Managing disaster

The tsunami crisis required a rapid, but sensitive, response.

The tsunami crisis required a rapid, but sensitive, response.

When Denise Seomin on December 26 saw reports of the devastation wrought across Southeast Asia by a tsunami, she knew what she needed to do. In her job as consumer media relations manager for Best Western International, Phoenix, AZ-based Seomin is the keeper of her company's crisis communications plan.

With one operating Best Western resort and a second under construction in the coastal area of Thailand, the tsunami definitely qualified as a crisis for the chain. "I knew we were going to start the plan," she recalls.

Corporate communications managers at scores of other companies were doing the same thing. Some worked for companies that had operations in the impacted areas of Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. But the coastal locales hit hardest were generally not heavily industrialized or urbanized. There was only one McDonald's outlet in the entire area, for example.

As a result, the crisis communications challenges for other multinationals operating in the affected countries became one of first accounting for employees who were scattered across the region on holiday breaks; next, assuring customers and suppliers that business would continue as close to normal as possible; and then deciding how to become involved in relief efforts and - more important, from a PR standpoint - how best to communicate the relief efforts they were involved in.

The crisis communications lessons learned are that having up-to-date crisis plans do matter, and that in a crisis, the tone and tenor of communications can be as important as what is being communicated.

Approach with caution

"In the face of such a human tragedy, trying to seek publicity about what you're doing is not appropriate," says Terry Albertson, Melbourne, Australia-based director of corporate affairs for Cisco's Asia-Pacific region.

Managing client expectations is key. Peter Emblin, SVP with Weber Shandwick in Bangkok, Thailand, has been telling his clients to take a go-slow approach to talking about relief efforts with which they're involved. Speaking too quickly or too loudly could come back to haunt them as one client discovered, Emblin relates. That client, which is in the building-materials business, announced it would build new housing for several thousand tsunami victims, only to have the Thai government state several days later that it would build even more housing - naturally eclipsing the company's announcement.

Emblin is advising clients to take a long-term view of relief efforts now that supplies are flowing into the affected regions.

"For our big clients, we are suggesting we set up working groups to come up with a long-term plan that can be announced at a significant anniversary," he says.

Many companies already are working on long-term giving efforts. Best Western, using the tagline "Best Western for a Better World," has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build much-needed replacement housing in the affected areas. Best Western is inviting cash donations on its website and allowing its customers to donate guest points from its customer-loyalty program at the rate of 50 points equaling a $2 donation. It plans a similar long-term partnership with UNICEF, says Seomin.

The night she first heard the news, though, Seomin's attention turned to immediate crisis communications concerns. At the start of her workday on December 27, she was able to contact Best Western's Bangkok marketing and development office, which became her eyes and ears for events unfolding in that part of the world. She also activated her emergency response team, which includes internal and external communications staffers, reservations, the company help desk, a senior executive team, and regional service managers.

"Between our internal and external communications team, we got information to all our audiences - consumers, employees, and member properties," she recalls.

Best Western hotels are owned by individual operators who pay for the right to use the name, so relations with those independent operators is a key part of the company's communications mission.

Information on what happened to Best Western properties and affected employees was put on intranet sites for employees and property owners, as well as on a consumer site the company runs. The resort in Phuket, Thailand, that was hit by the tidal wave was taken out of the company's reservation system.

The second resort hit was scheduled to open December 28, but could not after sustaining storm damage, so it also was pulled from the reservations system. Seomin had an assessment of damage from her Thai team within 24 hours of the disaster.

Accounting for staff

Tracing the whereabouts of staff became a major issue for firms in the area. Best Western relied on local owners to account for employees.

At Alcan Packaging Asia-Pacific, Singapore-based communications director Rosanna Cil knew that she had 5,500 Asian employees to account for, with many, including her boss, away on vacation. She e-mailed her boss the night of December 26, telling him the company needed to find its workers and also to begin a donation drive to support local relief efforts. She next began calling the people who run Alcan's 13 Asian locations to start the employee tracking process.

Given the go-ahead by her boss, who responded to her e-mail via his BlackBerry, Cil on December 27 e-mailed managers, communication staffers, and site managers, saying, "We've got to get money out," she recalls. She set up a plan to donate funds to the Red Cross for relief and also began clothes collection efforts at all Alcan sites in the region.

"The thing I learned is never underestimate the power of e-mails and short messaging on cell phones," says Cil, noting that while many cell-phone networks were too jammed to get through, short text messaging via cells was working and became a major way to contact managers.

Newmont Mining, the world's largest gold-mining company, has 4,500 employees in the region, with three mines in Indonesia. None of its mines were hit by the tidal wave, but 200 of the company's 4,500 employees were lost or unaccounted for in the tragedy.

Doug Hock, Denver-based director of public affairs communications for Newmont, had to deal with calls from analysts about whether the tsunami would affect the company's operations in the region. But the majority of inquiries he and the company received, he says, were "questions from our employees in other parts of the world" about employees in the region.

Hock used the company intranet site, an employee newsletter, and a memo from the CEO to all employees to keep workers abreast of company efforts in the region. He also contacted reporters who regularly follow Newmont to tell them about company efforts, such as a partnership with Caterpillar and an Indonesian company to supply heavy equipment to help in clean-up and rebuilding efforts.

"We were proud of what we were doing, but there's always the concern that you don't want to look like you're profiting from the misfortunes of others," Hock says of the careful tone he used in talking to reporters.

Newmont did more PR outreach in Indonesia than in the US, but was careful with its efforts there, as well. The company has had recent legal issues in that country and didn't want to appear to be trying to buy favorable public opinion with its relief efforts, Hock explains.

Building awareness

For Save the Children Canada, the tsunami was not just about raising funds for relief efforts. It also was a chance to establish a higher profile for the charitable organization, something CEO Rita Karakas has been working on since assuming her post in spring 2003.

Through a board member, Karakas connected with Edelman Canada, which offered to do pro-bono work for the charity during the crisis.

The agency helped Save the Children Canada put together an online curriculum guide that Canadian school teachers could use to discuss the disaster with their students. The guide received 238,000 hits the first day it was put online.

Going forward, PR efforts in the region will center on bringing back the tourism trade vital to the Thai economy, Emblin notes. The Thai tourist authority already has begun trade missions to key European markets for its tourist trade and has convinced the PGA to move a major golf tournament to Thailand.

For US companies operating in the countries that are rebuilding, future PR will focus on how they plan to stay involved in relief and rebuilding efforts. But again, tone will be key to future communications. Says Anna Rozenich, a corporate communications director with McDonald's, whose Ronald McDonald House Charities already have raised more than $500,000 in aid, "This is about helping, not promoting. This is about focusing on the victims and helping."

Crisis lessons

1. Have a crisis plan ready before disaster strikes, and keep key information in it up-to-date.

2. Know how to reach key personnel, even when they're on vacation. Have multiple methods of communications available to reach key managers and employees. Some channels might not be operational in a disaster.

3. Don't position humanitarian relief efforts as an opportunity to win plaudits for your company.

4. Maintain a respectful tone in all communications.

5. Consider both short-term relief efforts and long-term involvement in rebuilding devastated areas to show your organization's commitment to an impacted area.

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