INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Watermelon industry members learned the do's and don'ts of communication in the midst of a crisis at the National Watermelon Association's annual conference at Lake Tahoe.

The National Watermelon Promotion Board brought Jim Satterfield, president and CEO of Roswell, Ga.-based Firestorm Solutions LLC, a crisis management consulting company, to provide NWA members training on how to prepare for any kind of crisis they might face in their businesses.

"Crisis is not business as usual," Satterfield said, which is why most companies find themselves unprepared to communicate with stakeholders, the media and the public when a crisis occurs.

Good preparation and careful communication can prevent a tragic event, such as an employee death or a foodborne illness outbreak linked to a company's product, from becoming a public relations nightmare and forever defining a company, Satterfield said.

Satterfield gave attendees a framework for creating a crisis response plan, especially focusing on how to communicate.

Principles included limiting communications early in the crisis ("Most of what you learn in the first 24 hours will be wrong or factually incorrect"), funneling communication through a spokesman or spokeswoman and focusing the main message on a few "home bases":

  • We will not be defined by this event;
  • We will invent the future; and
  • We will embrace the families.

Satterfield cautioned companies against trying to explain how a crisis event was not their fault or detailing exactly what went wrong. "If you're explaining, you're already losing," he said.

As part of the seminar, Satterfield invited volunteers to the stage to apply the communication tips they'd just heard as he grilled them on aspects of their operations.