Crisis management is everywhere this month, especially in the transportation sector. Firms in every industry need a disaster plan for communicating a response to tragedies and simple errors. If you fail the response, your failure can become the news of the day.
There were horrors involving loss of life in the Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railway train accident in Canada and in the Asiana Airlines crash. Less dire crises found Amtrak and the National Transportation Safety Board. In all cases, the planning and the tone of the response became news in their own right. Cable news, blogs, and social media have a depthless appetite for crisis and for bad responses to bad situations. There is a vibrant market for your mistakes. The failure to project sympathy and demonstrate response becomes its own story.
The Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic Railway faced a nightmare that started on July 6, when a driverless train full of crude oil derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. At least 20 people were killed and 30 more were missing. A small town was all but destroyed and thousands were evacuated from their homes and businesses.
The MMA crisis-management effort went awry on July 10 when the company's severely unprepared chairman, Edward Burkhardt, arrived to speak to victims' families and survey the damage. He was cursed, threatened with stoning, and rebuffed. From CNN:
"I thought people would respond to my willingness to come there. I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there."
“I figured I didn't really need to be in the way of people there when they were trying to put the fire out and that sort of stuff.”
"Maybe I didn't present my case very well. But I'm not a communications professional. I'm a manager.”
In trying to communicate off-the-cuff in a difficult situation, Burkhardt just dug himself deeper into his hole. His experience emphasizes two major points of crisis management: preparation and professionalism. A company needs to have a plan in place. A three-day response time from the head office following a train derailment is beyond negligent as far as a public response is concerned.
In addition to the coverage on cable, the story of Burkhardt's trip attracted 500 comments on the CNN website. Bloggers pounced on the story. One pointed out that Burkhardt only spoke English in a multilingual town. Forbes reported he addressed the impact of the crash in terms of his own net worth.
By contrast, look at Asiana Airlines' response to the crash of its Boeing 777 on July 6, which took the lives of two Chinese girls headed to summer camp. The following day, the management of Asiana held a press conference in Seoul. The Washington Post reported on the airline's response, noting the statement of facts, the expression of sympathy, and the cultural tradition of bowing to show reverence. Asiana's response demonstrated compassion and recognized responsibility. The company's response still made the news, but in a positive light.
On a related note, a summer intern at the National Transportation Safety Board took the blame for providing racially offensive false names for the Asiana pilots. NTSB offered a bare-bones apology six days later. Someone will be in front of a congressional committee by week's end. This nightmare is just getting started.
The recognition of the human cost (lives, jobs, communities) is essential and should always be the first order of crisis management. Such a response is still forthcoming from MMA and the NTSB.
Even without loss of life, companies can still damage their brands and their bottom lines with self-induced errors. Amtrak faced a nightmare when it stranded passengers for 14 hours on a train headed from New York City to Miami. The operational failure is staggering. (Where on the East Coast can you not get a bus to the passengers?) Passengers said Amtrak officials left the scene at nightfall. Police were called to the scene, but no passengers were permitted to leave the train. Amtrak's public response included contesting passengers' claims that electricity and plumbing failed during the ordeal.
What's your plan? How can you keep yourself out of the hot seat and not succumb to the distractions and threats of a badly handled disaster?
In considering your disaster response, ask yourself a few questions:
- Is your plan complete? For example, could you get amenities to stranded passengers outside of major cities? What are the obvious things you will most likely need? Have you thought about the public response to your personnel changes? Has your plan been vetted by your legal department?
- Where is your disaster plan? Was there a well-devised MM&A disaster plan sitting in a drawer? Have you ever run a simulation? If so, did it involve all levels of management?
- Who is responsible for implementing your plan? Hint: not summer interns. Also, don't fool yourself into thinking “I got this.” Is your plan in the hands of a responsible professional? Have your officers, executives, and managers been trained?
- Does your plan amount to lip service? Transparency, sympathy, and action need to guide your every word and action. Is the plan stratified to accommodate social blunders in one case and loss of life in another?
- Do you have the means and ability to counter the social-media reaction to an event? Again, managers have to understand the scale of a viral incident. No amount of money will buy the coverage gained by a gaffe.
Any one of these events should have you wondering about your own crisis-management plan. You can't win by winging it. The human appetite to see others fail is insatiable. Once you are swept up into the event, circumstances control you and public perception. It is up to you to have a plan in place and to stick to it.
Rob Volmer is the president and founding partner of Crosby-Volmer International Communications.