Effective crisis communication requires ample preparation

March 2, 2015 By    

Customer service representatives (CSRs) should deliver a consistent message in the event of a propane shortage or another crisis. Still, it’s on retailers to get CSRs, drivers and other employees who directly communicate with customers on the same page. Photo: iStock.com/Squaredpixels

The propane shortage that much of the industry experienced last winter wasn’t a story that stayed within the confines of the industry.

Word of the regional shortage rapidly spread across the United States in a matter of days, and the story found its way into the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The coverage wasn’t the most flattering, and the news story affected propane retailers, whether the shortage impacted them directly or not. At times, the reporting wasn’t entirely accurate, and retailers found themselves in a pickle unlike any they’d experienced.

The damage from that winter shortage is largely done, and a number of retailers made the necessary adjustments with storage, suppliers and in other areas to best position themselves should such an event occur again.

But what about the messages delivered during that crisis? Had the industry communicated differently with the news media, the government and customers, would propane businesses have received the “black eye” from which they’re still healing?

Or what about this: Should propane retailers have talked about the shortage at all?

“Why were we even talking about a shortage?” says David Lowe, a sales consultant at Pro Image Communications, a company that provides marketing, sales, training and consulting services to the propane industry. “Why would you broadcast and spend money and resources to tell everyone there’s a shortage and you have not planned properly, that you have not taken care of your customers and it’s somebody else’s fault? That just baffles me.”

As Lowe argues, retailers shouldn’t have put themselves in such unenviable positions in the first place. But once retailers realized they were short on gas, the approach some took should have been vastly different, he says.

“You want to convince propane users that the product you provide them is just like natural gas,” Lowe says. “You’ll never run out. You’ll never have to stop a situation and start up again. Once we have you, you’re ours for life.”

Preparing for the worst
Crystal DeStefano, another industry consultant who is president and director of public relations at Strategic Communications LLC, says propane retailers should not wait for crises like shortages to reach out to customers and others.

DeStefano says retailers should communicate proactively.

“Start thinking about your communications now because you won’t be able to deliver the best response when you’re rushing through things,” she says. “We’re not in a crisis situation now in the propane industry. Although our advice is typically to go through an exercise for the warmer seasons, it would be a good idea for dealers to start thinking about whether they’re prepared for a crisis and, if not, what they should be doing.”

DeStefano says retailers’ preparations can start with a list of crises that have affected – or could affect – their business. Building a list can be an informal exercise that involves everyone in the business, she adds. Once a list of potential crises is constructed, retailers should develop response plans to each event.

“Write down who would respond in each of those situations,” DeStefano says. “Who’s writing the communications, the letters or talking points? Who’s in charging of doing what? At a basic level, figure out what you want to say in a couple of bullet points. You don’t even have to write out complete sentences.”

Retailers are unlikely to execute their crisis responses exactly as planned, DeStefano adds. But retailers can make adjustments on the fly to best address crises when they arise.

Retailers who don’t have a dedicated communications person on staff are especially encouraged to build a list in anticipation of propane crises. In addition, DeStefano says, small and mid-sized retailers should turn to their state association for advice.

“If there is a propane dealer who can’t afford to have a communications professional or a marketing or communications firm to help them directly, many state associations have training programs for responding to crisis situations,” she says. “Education and training programs are out there, and they include communications.”

Lowe agrees training is essential to prepare employees for industry crises, among other reasons. Unfortunately, he says, many companies have a fear of training programs.

“The best companies and the really good performers do professional customer service training and sales training,” Lowe says. “They don’t look at it as an expense; they look at it as an investment.”

After all, when propane customers ask for answers related to a shortage or another crisis, shouldn’t customer service representatives (CSRs), drivers and other employees deliver a consistent message?

