|Five Questions about Crisis Communication Planning at a Food Retail and Food Distribution Company
Kimberly George is Vice President Communications and Corporate Citizenship at Alex Lee, Inc., a food retail and food distribution company based in North Carolina.
What is Alex Lee, Inc. and what path did you take to your current role as Vice President, Communications and Corporate Citizenship?
Alex Lee, Inc. is a family-owned and operated company that was founded in 1931 and today employs approximately 10,000 people. Alex Lee serves as the parent company of Merchants Distributors, LLC, which provides full-service, wholesale distribution to supermarkets. In addition, Alex Lee is the parent company of Lowes Foods, LLC which includes 94 full-service grocery stores in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as Just Save food stores in North Carolina. Alex Lee is based in Hickory, North Carolina.
I started working at Merchant Distributors in 2000 in the marketing department. I then joined a management training program that took me through positions in several functional areas of the business including retail store management, purchasing, and human resources. I learned most aspects of the business before moving into my role in communications. Having that background is very beneficial in my current role. In creating crisis plans for instance, this broad business experience helps me understand the communications flow, who does what, etc.
How has your business experience helped in the crisis planning for Alex Lee and its operating companies?
In preparing for a crisis, my experience in various areas of the business helps me understand who could be impacted by different situations and the communications flow. With many different physical locations, it is not only critical that we respond at the affected site, but we must also consider how the situation could affect other business functions and sites.
For example, a computer network outage on the surface may seem like an inconvenience that Information Services needs to focus on and fix. The first reaction is not necessarily to start notifying the entire organization of the outage. This type of outage, however, affects our ability to accept orders, pick orders, load trucks, route trucks, etc. It can also affect the ability of our stores to run registers, do inventory, and accept credit cards. It is therefore critical that all areas of the business get notified in a timely manner so they can continue to operate the business and prepare to use backup plans. Knowing how a specific issue can impact the entire organization is critical for proper planning and an effective response.
Do you have a crisis response team and if so, how is it designed?
We have a crisis response team at each operating company and one for Alex Lee. The teams work together in preparation, maintaining documentation, and training, but if a crisis only affects one operating company, it is possible that the team for that company would be the only team that responds. Depending on the scope of the crisis, they would determine if it needs to be escalated to the Alex Lee team. In most situations, we do notify all team members throughout the organization of a possible situation.
Each team has a lead and deputy along with supporting members that represent different areas of the business that are critical to continued operations. We also have a person assigned to updating contact information, notification trees, and other documentation.
What do you see as the role of communications in a crisis?
For all crisis situations, communications is key. Therefore, as the communications lead, I am involved in all crisis responses. We have standby statements and possible responses prepared so that in an actual crisis, the time to develop statements is minimal. With the impact of social media and less response time, it is critical to have a communications plan ready to go.
Some other things we do to make sure we are prepared for communicating to the public is identifying key spokespersons and providing them with regular media training. We also provide crisis media training for anyone in public relations or marketing. I believe strongly that the methods used for communicating in a crisis will improve the ability to interact with the media in any situation. It is of course also a plus to have C4CS® as outside consultants for crisis preparedness planning, recurring training, and crisis response assistance.
What role do you believe scenario-based crisis training plays in crisis response preparedness?
Using scenarios in training for both crisis response and media training makes the situation real. People get to see how they would react in certain situations and experience some of the emotions related to a crisis. We all react differently when things start to go wrong, and it is critical to be able to manage the emotional response and focus on the situation. Scenarios also give the team the opportunity to think through what could go wrong and how the situation could play out. That is also the reason I believe scenario based crisis training is a valuable team building exercise. You always hope for the best, but you need to prepare for the worst.
Media Interview Preparation Steps
C4CS® consultants, trainers, and coaches regularly work closely with managers who request assistance concerning preparing for media interview opportunities. Our goal is to develop skills building sessions that are challenging but not too advanced. We therefore customize training format, content, and delivery to fit the client partner's and the individual manager's needs.
Even if there is little time to get ready for a news media interview, we try to cover message development as well as non-verbal and verbal message delivery. For TV interviews, on-camera interview practices that are taped and later reviewed and critiqued are a critical skills building tool.
If there is more time for interview preparation, our group media training and one-on-one spokesperson skills coaching also convey core fundamentals such the role of the news media and how traditional print and broadcast media and bloggers work. In addition, we teach media interview techniques and walk group training participants and coachees through what they should and should not do before, during, and after media interviews using real life examples and anecdotes.
No matter how much time a manger has to prepare for a media interview opportunity, going through the steps listed below will make her or him more comfortable delivering targeted messages and representing the company in a favorable way. And because practice makes perfect, we encourage all of our client partners to schedule regular refresher media training and executive skills media coaching so every manger who speaks on behalf of the company has the necessary knowledge and skills to function as an effective spokesperson.
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- Gather and write down relevant information and facts concerning the interview topic(s) and issue(s) at hand.
- Determine the interview type, when, where, by whom (reporter) and with whom (spokesperson) the interview will be conducted, and research the interview style of and previous stories by the assigned reporter.
- Organize and memorize relevant information and facts according to importance and likelihood of usage during the interview.
- Brainstorm for possible questions and how you can best answer them and write everything down.
- Determine what you want to accomplish with the interview and write down your goals in order of importance. View the interview as an opportunity to convey your messages.
- Develop up to three key messages and related talking points which you want to deliver in order to accomplish your interview goals. Write everything down.
- Think about relevant examples and comparisons that will make your case stronger and write them down next to the corresponding potential questions and your key messages.
- Identify confidential information and determine how you will respond to questions concerning such information.
- Revisit preparation steps four through eight and seek input from your colleagues and external advisers regarding your approach.
- Decide what you are going to wear for the interview and practice body language and facial expressions.
- Familiarize yourself with common reporters' interview techniques or tactics and how you should react.
- Repeatedly practice answering likely questions with someone as well as in front of a mirror.
- A media skills trainer will be able to further sharpen your skills and enhance your level of comfort regarding different interview types and situations. Participate in group training and consider one-on-one media coaching in preparation for specific interview opportunities.
- Especially if you anticipate being interviewed by an antagonistic reporter, repeatedly practice transitioning from potential questions to your key messages. Practice flagging and hooking, which are media interview techniques you should also learn to use.
- Remain calm and collected, review your interview goals and key messages, take a couple of deep breaths, and don’t forget to greet the interviewer and other media staff.
Food For Thought
“As we prepare to welcome a new year
and with it the promise of shocking new scandals,
severe data breaches, vicious brand bashing,
social media executions and bad taste meltdowns,
crisis preparation should be on every
C-suite executive's wish list."