Communicating During a Crisis – Crisis Management Essentials for Horse Professionals

**Originally written for

It’s hard to imagine that something like a fire or other natural disaster could ever happen to your barn. Furthermore, after you have done your all to save lives and property, as ragged and grief stricken as you may feel, there is still the crisis itself that as a business owner you will need to manage.

Since every situation is different, it can be difficult to prepare for the crisis management side of tragedies such as a barn fire. That is why we want you to have some tools in your business management toolkit to allow you to handle emergency events and how your business is regarded.

Crisis management is typically covered in public relations courses, but most equestrian professionals haven’t been privy to those courses. In public relations terms, a crisis is defined as “any event or circumstance that negatively impacts an organization’s, or individual’s, reputation, credibility or brand.”

There are three keys to effective crisis communication:

  1. Planning Ahead
  2. Speed and Efficiency
  3. Responsible Transparency

Planning Ahead This will require you to think the absolute worst about what may happen to your business, whether it be a social media rumor or barn fire. But you’ll have to look forward to create some directives for you and your employees to follow when such a crisis occurs. A detailed contingency or scenario plan should outline each crisis and how you best respond.

Speed and Efficiency It’s imperative to acknowledge the crisis situation immediately. While some details might not be known right then, or even in the days or weeks or months to come, a prompt announcement to industry and local media will help to minimize the amount of speculation and rumors. It also helps to show you are in control of the situation.

Responsible Transparency Don’t let misinformation take lead in your business’s reputation. In your communication, take responsibility (if it truly is your responsibility), tell the truth as to what transpired and avoid the need to engage in any cover-up. Share what you do and do not know at the time and allow for consistent updates.

Real Life Situation
On a frigid winter morning earlier this year, a breeding barn caught fire. Unfortunately, there was loss of equine life. This farm was home to many mares preparing to foal, and the owner had clients from surrounding states.

Being that the farm was located in a small town, it didn’t take long before photos of the fire were posted from the volunteer fire department’s Facebook page. The issue here was that the owner of the farm wanted to make sure all of the owners knew about what had happened and the whereabouts of their horses before the general public started spreading the news.

Luckily, the barn owner had a list of horses on her phone and each client’s contact information listed in her records. The owner reached out to just a couple of close friends to help call each owner. It was explained that a fire broke out and the status of their mare–whether she had been saved, taken to a local veterinarian or possibly lost. A sincere apology as well as a promise for updates helped to close the rather sensitive phone calls, and each name was marked off the list. It was a methodical list that took a few hours to complete due to the number of horses and the sometimes difficulty contacting each owner.

Because emotions were raw and heads were scrambled, the farm owner didn’t know what else should have been done in the early hours after the fire. A friend, who was astute in communications, came to her help. Judy* had been tuned into social media all morning long and had been the one to discover the photos from the local fire department. Judy took it upon herself to handle the crisis communication.

Unrelated barn fire

First, Judy took screenshots of the Facebook post as well as any comments made on the post. Then, a direct message was sent to the fire department asking them to take down the photos. Judy didn’t express anything but professionalism in her message, stating:

Hello, because of the sensitive nature of the events surrounding the barn fire, located at , the owner requests that you please take these photos down. She is currently working to contact each horse’s owner and would like for the owner to hear about the fire from her before photos are seen on social media.”

The fire department was quick to oblige, taking down the post and apologizing in the message.

Next, Judy put together a press release that was simple in its delivery but was enough to inform those who may be affected by the fire.  An example of the press release is below:

Horsey Farm, located in Smallville, USA, was destroyed by a fire that broke earlier this morning. Multiple agencies responded to the fire, and it was contained after a couple of hours.

Owners Bob and Mary Smith have spent the morning contacting broodmare owners to alert to their loss as well as working with surrounding farms and veterinarian agencies to make arrangements for surviving horses. A final count of horses perished and those injured has not been made as of press time.

As of press time, a cause has not been confirmed. The area experienced high winds and dropping temperatures throughout the past couple of days.

Updates regarding the fire will be made as more information is discovered. For now, the family asks for privacy and respect for the horses, owners and everyone involved.

Once all owners had been contacted, the owners read and approved the press release. Judy then sent the release out to industry publications and websites, accompanied by a stock photo of the farm. The press release was then posted on the farm’s Facebook page, which was then shared with friends and industry partners.

Doing this allowed the farm owners to create their own narrative of the fire. Owners appreciated that Mary* had reached out to them first, thus keeping that customer service relationship on good terms, even though a fire is the worst nightmare for a barn and horse owner. The media had direct contact with someone regarding the fire (Judy), thanks to the press release, so they knew where they could go with additional questions.

Unfortunately, many broodmares were lost in the fire, and the remaining had to find a new farm to board, but Mary’s reputation as a leading barn owner remained intact and she is still considered a valuable source for the industry.

* Names were changed for anonymity.

If you need help in managing your communications within your small business, please reach out to Megan to learn how she can help you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s