Plan Z

Young boy playing with building blocks

Last week, while walking around downtown NYC with my 5 year old he pointed to one of the taller buildings while we waited to cross the street and asked (in his “I know the answer but I want you to know that I know” voice), “Daddy, do you know what will happen if that building falls down?”

He’s been a bit obsessed (and pessimistic) about meteors hitting the earth since we explained how the dinosaurs became extinct.  So whenever he asks ‘catastrophe questions’ we always try to assure him that whatever it is “isn’t going to happen” (assuming it’s true) and do our best to reassure him we don’t live a world where buildings just fall down or [insert catastrophe here].

After politely informing me that “I know that daddy, but do you know what would happen?” (with snarkitude he inherited from somewhere? [insert snarky-flabbergasted look]) he proceeded to tell me all about how the building would fall and people would have to move out of the way to not be hurt and maybe die (we’ve covered the death topic generally with him already).

Wanting to move off the topic I ‘uh-huh-ed’ and asked him about school which was restarting in a few days (it wasn’t the place or time for a longer conversation).  It was at that point that I happened to look down the street to check for oncoming traffic and realized exactly where we were.  A stark reminder that we do, in fact, live in a world where buildings do fall down.

So, what’s the PR lesson here?  Is there a PR lesson here?  Sure there is – there’s a PR lesson almost everywhere, and here it is…

What’s your Plan Z for your client?  It’s not Plan B – the one you use when the campaign isn’t working or there’s a little bad news.  Plan Z is the one you use when your client discovers their telecom service kills kittens in Switzerland. Yes, I’m going for the thing you can’t anticipate, or more accurately — haven’t yet anticipated.  Some examples…

  • Sports PR – you thought drugs, bar fights, and womanizing were bad – how about some Michael Vick for you?  Did you see that one coming?
  • Corporate / Finance PR pros – Minor scandals – no problem.  How’d Enron treat you?
  • Book publicists – a little plagiarism or questionably sane authors – meh, you have ’em for lunch I’m sure.  Look out – there’s James Frey.  Not only did he do what we know he did, but the man lied to Oprah and didn’t get struck down by lightning — he’s about due so stay clear.

The point – there’s always something worse that you haven’t anticipated.  I’m not saying you need to obsess over this, but always consider, have in the back of your head a ‘Plan Z.’  A plan for the worst possible thing that could happen to your client (or that they could do to bring negative attention).  What’s going to be the next thing out of your mouth after “Who is this?” when the call comes in at 3 a.m.?

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  • Imma answer your last hypothetical and try to put a positive spin on it! The Freybacle occurred while I was still in school, so I was never involved in it, but given that it really was a disaster of epic proportions (in the publishing world), it really didn't go too badly for Frey. His books deals continue and whoever his publicist was seems to have done a really good job in rolling with the punches.

  • Very impressive for Frey's flack. I still wouldn't stand too close during a thunderstorm. 🙂

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  • Plan Z, also known as crisis communications. 🙂

    My mentor specializes in crisis communications, and runs drills for my company once or twice a year. We practice how to mitigate the situation and how to respond to the media. This tactic might work best for a company with large physical assets that can have catastrophic failures (refineries, power plants, etc.), but I think every company needs to think about how to deal with that worst-case scenario. It can mean the difference between coming out of the crisis relatively unscathed or losing the confidence of regulators and shareholders.
    Ideally, the next thing out of your mouth after “Who is this?” should be “I'm on my way. In the meantime, do x and y and z and call this person.”

  • Crisis communications– definitely something I wish I had more experience with (although I feel like I'll end up eating my words on this one). I've been a firm believer in Murphy's Law for a while. Anything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong, so get ready for it. Cog, your Plan Z is a good reminder. Nice post!

  • Hi Catherine –

    Thanks so much for your comment. With something like crisis work it feels as if no amount of experience is ever 'enough' since pretty much by definition you can never be sure what the crisis will be and the (public) fallout. At the same time hoping for more actual experience is a bit like spitting in the wind.

    Thanks again,

  • jeffespo

    Plan Z should being a boy scout (sorry ladies) and always be prepared. While working in Baltimore, I was very lucky to work under a PR pro, Kevin Byrne, who was very adept in dealing with crisis. I also got to see how to deal with a crisis with a Federal drug indictment.

    Previously he was the point on the PR team for a murder trial for another player and never flinched while guiding the team through the situation.

    Biggest takeaway was that you need to have your facts straight and do your best “lawyering” when dealing with the media. You also need to make the player accountable to the fans who are willing to shell out their salaries to watch them play. For the flack its also about showing the human in the person and staying on top of your game.

  • Thanks, Cog. This is a post every corporate PR exec should read. Guessing about 90% have no plan Z.

    Great call about crisis drills, mclairfemrite. These are a must for companies and they should also have a crisis plan detailed out in a document somewhere because not all people keep their cool in a crisis.

    And speaking of people, that can be a big part of your plan Z. Hire people you trust who think like, well, consumers. That way they'll know how consumers will react and be able to consider that if Z hits.

    You know who got Z'd on Thanksgiving? Tiger Woods. You know who got Z'd this week? H&M:

    As @Prtini asked on Twitter yesterday, what would you do if u were H&M's PR team?

    Justin Goldsborough

  • Hi Justin –

    Thanks for the comments and examples — all fantastic. Particularly about having a detailed crisis document – you never know who's going to keep their cool and those who don't really need to have something to guide them or all hope is lost.

    Have a great Friday & Weekend.

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