“If a customer calls and asks what’s going on, you have to be ready to answer their questions,” DeStefano says. “We have to prepare for crises and situations before they occur. After dealers sit down for 30 to 60 minutes about what could happen and who would handle it, make sure your CSRs and drivers – anybody who interacts with customers – knows what you’re preparing for. If you have messages to deploy, make sure all your employees have those messages. Hand them a piece of paper with bullet points.”

Modes of communication
After retailers formulate the messages they want to deliver, they must determine how to disseminate those messages.

According to DeStefano, employees are the best source to deliver messages from the company to customers. But in addition to CSRs and drivers, retailers can employ additional methods to communicate with their customer base.

“Bill stuffers are a good first line of defense, but something more immediate – depending on the importance of bringing special attention to your message – is a letter,” DeStefano explains. “It could be five sentences. If you send a letter, because of the immediacy of the situation or making sure your message is seen, I would also be sure an individual signs it so the recipient feels like there’s two-way communication.”

Beyond bill stuffers and letters, reaching out to the news media is another option. Still, propane retailers should tread carefully if they approach the media.

“Depending on geographical reach and duration of something like a shortage, contacting the media through a press release or writing a letter to the editor is an effective way to reach people,” DeStefano says. “But it depends on the severity of the situation or the geographic reach. We don’t want to overdramatize an issue and cause unnecessary panic.”

Unique circumstances are required for retailers to write press releases and letters to the editor, though. A press release is generally worth issuing when a company receives multiple requests from the news media, DeStefano says. A letter to the editor is a better route when the media is delivering misinformation.

“In a crisis, the media looks to you as an expert,” she says. “If there’s been some misinformation in the media and you want to communicate an opinion, advice or more of a personal perspective on a situation, think about how you want to communicate this. Is this an alert you want to broadcast, or do you want it to sound like it’s a one-on-one conversation with the readers of a newspaper? If you want to respond to an accusation, you might want to consider the letter-to-an-editor approach.”

Newsletters are another effective mode of communicating messages, Lowe says.

“The number one retention tool is a newsletter,” Lowe says. “A company that does two to three newsletters a year on a continuous basis and promotes not only the company but their expertise and the fact that they offer price-protection programs – that they can sign up for a monthly payment program any day of the year – is effective.”

Still, newsletters are just one mode by which retailers can communicate a message. Retailers shouldn’t limit themselves to one form of communication. They should, however, attempt to reach customers where they’ll best receive information – not necessarily on a level that’s best or most convenient for the company delivering the message.

“Social media, the local media, newsletters and bill stuffers are avenues [to communicate], but you have to know your market,” Lowe says. “Cable TV might be the way to go in North Dakota and social media might be the thing in Silicon Valley. You have to know your market, refresh your message and be consistent with it.”

Make sure your message is consistent across the company, as well.

“Make your staff very knowledgeable,” Lowe says. “If you talk to five different employees, you don’t want five different pitches. Marketing is nothing more than repetition.”

Employees as messengers

Propane retailers don’t necessarily have to hire a consulting professional to make their employees better crisis managers. Strategic Communications’ Crystal DeStefano has some simple advice for retailers who want to elevate their employees’ customer service skills when times get especially tough.

“Just talk to them,” DeStefano says. “Let them know what’s going on. Whether you want them to represent your company or not, they do. It’s your name on their truck, hat, jacket.”

Anything employees say, including “I don’t know,” reflects back on the company, DeStefano adds.

“That’s received as an official statement of the company,” she says. “If your drivers don’t know or your admin support staff doesn’t know, you must not know either. Owners have no choice but to empower their people with the messages they want the community and media to be receiving.”

The propane industry experienced one of the most challenging winter heating seasons on record in 2013-14. In preparation for future winters amid a changing energy environment, LP Gas is examining the issues that led to what some called a crisis supply situation. We are reaching out to all segments of the industry to explore our past and future, bringing attention to key subjects, initiating industry dialogue and providing necessary education to our readers.


About the Author:

Kevin Yanik was a senior editor at LP Gas Magazine.

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