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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Penman PR > When Nanotechnology Needs Crisis Communication

Patti D. Hill
CEO / Founder
Penman PR, Inc.

As the field of nanotechnology continues into unchartered waters, there's a higher tendency for real or perceived threats to safety, health, or environment. A crisis communication plan will offer strategic and immediate guidance in dealing with critical situations.

September 5th, 2008

When Nanotechnology Needs Crisis Communication

Nanotechnology has the potential to dramatically improve the effectiveness of a number of existing consumer and industrial products and could have a substantial impact on the development of new applications ranging from disease diagnosis and treatment to environmental remediation.

Nanomaterials often exhibit unique physical and chemical properties that impart specific characteristics essential in making engineered materials, but insufficient information exists related to toxicity, or even the risk of fire or explosion associated with nanoscale combustible materials, and other risks yet unknown. Because of these unknown factors, every workplace dealing with nanoparticles, engineered nanomaterials, or other aspects of nanotechnology should have a crisis communications plan in place.

Typically, little or no warning precedes incidents involving real or perceived threat to safety, health, or environment, or to an organization's reputation or credibility. By having a crisis communications plan in place, a company becomes pre-emptive rather than reactive should something occur. Having a communication roadmap provides focused, pragmatic, and useful advice that will help executives deal with difficult situations strategically and immediately, while limiting collateral damage. As well, how a company manages the media during a crisis could determine whether it suffers serious repercussions or grows as a result of the incident.

Before ever developing a crisis communication plan it's important to employ preventive measures. Crisis prevention is the most challenging aspect of crisis planning, but unquestionably the most rewarding. It's relatively easy to identify and plan for events that can logically disrupt an organization; another thing to generate interest in planning for an event that is unlikely to occur. Crisis prevention involves exposure to management techniques and industry monitoring, such as media analysis or tracking and industry or public surveys. Monitoring will help identify early indicators of potential issues and trigger response preparations and actions to eliminate or manage a threat before it occurs. Moreover, management and employees who are aware of potential problem areas will be more alert to the threat of a crisis and in a better position to help avert it.

The second phase of crisis management is preparation. Being prepared for a crisis, whatever the situation, is of utmost importance. When the unexpected occurs and emotions and stress run high and trust is low, critical action items have a propensity to get overlooked or forgotten. A crisis management plan is a reference tool that will provide lists of key contact information, reminders of what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and alleviates inevitable management struggles, confusion, dilemmas, and moral challenges in the face of a crisis. The crisis management plan will also determine how to manage victims, reduce litigation, recover reputation, heal corporate wounds, deal with organized opposition, selectively engage the media, manage Web attack survival, and influence employees, customers, the community, and the public at-large.

Dr. Peter M. Sandman, one of the preeminent risk communication speakers and consultants in the United States and creator of the "Risk = Hazard + Outrage" formula for risk communication, outlines the following 25 key crisis communication points:

Don't over-reassure
Err on the alarming side
Acknowledge uncertainty
Share dilemmas
Acknowledge opinion diversity
Be willing to speculate
Don't aim for zero fear
Legitimize people's fears
Tolerate early over-reactions
Establish your own humanity
Tell people what to expect
Offer people things to do
Ask more of people
Don't lie, and don't tell half-truths
Aim for total candor and transparency
Be careful with risk comparisons

There are plenty of examples of poor crisis communications; a particularly notable one is the Enron debacle. In contrast, the ultimate example of excellent crisis management is during the poisoning of Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson came out more strongly positioned with the public than they were before the crisis happened. A more recent example of how excellent crisis management can build rather than destroy is the success that former New York Mayor Rudi Giulaini has enjoyed since his handling of the press during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

As the field of nanotechnology continues into unchartered waters and touches mainstream populations, crisis communication planning becomes more essential. Whether a crisis is caused by internal or external forces, a damaging situation throws an organization into a complex and difficult predicament that may have long-term impact on the organization and nanotechnology overall. While the outcome of a tumultuous situation remains unpredictable, having a structured plan in place can help an organization maintain its equilibrium as it manages the experience.

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