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Volume 27, Issue 4

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October 30, 2007

Disasters Harm More than Buildings and People

Written by  Gregory K. Shields
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Your people are all accounted for, and you take a deep sigh of relief in the knowledge that your hours of planning and drilling paid off.

Then the bad news starts rolling in, like an oil-slicked wave coming off the Exxon Valdez. Customers start calling in to cancel their orders, as they assume you won't be able to meet their next shipment. Local legislators start talking about how your firm should face tighter regulations, and employees start talking about whether their pay check is enough remuneration to risk their lives. Stockholders begin to wonder if their investment is well-placed in such a risky business.

Recovering from a disaster is more than buildings, people and records. The positive image that took years for your firm to build could collapse in seconds if rumor and media reports send shivers down the spine of customers, regulators, employees and shareholders.

Planning for communications during an emergency is not unlike planning for any other contingency. Advance planning, personnel training and drilling will mitigate the damage, and the exercise itself will yield benefits, even if you are lucky enough never to experience a catastrophe.

THE FIVE W's

The old newsman's refrain, 'who, what, when, where, and why?' serve you well when you begin to plan emergency communications.

The first step in planning your communications is to name a staff member who will be responsible for emergency communications. This could be your public relations executive, or in smaller organizations your newsletter editor or public relations agency.

Ideally, the person should have some experience in dealing with the media, knowledge of your business and an ability to communicate and act professional under pressure. Also, the person should not have many other responsibilities in the midst of a crisis.

Your EC manager (emergency communications, not European Community) doesn't have to be an employee. A public relations consultant or agency won't have the operational responsibilities that an employee will during a crisis, but they might have the media background and communications skills that would be invaluable.

Your communications manager isn't necessarily the only spokesperson, but serves as a traffic cop for media inquiries, bulletins to employees and customers, and generally is the keeper of the organizational policy regarding emergency communications.

Under the leadership of your newly appointed EC manager, your organization needs to address the other four questions. What is the most likely type of crisis your organization will face? When could it happen? Where is it likely? Why this happened might be more relevant to the operational people, but the EC manager must ask himself, 'why will people be interested and concerned in this event?' These questions will profoundly effect the contour of your plan for crisis communications.

A financial gain in New York City will no doubt plan for an electrical or telecommunications failure, computer shutdown, bankruptcy of a creditor or mortgage holder. This firm's plans might call for the establishment of a communications center outside the city, or at least at an alternate site within the city.

Since the 'action' will probably be taking place in one location, New York, one communications manager or one team can handle the situation, supported by their local PR firm.

The problems of a Midwest chemical company would be entirely different. An accident could take place at any of its five plants or in transit along thousands of miles of roads or rails. The command center needs to be mobile, or a communications team must be identified and trained for every potential location.

When I served as the emergency communications manager for such an organization, my 'field kit' consisted of a four-inch thick book of material safety data sheets, lists of key company executives and media including office and home phone numbers, a few notepads and a fistful of pencils, an explosion-proof flashlight and a roll of quarters for phone calls (yes, it was a few years ago, when a credit card wouldn't always make a long distance call out of East Bugskill, Mississippi).

My field kit was my constant companion, and its benefits were not limited to its intended purpose. My list of key company executives, printed on wallet sized business cards, became a 'best-seller' within the organization. My flashlight came in handy in a blacked out hotel room one night. I admit, more than once I borrowed from my roll of quarters to pay a toll or make a regular business call, and the formidable brief case made a nice work surface on my lap.

SHOWTIME!

Once you have identified the five W's and developed an emergency communications plan, it's time to give it a try. The best way to test the plan is during a drill of your overall emergency preparedness plan.
Anticipate who will want and need information during your emergency, and then build a drill that closely simulates those needs.

For example, our mythical financiers in New York might try to simulate a massive computer failure. A good communications simulation might have hundreds of bond holders calling simultaneously to inquire about their holdings. Calls from local and business media could get washed aside in this flood, and report that the company did not respond when they called.

Whatever your previous experience with the media, you need to consider them as a vital part of any emergency communications plan. Giving their inquiries a priority could eliminate many of the bondholders concerns, and in the event of a life-threatening emergency, the media are invaluable in disseminating evacuation and safety information.

The goal of your EC manager in crisis media relations is to be the best source of accurate, reliable information. In some ways, the media is like water: they seek the path of least resistance. If they hit a brick wall when they call your representative, they'll ask firemen, eye witnesses, or consultants who have little or nothing to do with your group or industry. Their tight deadlines are your advantage, and if you have the information readily available they will likely report it.

Media can play an important role during drills as well. Many corporations and municipalities actually invite the media to emergency drills. They can 'play their roles' in the scenario, asking the right questions and playing the devil's advocate, while giving the drill a valuable realism. Meanwhile, they learn how to obtain information from the organization during an emergency, and report to their viewers, listeners or readers that ABC Company actually has a plan to handle emergencies, and practiced that plan today.

If proprietary information is involved, or your likely emergency does not allow for actual reporters to be involved, don't abandon making the media part of your plan. Former journalists in your public relations agency, or even journalism students at a local college or university can be recruited to act as reporters. Ask them to prepare a story as though they were working a real story, and then evaluate their copy.

Did they get facts right? Did they use your representatives as the source, or did they quote less reliable sources who might not really know what was happening?

A good drill should expose weaknesses in your plan, and cause further modifications to be tested at a later drill. If you don't believe you need an emergency communications plan, just hire a good 'mock reporter' for your next drill, and look at the stories they generate. Filled with speculation and inaccuracies, they will convince you to start planning soon.

THE FINAL EVALUATION

Perhaps the most important of the W's is Who. Not necessarily who needs to know, but who feels they need to know. An accident or explosion at your plant might not threaten the neighborhood, but if local residents hear it, smell it or see it, they feel they have a right to know what is happening that could threaten their well-being.
Your plans to supply customers through inventory during a plant shutdown could be a moot point if your customers hear you've lost your production capacity, and switch to your competition.

Who needs to know, who wants to know, and how they will obtain the information can spell the differences between a smooth transition back to standard operation, and a nagging long-term problem for your organization.


Gregory Shields is president of Shields Communications in Copley, Ohio.

This article adapted from Vol. 9#4.

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