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MANILA, Philippines -- An effective public relations strategy is vital to a risk manager's response to a crisis, according to a corporate communications executive.

Roland G. Estabillo, vp-corporate communications for Manila-based Philipine Airlines Ltd., said PAL has had "a lot of practice implementing the principles of crisis communications," during a speech at the second biennial conference of the Federation of Asia Pacific & African Risk Management Organisations. The conference was held at the Peninsula Hotel in Manila, Oct. 14-16.

Mr. Estabillo said crisis public relations does not mean "making sand bags after the dike has burst," but having sandbags ready and planning in advance, according to the degree and nature of the breach in the dike.

He said crisis PR operates while there is no crisis. It cannot totally prevent the adverse public perception that a crisis creates, but it can minimize negative publicity and help to reverse negative public perception.

It is not, however, a preventive tool, but a remedial procedure to counter the effects of the unpreventable.

Preparing for a crisis involves drawing up a plan that includes an objective, strategies, a target audience, spokespeople, a communications center, and defined roles for members of the communications audit department.

Mr. Estabillo, a former journalist, advised risk managers to cooperate with the media during a crisis. "If you do not communicate, others will," he warned.

While the company objective is to understand why a crisis occurred and how to prevent a reoccurrence, journalists want to know "Who is to blame?" and "Why was this crisis not prevented?" he said.

"Your company will take as much time as necessary to get answers. Journalists will try to get the answer as quickly as possible, faster than the competition."

Mr. Estabillo told corporations facing a crisis to "seize the opportunity to communicate immediately at the start of a crisis. Emergencies get the most attention during the first 24 to 48 hours, when facts are scarce."

He said newsrooms are the place where "your message is processed, scrutinized, dissected, mangled, or worse. . .thrown in the garbage bin."

The editor decides whether to publish or broadcast a press release based on news value, substance and importance. The editor is the virtual dictator. "In the newsroom, there is no place for democracy," he said.

Mr. Estabillo said hostile reporters and interviewers can surprise executives or put them off guard with unfriendly questions. "The cardinal rule is to resist any combative instincts," he noted.

"You may be sorely tempted to strike back at what you consider unfair treatment. Even if you think the media is irresponsible, if you lose control of yourself, you will lose control of the situation," he said.

In a crisis, the media can be "your best friend or your worst enemy." The difference lies in preparation. Mr. Estabillo advised risk managers to build rapport with journalists. "Friendly media relations are based on trust and mutual respect."

He said PAL has been able to "surmount one crisis after another" because it implements effective communications plans.