Crisis: A time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger; a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. Crisis situations are not fun. No one looks forward to them or wishes they would happen, but they always do. It always seems to be at the worst possible time, too.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you either haven’t been in the dairy industry long enough or someone desperately needs to take away your rose-colored glasses. However, developing a plan now to handle potential crises can help to make them less horrifying and chaotic.

Crisis communication is different than normal communication with the public. This is not another chance to tell the public about the dairy industry. Your goal here is to:

  • Control and contain the message
  • Seek balance in media coverage
  • Minimize the news cycle

Do not try to defend yourself or offer hindsight solutions. This is not the time for that. This is the time to acknowledge what occurred, take responsibility and share how you will fix the problem. Developing a crisis communication plan is the first step to accomplishing this goal.

Anticipate possible situations

Sit down and analyze your dairy. What are some potential risks you face from the media, animal activists, weather or local regulations? Write those down and first organize them into short-term and long-term crises. Then further divide them into non-emergency and emergency situations (Table 1).


crisis types

Take note of risk factors, such as:

  • Physical risk from machinery or facility assets
  • Environmental risks including water and wind
  • Employee behavior
  • Your community’s view of the business, agriculture and the environment

Be thorough in your assessment. It is an important step to preparing for, and possibly averting, a potential crisis.

Once you’ve made your list of potential issues, assign values to each one based on how likely it is to happen and how significantly it would impact your operation. Using this list, start building your crisis plan and response elements for each issue.

Begin with the most important issues and work your way down. While you’re doing this, identify places where you could make improvements now that could reduce the risk down the road.

Identify a team

Your team should include your management, your communicators and, if necessary, your outside counsel, such as a public relations firm or attorney. Decide who will communicate with:

  • Family and employees
  • Media
  • Outside officials
  • Regulators
  • Customers

The same person might not be the right person to communicate with each group. For instance, if this is an animal welfare issue due to lack of training, it might be best to have you or your herdsman work with your family and your employees to inform them of the situation and be in charge of keeping the solution moving forward.

However, he might not be comfortable talking to the media, so assign that job to someone who is but is also knowledgeable enough about the operation and the situation to be able to answer any questions that come his or her way.

Develop communication plans

Once you’ve formed your plan for the crisis, decide when it should be implemented. Some plans, like one for a natural disaster, may be on standby until you need it. Others, like one for controlling animal rights activists, may require some action now.

For instance, if you know some of your training isn’t as good as it could be, then step one would be to improve that. Who knows, that preventative step could be the difference between you being targeted and you being left alone.

No matter what you’re planning for, it is important to assign roles and review everyone’s job in working with authorities or regulators, media and stakeholders or customers. Make sure each person is aware of and comfortable with his or her role. In order for the plan to run smoothly, everyone must know his or her job.

It is also a good idea to keep all personnel contact information, verification of safety plan, emergency services contact information and industry association contact information handy. To ensure everyone is on the same page, make a business fact sheet and share it with your team. This fact sheet should include:

  • Industry best practices being followed
  • Any relevant environmental plans
  • Local economic impact
  • History of community involvement
  • Any other relevant material

Do not be afraid to ask questions or seek outside help from other industry professionals or trade groups, as they may be able to provide valuable insight on these topics. Once you have your plan, share it with your employees, industry professionals, the local fire department and the police.

Identify and train spokespersons

Now that you have your plan and your team together, decide who will be your spokesperson and who will be your backup spokesperson. These team members should be comfortable talking to the media and knowledgeable enough about the situation to answer questions about it. Remember, they’re the experts here, so they should only speak to what they know.

crisis communication plan

Make sure these team members are prepared by doing mock interviews and sharing media interview basics. This will be important in the crisis when emotions may be running high and it could be difficult to stick to your message.

Practice possible scenarios

Practice a different scenario at least once a year. After each practice scenario, analyze your performance and identify areas for improvement. Adjust your plan accordingly.

Implement plan if needed

Each plan should have a phase one and phase two. Phase one is your response to the event in the days and weeks directly following it. Phase two is your ongoing plan that occurs in the months and years following the event. It includes your response to issues arising from the event. During this phase, remember to:

Respond quickly

  • Tell it all
  • Tell the truth
  • Get it right the first time
  • Speak with a unified voice
  • Cooperate with everyone
  • Get dairy industry support
  • Provide updates as needed

In times of crisis, it is important to know when to engage and when to sit back. Crises are not the time to tell your story. Here, you need to acknowledge what went wrong, take responsibility for what happened and respond with how you will make changes.

Use key learningto make improvements

Now that you’ve hopefully survived the crisis, review and debrief with your team. This includes:

  • What went well
  • What you could’ve done better
  • What you need to change to prevent this crisis from happening again
  • Share your updates with everyone involved
  • Update your plan following the crisis

No crisis plan will be perfect. However, it is a way to make you and your team discuss the issues in detail. This will help everyone handle the crisis to the best of their ability, present a united front and hopefully minimize the issues that arise. PD

The information in this article was presented by Renea Heinrich, a counselor at Morgan Myers, as part of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy’s Visible Voice workshop series. This article is part two of a two-part series on the program.

To read part one, click here.

Jenna Hurty