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There have been numerous produce growers and shippers in the news lately for reasons they would rather not be: recalls, foodborne illness outbreaks and, in one notable case, even prison terms for company principals.

“Unfortunately, the court of public opinion renders its verdict within 24 hours after the first reporter calls or the first TV camera goes on,” said Cheryl Miller, chief executive officer of Tampa, FL-based At The Table Public Relations. “How you handle the first 24 hours of a crisis can make all the difference.”

The most critical factor is having a public relations crisis communications plan in place ahead of any incident, added the company’s Bill Barlow.

“Just like the military has guns they hope they never have to fire and you have Band-Aids in your medicine chest you hope you’ll never need, you’ve got to be ready for things you can’t predict are going to happen,” Barlow said. “How you get through a crisis is can be as simple as the difference between being proactive or reactive.”

A proactive approach has a plan in place for dealing with any crisis. A reactive approach comes across to the public and media as a deer-in-the-headlights moment.

“When most people are reactive they’re huddling internally trying to sort out what to do. Meanwhile the media’s contacting them, reporters are hitting deadlines, they’re not getting answers, they’re speculating. Now the first round of coverage is speculative then it gets worse and worse and worse,” Barlow said. “If you’re proactive you meet them at the curb — you come out, you’ve got a designated spokesperson, you’ve got some stock answers and hopefully some media training and are ready to deal with the situation because you had a crisis plan in place which allows you to meet the situation head on and look like you have it under control.”

Determining how prepared a company is for a crisis is a fairly simple process. ATTPR has a five-question checklist that makes the process painless:

Do you have a written crisis plan in place now?

Do you have selected spokespersons and are they media trained?

Do you have your initial crisis team contact list developed and does everyone in your company know and understand their responsibilities during a crisis?

Do you know what to say or how to handle queries when news media contact you about your crisis?

Do you have resources in place should a crisis exceed your capabilities or outside resources that can give you objective counsel?

“If you don’t know or can’t answer or you’re not sure, it’s time to pick up the phone and call a professional,” Miller said.

“A lot of people think they don’t need a crisis plan but that’s the same as the military saying, ‘We’re not going to buy guns until someone shoots at us,’ “ Barlow said.

Whether a company handles crisis public relations communications in-house or relies on outside professionals, an independent — and unbiased —agency can help.

“We have a toolkit that helps companies make sure they have at least gone through the initial steps of preparation so when they do have a crisis they can move quickly,” Miller said. “We have out-of-the-box and custom solutions for any situation.”

Better yet, ATTPR and other professionals often offer no-cost evaluations of companies’ current crisis PR preparation plans.

“First of all you have to have an objective view of the situation,” Barlow said. “That’s something every company thinks they’re capable of but in reality — and especially under pressure — that’s usually not obtainable. Second you have to balance that plan with your corporate agenda. Third, it’s got to make reasonable sense for any situation. If you can balance those three things you can establish a good plan. But generally the objective opinion does not come from within.”

Added Miller, “In 2013, there’s no excuse to be hanging in the breeze when it comes to crisis preparation.”

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Association moving quickly to address industry needs
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