An unexpected hazardous situation in a plant or facility requires calm nerves, logical thinking and an organized procedure for handling the situation, both internally and externally.

In addition to addressing the situation itself, executives face the task of communicating it to others. This communication is critical, because the way the situation is perceived will affect the company's image and reputation.

Communicating in the face of an environmental emergency is never easy, but being prepared makes it much less difficult. In fact, communicating in a professional, prepared manner in the aftermath of such an event can enhance key business relationships and limit the negative effects.

The key to being prepared is to have a communication plan in place before an emergency happens. Instead of trying to build a plan when an event occurs and when resources and emotions are strained, it should be built over time, when clearer minds prevail.

  • Crisis communications team. The communication required during an environmental emergency is extensive and requires expertise and input from key areas of the organization including executive, financial, human resources, communications, legal, operations and environmental. The team should build the plan together, update it regularly and be prepared to execute when an emergency occurs.
  • Contact lists. A crisis will require communication with customers, employees, suppliers, regulators, local safety officials, the media, public officials and perhaps others. Although contact information for these individuals likely exists in various forms throughout the organization, or can be located, the best plan has this data in one place. Be sure to get detailed contact information - home numbers, cell numbers, etc. - for critical contacts, like board members, key customers, communications team members and vendors who would supply support needed in a crisis.
  • Designated spokespersons. There should be one spokesperson for external news media, but there may be other "go-to" persons for suppliers, particular customers, hourly employees, salaried employees, etc. Identify these individuals in advance. The person responsible for communicating to the media should get media training in advance.
  • Prepared statements. What kinds of emergencies can happen at your company? How would the company respond? What key messages would you need to deliver? The plan should include partially-completed prepared statements that answer who, what, when, where, how and why, as well as the company's response, with key messages included. When an emergency occurs, the adjusted key messages will form the basis of all communications. The partially-completed statements can be completed if an emergency occurs, but it won't be necessary to start from scratch, which means it will be possible to get a statement out quickly, which is critical to maintaining control.
  • Questions and answers. What kinds of questions would an environmental emergency at your company generate? Take the time to develop these questions, as well as the best answers. Adjustments can be made, but some of the work will already be complete.
  • Communications center. Designate space to serve as the hub of meetings and other communications management activities. The place should be well wired, out of the way, and large enough to support interaction.
  • Everyday public relations. Although not part an emergency communications plan per se, ongoing public relations is part of being prepared. Responsible companies develop healthy relationships with media and opinion leaders. These relationships will enhance access and understanding when time is tight¿s it usually is during an environmental emergency.