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  • Writer's pictureTom Butler

Thinking Crisis, but Needing to be Prepared for a Pandemic

Fri., May 22, 2020

In late January, our firm took on a new client, New York City’s FDNY Emergency Medical Service (EMS) workforce. Looking back, the ironies are now quite remarkable.

They came to us because their message was simply not resonating with the news media, nor hitting the target with the public.

So, our team got to work.

Its original crisis was that their workforce needed better positive recognition about the intensive medical training they undergo and their status as front-line, first responders. In many New York neighborhoods, the FDNY EMS is referred to as the city’s “Street Doctors.” But like Rodney Dangerfield, “they got no respect.”

In the six weeks that followed we gained a lot of traction. The storylines we sought, took shape nicely and began playing out in some of New York City’s largest news and editorial pages, and on the airwaves.

It even brought forward several high-profile surrogates to stand in unity with this mostly female, clearly underpaid, and certainly under-respected workforce. We didn’t plan for a crisis with this client, but then the world changed.

As former ABC News broadcaster Paul Harvey would pivot halfway through his stories, in order to share “The Rest of the Story,” we are in the second half of May 2020. Our nation and New York especially have been steamrolled by the Pandemic.

That very same client, the 4,500 members of the FDNY EMS that months ago feared their lower profile had become an impediment, had now been foisted into the limelight as American heroes battling the Coronavirus.

The resources required by the agency to address various storylines and a long and winding list of news media is significant, but the client has graced most of the major network television news channels, and with frequency and repetition told their story to the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters and hundreds more.

Our original goal was to highlight the vital works EMS workers do and the need for them to be better compensated. As the Coronavirus struck, we entered the heat of battle, with no off-the-shelf game plan, and were able to bring their important message to a massive audience.

Similarly, in the very earliest days of the outbreak, on Sunday, March 7, 13-days before the state stay-at-home order, I received a call from the CO-CEOs of a prominent consumer beverage brand. Only 30-minutes earlier they were notified by an employee, now in the hospital with pneumonia, that he was the first confirmed case of Coronavirus in a county of 1.5 million.

This was going to be disclosed by the health department to the media, first thing Monday morning. So, we had a few hours to prepare?

Unfortunately, no, because at that very moment the company was hosting 150 people in their performance and restaurant space.

Together, we had to rapidly establish a plan that considered best-practices but did not incite irrational fear.

Americans had been reading all about the tragic death toll in Italy and China, but the public did not have sufficient health and medical information.

How then, would we or anyone address the public, confronted with such alarming news, and not cause permanent brand reputational harm?

Throughout the night and early that morning the team prepared for a media onslaught, and for the health officials’ announcement to come. Believe me, there is no brand that wants to be the first in this type of scenario.

When the announcement was made by the health department, the company addressed the media inquiries in a plain-vanilla prepared statement from our firm, factual but not alarmist, while steadfastly protecting the privacy of the employee.

The company announced that it was immediately closing to the public for several weeks, to recognize a multi-week quarantine period agreed to with the health department, and to voluntarily conduct a deep sterilization of its facilities. While by now, we’ve all heard about deep cleaning thousands of times over, back then it was still news.

The firm addressed every single media inquiry and the coverage was fair, considering the company had the misfortune of being first. We had battened down the hatches for the day-two narrative when something unexpected happened.

We received a mid-day call from another client, the leader of the FDNY’s EMS union to notify us that it now had the first positive Coronavirus case among New York City’s first responders. He said, “we need to get the word out to the media now.”

If you work long enough in this business, you will always find a time when that big client news scoop, that just cannot miss, does, because a bigger news event comes along.

It just so happens that on this day, the bigger, more dominant news story was also controlled by us.

Within minutes, our team, which operates much like a newsroom, was conveying the EMS story to some of New York City’s biggest editors and television news channels.

Both stories got told, but because we had the size, capacity, and ability to conduct rapid response to manage two simultaneous crisis situations that day, the outcome was considered a success by both clients.

This all illustrates again, that there is NO TEMPLATE for a CRISIS.

For over 25 years, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of being called in to help a corporation, celebrity, CEO, or non-profit to tamp down and then pivot in a positive direction away from a crisis.

Many times, I’ve suggested to the various CEOs whose company reputation had a bullseye hanging on them, that the work we can accomplish together, when executed properly, can be a means for the brand to emerge even stronger.

In this Pandemic, every business has needed to scramble, in many cases simply for survival. Despite some nerve-wracking early weeks, the fact that our firm has a significant crisis management practice and long-established work teams that mirror the operations of a newsroom, I believe has given us a greater resiliency.

Throughout this pandemic we have executed crisis plans – some made very quickly, on the fly - for dozens of clients in unchartered waters, regardless of their industry. The shuttering of their retail locations and protection of staff or overcoming concerns of layoff.

In this time when the existence of many long, well-established brands is threatened, it is the innovative, very out-of-the-box thinking that our industry is recognized for that will come out in the end. I have spoken with many peers in the public relations, marketing, and advertising side of the business and many have said their business world has been turned upside down.

By this point in my career, having worked with hundreds of companies, brands, campaigns, litigations, quite frankly, I thought I had experienced so very much, including representing the FDNY’s firefighters before and after the 9/11 attacks and standing amidst the rubble at Ground Zero.

And then a Pandemic occurred.


Thomas P. Butler is President of Butler Associates Strategic Communications & PR.

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