuity management (BCM) to a consistent high standard.  The wider role of the BCI, and the BCI's USA Chapter, is to promote the highest standards of professional competence and commercial ethics in the provision and maintenance of business continuity planning and professional services.

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