Making sure agencies are prepared to weather emergencies

From terror attacks to natural disasters, firms face various crises that could knock them out of commission. But planning can keep recovery efforts from becoming disasters of their own.

From terror attacks to natural disasters, firms face various crises that could knock them out of commission. But planning can keep recovery efforts from becoming disasters of their own.

When dangerous wildfires swept across Southern California in October 2003, employees at the San Diego office of Lewis PR quickly put into action an emergency plan they hoped would allow the firm to function as seamlessly as possible during the crisis. Because the fires were so intense, a thick pall of smoke had covered San Diego and the surrounding communities, making it impossible for staffers to report to the agency's office.

Lewis PR, a global firm that specializes in the technology and telecommunications sectors, decided to use an employee's home in a nearby beach community - where the ocean breezes kept the smoke at bay - as the staging area for its San Diego operations.

"Ours is a fairly mobile business, so, fortunately, if there is a situation where the office is inaccessible, we can go to another location and be up and running fairly quickly, which is what we did in this situation," says Andy Oliver, VP and GM of Lewis PR's San Diego office. "Fortunately, there was no disruption to our clients, and we were able to carry on working as normal."

From natural disasters to terror attacks to blackouts, businesses across the US have seen a series of potentially disruptive events in recent years. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, though, is turning into one of the nation's biggest business headaches.

PR firms and other companies with mobile capabilities have been forced to move their operations to other towns in Louisiana and neighboring states.

Skipper Bond, head of Proscenia Communications in New Orleans, has temporarily relocated his small firm to Texas in the wake of Katrina. He lost almost all of his clients, including two New Orleans nightclubs that were set to open later this year and the Acme Oyster House, which was getting close to opening a restaurant at the Hard Rock Resort & Casino in Biloxi, MS.

Using a cell phone and a laptop, Bond continues to do PR for liquor company Southern Comfort, his only remaining account. He's also scrambling to rebuild his firm by targeting clients in practice areas outside the hospitality and entertainment industries.

Bond has already traveled to Washington, DC, and New York since the hurricane hit in an attempt to attract new clients. He plans to partner with New York-based Clarion Group on PR and media relations pitches to financial services companies and law firms. "Now is the time to be incredibly proactive," he says.

Along with identifying alternative workspace options, many PR firms have taken measures to protect their client files and financial records in case disaster strikes.

"Like many PR firms, hopefully, we have nearly all of our client files, financial records, e-mail, and workstation and server software backed up on DVDs in a bank safety deposit box, as well as at other even more accessible sites," says Mark Holoweiko, president of Stony Point Communications.

If the original files and computers were wiped out in a disaster, the Michigan-based firm could be up and running on new machines from another location in short order, "assuming that we personally survived the catastrophe, of course," Holoweiko explains.

As a midsize New York agency that went through the 9/11 attacks and the August 2003 blackout, Makovsky & Co. felt it was vital to have an emergency plan in place to keep its staff safe and the firm operational, notes Gene Marbach, the agency's group VP and crisis response coordinator.

"If the firm were ever inaccessible, we have a plan to operate from individual homes or other remote locations for up to a week, after which we would obtain temporary office space," Marbach says. "We also give all of our professionals remote access to our net- work drives and e-mail, and all department leaders keep copies of client and staff contact information off site for just this reason."

Oliver says Lewis PR, like most companies with an office in California, has always had an emergency contingency plan in place - for an earthquake. "We didn't really expect to have to transfer locations because of a fire," he says.

The disruption caused by the wildfires underscored the fact that a company's physical location can't be 100% secure all the time. "It was a useful exercise because we've been through that now," Oliver says. "It will come as less of a surprise the next time it happens."

Disaster emergency kit

Store all client information and financial records in a secure facility

House backup network servers in a safe off-site location, no matter the extra cost

Identify employees who are willing to host staff in case the office is shut down

Make sure off-site work locations have telecom and online capability

Perform evacuation drills and send employees to preassigned locations

Supply staff with cell phones and laptop computers

Provide clients with an outline of the emergency backup plan

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