Throughout the world, business managers have long been aware of the threat of terrorism, but since the September 11th attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., there has been a heightened sense of vulnerability. In a crisis, effective communication in the early hours can help you save
lives and salvage your organization’s reputation.
Throughout the world, business managers have long been aware of the threat
of terrorism, but since the September 11th attacks on New York’s World Trade
Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., there has been a heightened sense
of vulnerability. This is particularly true in the chemical process industries
( CPI ), where the stakes are high in terms of potentially enormous personnel,
environmental and financial damage that could result from any crisis, whether
a terrorist attack or an industrial accident resulting from a system failure
or human error.
It is no longer inconceivable to imagine a scenario in which your company or
facility could be confronted with a potential terrorist attack ( see CE, October,
p. 49 and November p. 46 ), a sabotaged facility, stolen hazardous materials
or trade secrets, or even the implication that one of your employees could be
involved in a terrorist plot.
Add to this the everyday risk of explosions, gas leaks, fires and other plant
accidents, and it makes sense now more than ever for CPI companies to revisit
their crisis-management and response infrastructures, and to put strategies
in place to improve them. As you review your crisis-management process, keep
in mind that safety and security is just the beginning.
The fact that any crisis can have a far-reaching impact on your organization
— involving human, legal and financial resources, damaging plant assets, and
interrupting information technology ( IT ) systems and engineering operations
— points to the importance of having a solid crisis-communications-contingency
plan. Next to eliminating any immediate dangers to people, facilities or the
environment, effective communication is the most critical factor in taking control
during the first hours of a crisis.
So, if you find yourself faced with a crisis situation at your workplace, whether
the cause is an act of violence, an accident or natural disaster, do you know
what to do ?.
This article describes how to prepare to respond to a crisis through the effective
management of accurate information in a timely and efficient manner. It provides
the basics of crisis communications contingency planning ( box, ONE ).
Here are some initial guidelines that should drive the development and implementation
of your crisis-communications plan :
- Get organized. Regardless of whether or not you already have a crisis plan
in place, the first step in all crises is to make sure your communications
structure is in order. The best place to begin is assessing the level of crisis
and who should be notified (box, TWO). Next steps include the establishment
of processes and procedures for fast and solid information gathering and for
regular communications with all important audiences both within and beyond
your organization. These groups include employees and their families, customers,
the media, vendors and suppliers, local government officials, and the investment
community. If the crisis is centered on issues that involve outside organizations,
make sure you and your team are plugged in at the right levels to ensure that
you are receiving and making decisions on thorough, complete and accurate
- Establish protocols. Your crisis-communications plan should provide guidelines
on assigning specific responsibilities to managers at times of crisis. These
include formalizing and assigning fact-finding, decisionmaking, communication
and other types of logistical duties. Tight chain-of-command protocols improve
accountability within the organization and the accountability of the organization
before the public. Clear protocols also reduce the risk of miscommunication
and minimize the possibility of rumors that add to the confusion that inevitably
follows a crisis. If the chairman or chief executive officer cannot be in
the loop for any reason, identify an appropriate back-up member of the team
to ensure quick and decisive action when time is of the essence.
- Speak with one voice. The precise nature of the crisis often determines
who should speak on behalf of the organization when problems arise. In events
where there has been a minor accident and there is no risk to employee, public
or environmental safety, it is common for a plant manager or a communications
specialist to serve as company spokesperson. On the other hand, if the crisis
is of a more serious or wide-ranging nature, a senior management executive,
preferably the CEO, should be the only one permitted to speak on behalf of
the organization. Further, as the organization’s leader, the CEO should be
properly prepared with access to the latest facts, the current status of the
situation, and all of the key messages that need to be communicated. To ensure
consistency in all communication, when possible, establish a regular schedule
of updates early on, so that the media, employees and other audiences know
when to expect new information from the company.
- Speak to the facts. When a reporter places a microphone before you, there
is often an urge to answer every question asked. Problems can arise, however,
when in your zeal to answer the reporter’s question, you speculate based on
partial or unverified information . In all cases, your best approach is
to make sure that no matter what channel of communication you use, from an
internal memorandum to a media interview, you center all information on concrete,
verifiable facts. Do not speculate. It is alright to tell a reporter you do
not have enough information, but will investigate the issue and get back with
an appropriate response. This is how you will establish credibility when you
need it most. As new facts present themselves and you can provide a greater
understanding of the situation, do so in your regularly scheduled forums for
- Monitor everything. From tracking inquiries to your receptionist’s switchboard,
to watching other sources of information on the Internet and other media sources,
the monitoring process is critical to your success. The information you gain
will help you better understand the situation, and it will help you make more
informed decisions. It will also help you gauge the effectiveness of your
communications efforts as they are implemented.
