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Forecast is bright and sunny for crisis specialists


Companies that specialize in coaching executives on how to deal with the media during a crisis say business has accelerated in recent months.  

At Wixted Pope Nora Thompson & Associates, which specializes in teaching executives how to get themselves out of a jam, founders Eileen Wixted and Alison Gregory Pope said events ranging from the collapse of Enron Corp. to the weak economy have boosted business leaders’ interest in preparing themselves for possible trouble.

“We deal in the court of public opinion,” Pope said. “Sitting on your hands and being satisfied with the internal company newsletter or Intranet isn’t enough anymore.”

The message from Wixted and Pope, two former Des Moines broadcast journalists who started their company in 1989, is being heard by more and more executives these days.

With reputation-damaging scandals such as Martha Stewart’s alleged insider trading filling business pages and pictures of executives being paraded in handcuffs up courthouse steps dominating nightly television newscasts, more companies are taking communications and the need for having a plan in an emergency more seriously than they have in recent years.

Adding to pressures is current public sentiment, which is quick to condemn companies for major or minor offences, either real or perceived.

“What may have just tripped a company in the past might now be enough to knock them out for good in a down economy,” said Diana Deibler, who earlier this year formed Deibler & Co., which offers a combination of public relations and management consulting services for various-sized businesses. “In a down economy, it’s not as easy to bounce back and recover.”

Wixted, Pope and Deibler all said the crisis communications portion of their business has jumped in the past year. At Wixted Pope, revenues from crisis communications this year will surpass that of other executive speaking courses, such as presentation training, that the company offers, Wixted said.

“This is the year of the fire drill,” she said. “The amount of work in the crisis arena has skyrocketed.”

Wixted Pope has offices in Chicago and Houston, in addition to the firm’s headquarters in West Des Moines.

The company’s clients include some of the biggest companies in the world. Wixted Pope has done work for Phillips Petroleum, Motorola Inc., Delta Air Lines and Abbott Laboratories.   In Iowa, the company serves FBL Financial Group Inc., Iowa Health System, Maytag Corp., Meredith Corp. and Winnebago Industries.

Wixted Pope specializes in helping companies in such high-risk industries as nuclear power and health care.

The company is made up of four partners, but has a long list of experts it can bring in to consult on particular projects.

Associates include former Wall Street executives, a White House press corps member, trade journalists and multilingual communications experts.   All associates have strict non-disclosure agreements in place. Some help with training programs, too.

Wixted Pope Nora also helps top executives learn to say what they want to say in high-pressure situations, such as delivering testimony before Congress or answering questions from Wall Street analysts during quarterly conference calls to discuss earnings.

The company has programs that help company leaders learn how to better understand and communicate with the media. More advanced training focuses on instructing executives on the best ways to handle controversial or sensitive subjects.

Deibler, whose company also offers a variety of sales-related services, said that in tough times, company executives must respond quickly and avoid any temptation to “hunker down.”

“Timeliness can make or break any situation,” she said. “And truthfulness is next to Godliness.”

In a fix?

The best way to find help in the midst of a crisis is to search for an company or individual who is credible and believes in telling the truth, or at least someone who won’t recommend spinning an issue so far that it turns into a lie.

“Run, don’t walk, away from any adviser who tells you to lie or to spin to the point of misleading,” said Diana   Deibler, who earlier this year formed Deibler & Co., a public relations and management consulting services company.

Professionals who have experience working in the media, or who are well liked by the media, is a plus, Deibler said.

“Choose someone who has a positive relationship with editors and reporters, and understands how news works,” she said.

Another criterion is how well the communications expert is able to stay on track and communicate well themselves, Deibler said. Perhaps most important factor is finding someone who is trustworthy.

“You must have the utmost confidence in the person you are working with,” she said. “There’s a lot on the line.”  

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