After a disaster strikes, the crisis team's first job is communication--especially spreading the word to employees about the event and how the company plans to deal with it.
This can be as simple as a pre-recorded message on a toll-free number that tells people not to show up that day, or as complex as an automated system that calls members of a facility's emergency crew and asks a series of questions to evaluate their fitness for duty (such as "Have you consumed drugs or alcohol in the past six hours?").
Most entrepreneurial companies can set up a calling tree where each officer calls two employees, who in turn call two more people, and so on down the line. Large or geographically dispersed corporations turn to automated solutions from companies such as Dialogic Communications Corp., which can contact thousands of employees in the span of a few minutes. "After 9/11, our systems handled 106,000 outgoing calls, starting 15 minutes after the first plane hit," says Gene Kirby, president and CEO of the Franklin, Tennessee, firm, which caters heavily to the financial services industry. Clients can call in to activate the system remotely, record a message, and have it sent to everyone or to select groups of employees.
But employees are just one audience. Businesses also need to assure customers, suppliers, shareholders and the local community that the company is intact and the situation is in hand.
"The first 48 hours of a crisis are critical, and misinformation fills a vacuum," says Epoch 5's Heaviside. "If a crisis hits and employees are not prepared, a lot of misinformation can get out there and really damage a company."
When the Oak Tree Farm Dairy in Huntington, New York, burnt to the ground in October 1997, it called on Epoch 5 to handle post-disaster communications. On the dairy's behalf, the firm sent letters to customers the next morning assuring them their milk would still be delivered (Oak Tree had made arrangements with an out-of-state bottler in case of such a disaster). Epoch 5 also made presentations to local civic organizations about Oak Tree's rebuilding plans, took out a full-page newspaper ad thanking the firefighters, and delivered flowers to neighbors whose lawns were torn up by fire trucks. By August 1998, when Oak Tree finally began building its new facility, its business had increased by 10 percent.
Heaviside advises formulating a communications plan that lays out who's responsible for talking to the various parties, with talking points for each person. That way, company lawyers can review the comments ahead of time and avoid statements that could come back to bite them in a lawsuit.
Despite its importance, a good communications plan is one area even otherwise well-prepared companies often overlook. "Most organizations have some sort of operational crisis plan, but the majority do not have any communications plan," notes Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Kentucky. Without an effective way to communicate your company's response to the crisis, "you can do everything right and not get credit for it, and you might just as well have done everything wrong."
Lessons to be Learned
When it comes to virtually any disaster, you can't rely on Uncle Sam--or anyone else--to step in and fix it, as Lehrer of Leros Point to Point quickly found out.
"County and state officials were sympathetic to our woes, but they couldn't help us," Lehrer says. "By the time you fill out the applications and get the money, you're out of business."
Even when you don't have a crisis plan in place, acting quickly and decisively can make all the difference. "The longer a crisis goes on, the more damage it does and the harder it is to overcome," says Smith. "The quicker a company begins to respond to crisis, the quicker it's over and the less damage it will do."
But the most important part of surviving any kind of disaster is to make it a "rehearsed event," says Laye. Create a plan, then practice it until you have your response down cold. "If you're prepared for it, if your management team considers it a rehearsed event, then it doesn't have to be a catastrophe," explains Laye. "Getting started is tough, but the payoff is magnificent because there's no way to prevent these things. Anyone who gives that serious thought will be starting tonight."
Daniel Tynan is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, North Carolina.