- Do as you say. Your organization will be judged as much by how it behaves
as by what it says. No one wants a crisis to happen to his or her company,
but when it does, the situation provides an opportunity to demonstrate leadership
and good citizenship. Effective and responsible handling of crises can help
organizations build goodwill with their employees, customers, the media and
their local communities long after the crisis has been resolved. It is one
thing to simply provide information on the situation and talk about what you
are doing to rectify the problem, and quite another to go one step further,
working for instance to actively raise charitable donations, or provide shelter
or necessary food items for those affected by the crisis. As a golden rule
of good business leadership, you can’t go wrong by taking the proverbial high
road and following a humanitarian approach.
- Show compassion. Underscoring all communications activities should be a
basic concern for the welfare of the people, communities and the environment
affected by the crisis. This will come through in what you say, how you behave
and in the decisions that are made following the triggering event. Perhaps
the one silver lining that came out of the September 11th tragedy was the
outpouring of support that Americans demonstrated to the victims of the terrorist
attacks, their families and the fire, police and countless rescue workers
who came to their aid. Those acts of extraordinary compassion have made recovery
from the unthinkable terrorist acts more bearable for the entire nation.
Learning from an oil spill
The basic principles described above provide a solid backdrop for review or
development of your crisis plan. To see how some of these principals play out
in real life, consider the example of Ashland Oil.
In January of 1988, a storage tank at an Ashland Oil facility just a few miles
from Pittsburgh, Pa., collapsed, spilling four million gallons of diesel fuel
into the nearby Monongahela River. The river is one of the two major waterways
that meet in downtown Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.
At the time, this spill was one of the most widely publicized environmental
disasters within U.S. borders. The manner in which Ashland handled the crisis
continues to serve as a positive example for companies today.
Within the first 24 hours, company chairman John Hall and his staff had briefed
Pennsylvania’s governor and Congressional aides in Washington, D.C., while beginning
an ambitious schedule of media and community communications. At the same time,
the company used email and bulletin boards, in addition to its internal newsletter,
to communicate to its 40,000 employees about the event. The company knew instantly
that informed employees would be the best channel for spreading accurate information
about the situation, and for minimizing the spread of rumors and misinformation.
And while it took Hall about 36 hours to arrive on scene — a critical error
for most crisis situations — he took full responsibility for the disaster and
made a commitment to clean up the mess. His company fulfilled its promise.
Ashland dealt with the media honestly and with candor from the start. The company
flew in Coast Guard personnel who specialized in oil-pollution cleanup, and
had presented the regional authorities with their first check for cleanup expenses
— all within seven days of the accident. Subsequently, the company commissioned
Battelle Institute to conduct and independent investigation, and made a grant
to the University of Pittsburgh to fund a study assessing the longterm environmental
impact of the spill.
More importantly, however, the company publicly admitted the mistakes it had
made prior to the spill. In being the first to reveal its own mistakes, the
company managed a potentially contentious situation. It avoided being put on
the defensive, as could have happened if it had remained silent on the cause,
but then confronted later by, say, an investigative reporter in search of the
cause. In this way, the company maintained the upper hand and effectively managed
the dissemination of the facts surrounding the crisis.
In the days following the event, the company’s stock price hovered around $50,
a drop of around $3.50 per share. By the end of the year, shares were trading
at $72 per share. The lesson is that a well-managed crisis can show how a company
that is well-managed and compassionate is worthy of the public’s confidence.
Manage crises in advance
To be sure, there is nothing like a crisis to garner front-page headlines for
your organization, albeit, not the kind of media coverage you would ideally
want. So the best time to manage your next crisis is before it ever happens
while no one is watching. While some of these events may not be preventable,
you can put systems in place to allow you and your organization to kick into
high gear when necessary.
Establish early warning systems. Begin to consider various sources of possible
crises and factor those scenarios into your planning and preparation. It may
be unrealistic to develop hypothetical communications documents for each situation,
but you can identify the people and resources that will be required if certain
types of events occur. All the while, make sure your crisis-communications plan
is flexible enough to allow for a scenario you could never anticipate.
Develop a workable crisis-communications plan that requires little background
reading and can be put into play within five minutes of initial notification
of a negative event.
Host regular crisis-communication and contingency-planning meetings with those
you’ve identified to be on the core team. Make certain they know exactly what
their responsibilities will be in the event of a crisis.
Consider ways in which you can implement your plan if you can’t get to your
office or the physical plant. The Internet and cellular communications tools
provide many options here.
And make sure that ample attention is paid to how you will develop your key
messages at a time of crisis. It is one thing to know when, where and who will
speak, but knowing exactly what to say will mean the difference between success
Remember that if your strategy helps you to properly manage your response to
these events, you will seize the opportunity to preserve your organization’s
integrity and reputation, the two assets that will be most important when the
crisis is behind you and it’s time to move forward.
Sumber: Chemical Engineering, December 2001