Seed World

Plan Ahead to Stay Ahead of a Crisis

When it comes to crisis communication, the most important piece is to have a strategy in place before disaster hits.

It doesn’t matter what area of the agriculture sector you’re in — whether you’re in an office or on the farm, disaster could strike at some point. These disasters could look differently based on where you are. For some, it might look like a pandemic such as COVID-19. Others might experience natural disasters that wipe out a crop. Sometimes, it could just be a pest that strikes.

Unfortunately, crises are part of the business game, and you never know when they’re going to hit. So, how are you supposed to plan your communication, when you don’t know what you’re going to be up against or when?

“You need to show your customers or your employees that you’re organized and confident — that you can handle whatever crisis you’re dealing with,” says Chris Cornelius, executive assistant of Cornelius Seed and president of the Independent Professional Seed Association. “There’s nothing quite so unsettling as having an issue and having nobody know what’s going on.”

There are three categories of crisis-type situations that could appear in most operations, says Julie Smith, research associate professor in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences with the University of Vermont.

  1. Incapacitation of one or more of the principal operators
  2. Natural disasters
  3. The three P’s — poisons, pests or pathogens

“Preparedness broadly is important, and then from there, building the crisis communication plan that’s appropriate for the different types of events you might experience,” Smith says.

When determining the severity of a situation, Smith likes to keep in mind a scale — while it can look like many things, typically, she imagines something like a fire danger risk gauge.

“If it’s green, everything’s normal and good, but if you go to the other end of the scale, you’re in that red danger zone. Then, we’re in a really severe crisis,” she says, adding that more severe crises will have both short-term and long-term impacts.

To prevent that unsettling feeling during a crisis, whether severe or tame, it’s important to create a strategy before disaster strikes to kick off a communication plan.

“You don’t start crisis communication when you have a crisis,” says Jim Schweigert, president of Gro Alliance and upcoming chair of the American Seed Trade Association. “It really should be part of your business planning strategy from day one.”

At Gro Alliance, Schweigert says what helps prepare for crises in the future is an exercise called scenario planning. This is conducted during the annual management team meeting. He and his team discuss what would happen if the industry went in a certain direction — that way, they can map out responses to each scenario, including the task leader in charge of employees, clients and suppliers.

“You’re not going to exactly plan the crisis or situation that comes up,” Schweigert says, noting this planning generally means employees know where information needs to go, where information may come from and how to communicate to stakeholders in a more organized fashion.

In addition, ensuring your team and employees are educated on the process is imperative to distribute the correct information to stakeholders.

“The buck stops at the desk of the leadership team. It’s important these people are on the same page,” Cornelius says. “You’ve got to all be on board in delivering the message.”

One way to guarantee a consistent message, she says, is to choose a spokesman — someone who thinks quickly on their feet and can handle tough questions, while being sympathetic.

“It’s important to deliver a clear message,” she says. “If a customer asks, ‘What are you guys doing about this?’ There’s a black and white answer with no room for interpretation.”

With a plan in place and an idea of the communication chain, all three agree: you’ll be able to get through a crisis.

“You don’t have a crisis in front of you right now,” says Schweigert. “But you will. So, start getting ready today.”

Want to watch the full conversation between our panelists? Watch the episode at:

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