Editor’s note: Pete Larmey, client service manager, and Anna Munoz, senior account executive, are with Gibbs & Soell Public Relations, a full-service PR and marketing agency with offices in Raleigh, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Zurich, Switzerland. This column is the latest in The Entrepreneurial Spirit series produced in partnership between the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Developing a crisis communications plan is potentially one of the most important things that any company, large or small, can do.

Unfortunately, it’s also one of the last things that many companies consider. Some have difficulty seeing that something can go wrong, perhaps like the individual who doesn’t believe in insurance because he’s never had an accident.

Consider the case of Enterprise Pharmaceuticals, a hypothetical company that has just gained FDA approval of a new drug therapy. Patients begin taking the drug, not realizing that the first shipment of product contains foreign matter due to a mechanical error at the company’s production facility. People become ill, far beyond what typical side effects would normally present. Enterprise is forced to quickly pull the drug from the market while it identifies the problem. Simultaneously, company spokespeople struggle to deal with an aggressive media onslaught and often find themselves on the defensive in their attempts to reassure the public.

Does it sound like Enterprise had a crisis communications plan in place? Not in this example.

A solid crisis communications plan begins with developing a mindset that it’s necessary to have one. Every company has the potential to suffer a crisis. No company is immune.

Once that realization settles in, it’s time to develop a plan that addresses several things:

• What are the potential types of crises the company may face?

• What steps should be taken to address a crisis if it arises?

• What key messages must be conveyed to the public?

• What primary spokespeople need to be available to communicate to customers, the media, other important audiences?

Any plan will have to be flexible. When a crisis arises, it probably will be quick and unexpected – and may not be during business hours. The plan lays the groundwork for steps that must be taken when the unexpected does occur.

Certain ground rules should be followed when it becomes necessary to put a crisis plan into action.

• Don’t try to duck the story or stonewall the media. It will only make matters worse. Be forthcoming. Deal with the issue.

• Find out what is really going on as quickly as possible. What caused the crisis? How will the problem be corrected?

• Create messages that company spokespeople can articulate – clearly, succinctly, honestly, and with a sense of humility.

• Get out ahead of the story. Don’t let the media be the only ones speaking about it. Have company spokespeople actively telling the organization’s side of the story.

• Work with authorities who can support your position. Medical specialists, emergency service personnel, law enforcement officers – as appropriate, keep these important audiences in the loop on what’s happening and how you’re handling it.

• Respect the concerns of customers – especially those who may be affected – and shareholders. Sympathize with them. Tell them what is being done to rectify the situation.

In the case of Enterprise, the organization reacted fast, pulling the drug and trying to assure its customers and shareholders that the problem would be dealt with quickly and everything made right. However, the lack of a well-organized crisis communications plan could leave the company’s reputation shattered, requiring a great deal of time and effort to rebuild. By having a plan in place prior to the issue that arose, it’s likely that the company could have averted or minimized the damage to its brand.

Not all organizations have the same need to set aside significant resources to develop and implement a crisis communications plan. It’s important to remember, however, that a little bit of foresight and planning can go a long way toward being prepared. It’s also critical to follow the ground rules if a crisis does hit. Gather the facts and react quickly, strongly, and above all, honestly. In a crisis a good offense truly is the best defense.