Crisis policies must undergo regular real-world tests

Plant explosions. Leaking railroad cars off the track in an accident. An airplane crash. A catastrophic storm. Substitute your own crisis, whether you are in the corporate or municipal government environment.

Plant explosions. Leaking railroad cars off the track in an accident. An airplane crash. A catastrophic storm. Substitute your own crisis, whether you are in the corporate or municipal government environment.

They are, or will likely be, the stuff of headlines, news choppers, "film at 11," or all three.

It could happen to you, so is your crisis communications plan "T.R.U.E."? That's an acronym we developed to be used as the guidelines for plan maintenance - test, review, update, expand.

A crisis communications plan, no matter how fully developed, must be tested regularly. To some degree, this can be done as a table-top exercise. But, somewhere along the line, and regularly, like a building's fire-alarm system, the plan must be tested in the real world, albeit quietly and only internally. But, depending upon the industry and regulatory requirements, some plans also must be tested publicly.

In those cases, a special series of steps must be developed and tested to alert the community in advance to avoid creating alarm. These might include advertisements in general and community newspapers, broadcast-based PSAs, press releases, press conferences, meetings with community groups, and notices on internal and external websites.

Most of these approaches were used in preparation for the counter-terrorism exercises in Connecticut and New Jersey at the start of April. The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) used many of these outreach techniques during emergency preparedness drills it conducted last year and again this past June. LIPA also included notices in billing statements to customers and held high-profile pretest press conferences with government officials. In addition, they encouraged businesses, residential customers, and others to participate in the drill, spreading the word further, said VP of communications Bert Cunningham.

To be sure a communications strategy works, the group that develops it must also review it regularly. Since the plan was created or last reviewed, has anything changed within the organization: from management to new facilities, and from a merger to an acquisition? Have the new managers and other executives been briefed? Are staff for the facility familiar with the plan?

If there has been a merger or acquisition, have the two plans been examined in relation to each other? Has the controlling planning committee reviewed the other plan for new or better ideas? Have those ideas been folded into the master plan? Have members of the merged or acquired organization's crisis planning team been added to the standing committee?

For municipal officials, avenues for review might include knowing about new plants or factories in and around the community, including in adjacent communities; newly completed highways with new or added commercial traffic; and similar changes to the infrastructure.

Separately, have any personnel responsible for development and oversight of the plan left the organization or governmental unit? Has anyone been promoted to another site with new responsibilities? Has the plan been updated for those changes?

And has the plan been expanded to account for new business issues or threat possibilities? What about regulatory and similar decisions? Virtually any important internal or external change can have a meaningful impact on how the crisis plan will be executed. Some of those changes, if not dealt with, might even have an unanticipated and serious cascading impact.

A March 16 New York Times story by Eric Lipton about the Department of Homeland Security's National Planning Scenarios ("US lists possible terror attacks and likely toll") puts the overall issue into special focus: "The Department of Homeland Security, trying to focus antiterrorism spending better nationwide, has identified a dozen possible strikes it views as most plausible or devastating, including detonation of a nuclear device in a major city, release of sarin nerve agent in office buildings, and a truck bombing of a sports arena."

The agency does not have any credible intelligence that such attacks are planned, the story said, but, by "identifying possible attacks and specifying what government agencies should do to prevent, respond to, and recover from them, Homeland Security is trying for the first time to define what 'prepared' means."

That article, along with Lipton's March 26 Times story ("Fictional doomsday team plays out scene after scene"), are worth reading and should stimulate additional corporate and municipal government thinking about dealing with crises.

  • Art and Eric Samansky are principals at public affairs consultancy The Samansky Group.

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