All hands on deck

When crisis hits, a whole host of people are needed to pitch in and help out.

When crisis hits, a whole host of people are needed to pitch in and help out.

Molly McPherson was sitting in a Florida hotel room in late 2002 when she saw one of the first TV reports about a mysterious virus afflicting cruise ship passengers. McPherson - at the time, director of communications for the International Council of Cruise Lines - could smell a crisis about to hit the members of her association. She was working on key message points the next day. While the association had a crisis plan, McPherson, now an independent practitioner in Massachusetts, admits that the Norwalk-like virus scare hit so quickly that "it was more of a catch-up game for us." The news and the rumors seemed to move faster and in a wider scope - even becoming the butt of Jay Leno jokes - than the crisis plan had anticipated The association learned from that experience that it needed to establish better communication links with vendors, public health officials, and others. McPherson revised her crisis plan to include more names and numbers of people to be contacted. So when the SARS scare came in 2003, McPherson put her expanded crisis plan into action. She established a line of communications directly with the public affairs office at the Centers for Disease Control, something that she hadn't had during the first virus outbreak. She also had associate members of the association who made cleaning supplies ready to discuss cleaning techniques with the media. B-roll on how ships are cleaned and disinfected was quickly made available, and information also was put on the association's website. "By the time of SARS, we were 100% prepared," McPherson said. When a plan isn't enough McPherson's experience clearly demonstrates the need for crisis preparedness. Companies might feel ready for a crisis that originates within their operations, but many crises come from events beyond their immediate control, and those, too, can impact operations and reputation. Being prepared can minimize the damage. But having a crisis plan and being prepared for a crisis can be two very different things, crisis experts agree. A plan that hasn't been tested - either in a simulation or a real-life experience, such as McPherson's - is likely to overlook small but vital details, such as how to handle a major spike in calls to a company's phone system or how to send out press information when a company PR person can't get into his or her office. A survey by the American Management Association last August found that 64% of executives said their company has a crisis plan, up from 49% in 2002. The survey also found that 62% of companies have a designated crisis management team, compared with 54% in 2002. But only 42% have conducted crisis drills or simulations. Another survey done by Peppercom at the 2003 Disaster Recovery Journal Conference produced even more sanguine results when it came to simulations. The survey of 200 attendees found that 44% had crisis plans in place to deal with a hostage situation or workplace violence, but only 22% said members of their senior crisis team had been through drills to see how prepared they were to handle crisis responsibilities. "If I had to rely on preparedness to pay my mortgage, I couldn't pay for my house," says Jonathan Bernstein, CEO of Bernstein Communications, about companies' unwillingness to hire outside help for crisis preparedness. "Preparedness doesn't sell." Crisis experts hope that attitude changes. Examples abound of how being prepared helped mitigate a crisis before it crippled a company or organization's reputation. Kristine Austin had worked in tech PR before joining EMQ Children & Family Services, a statewide social services agency based in Campbell, CA, near San Francisco. She thought she knew what a crisis environment was like. But she soon found that social services bring their own crisis challenges. "We average a crisis communications situation two times a month," she says. Before she arrived, the agency had never done crisis preparedness. Austin put together a three-page crisis communications plan that set up a reporting structure so that agency employees would know whom to call when a potential crisis was brewing. Employees are instructed to call supervisors and/or program managers. Program managers next call Austin, getting her involved early in the crisis evaluation process. The plan sets up four levels of situations that could become crises, designating them as white flag, yellow flag, red flag, and seminal event. Different levels mean bringing in more levels of senior management. Austin sees her crisis plan as a to-do list. It includes names and numbers for reaching members of her crisis team, a list of secondary contacts, and even the contact number for the manager of the kitchen at the agency's headquarters in case Austin needs to feed a horde of reporters camped out to cover a breaking story there. The plan worked well during an event when an agency worker was almost arrested by local police as a child sex offender because of mistaken identity. Austin was quickly able to work with the school where the agency employee was assigned, with the police to rectify the misidentification and with a local weekly newspaper about to run a story on the arrest. CheckFree, an electronic payment firm based in Atlanta, has a crisis prevention team that meets weekly. Included on the team is someone from human resources, the CFO's office, the legal department - that is, people representing all of the company's operating divisions - the chief privacy officer, and chief security officer, says Judy Wink, VP of corporate communications with CheckFree. The committee monitors the company's business and business environment to watch for potential crises. "What that did is drastically reduce the surprise element," Wink says of the committee's work. Her crisis plan classifies potential crises as executive-related, regulatory-related, operationally related and employee-related, and includes starter messages consistent with the company's corporate image to be given to the media in a crisis. "At least when the stress is on, you already have some initial thoughts," Wink says. The plan was put to the test when major flooding hit Houston in July 2001. Wink was paged on a Sunday when CheckFree Houston offices were unusable because of the flood. CheckFree had prepared its employees for such an event. Employee security badges carried an 800 number to call in a crisis. Houston employees calling in got updates on alternative locations being established. Managers had phone lists for their workers and began calling to see if everyone was accounted for. Cash and clothing were brought in from other offices for employees who needed help. "The experience of having CheckFree caring that much about them really was meaningful to our employees," Wink recalls. By being prepared, the company emerged from the crisis with a better image with employees than it might otherwise have had. Formulating a plan Wink's team has done simulations on dealing with crises. A full-scale crisis simulation using outside experts to guide and critique performance can last from a day to a day and a half and cost a company into six-figures, not counting the time commitment from senior executives. Steve Cody, managing partner with Peppercom, finds that "crisis simulations almost invariably bring together two or more people in a company who have never worked together before" and allow them to establish important communications links so they're ready for a crisis. Cody stresses that clients should establish success metrics for evaluating how they performed in a crisis simulation. Without some measures, a company won't learn from its experiences, he argues. Larry Kamer, director of issues and crisis at MS&L, advocates a nine-step approach to crisis preparedness that begins with forming a crisis team, articulating workable values in a crisis, assessing crisis risk , establishing roles for crisis team members, developing interim responses, writing a crisis plan, training around the plan, and testing the plan with tabletop exercises and simulations. Simulations prepare corporate executives for the fact that "a crisis environment is exactly the opposite of how companies make business decisions," adds Kirill Goncharenko, partner, Mercury Public Affairs. Most executives are used to making decisions only after gathering all available information and analyzing a situation. Information often is hard to come by in a crisis and time for analysis doesn't exist, Goncharenko says. Companies that keep a watch on their industries and businesses will likely see crises developing and be able to react. But terrorism, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks like SARS are often impossible to anticipate. So rather than plan for every possible crisis, a crisis plan should address "not just what processes will be undertaken in a crisis but whether the structure of the company is crisis ready," advises Karen Doyne, managing director, crisis and issues management, Burson-Marsteller. Structural issues to consider include whether a company empowers mid-level managers to make tough decisions in a crisis situation and who should be on the crisis team. "Over the past five years or so, I've seen a move away from simply having a crisis plan that's a big thick book sitting on someone's shelf," Doyne comments. Austin at EMQ Children & Family Services kept her crisis plan to three pages because "you don't have time to read, you have to act in a crisis." Being prepared makes acting in a way that helps rather than hurts the company much easier for everyone involved.

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