Managing a Physical Crisis Starts with a Well-Defined Process
Back in the early and mid-2000’s I was given an incredible opportunity to head up public relations at a natural gas utility. Understanding the many issues that utilities face – higher energy prices, customers’ inability to pay, the political climate – I was still unprepared for the types of crises I would take part in managing. You name it: explosions, gas leaks and assaults on service workers – the list was unpredictable, sometime weekly and usually dramatic. But as I started managing these types of crises on a regular basis, I quickly learned what information is most important to relay internally and externally, especially when there is the potential for physical injury or environmental harm, as well as how to work as a team with emergency responders.
Apart from the recent BP pipeline incident in the Gulf of Mexico or natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, crisis communications expertise tend to focus on the ones that occur outside of the physical realm. But having knowledge of how to manage a physical incident is important for external communicators. It will make you a well rounded professional and position you as an important resource for your organization if a physical crisis does strikes.
Before I get into recommendations and lessons for public relations professionals, let me paint a picture of a real physical crisis that I took part in managing. This will provide you with some insights into the demands and level of teamwork needed to ensure your stakeholders are well informed, cooperative and most importantly, have confidence that you’re trying to resolve the issue.
So here it goes…
It was literally one of the coldest times of the winter – barely five degrees and windy. To be outside for more than 30 seconds literally hurt. I received a phone call around 4:30am one morning from our central dispatch that a valve in a gas main had frozen, effectively shutting off service to close to 800 residents. Soon they would be getting up to go to work or take their children to school. Their furnaces, stoves and water heaters would not be operational. Undoubtedly, there would be frustration. Some households might have elderly residents who were home all day, some might have sick children, and all would likely want to take a shower and cook meal that day. They would not only feel inconvenienced, they might be worried about their loved ones safety in the bitter cold. Where would they go if their homes got too cold? Would their pipes freeze? How long would service be effected? They wanted to know this information and it was our job to provide it.
On the operational front, service and distribution employees were called in from other parts of our service territory. We rolled out the “command van” so that we could have a central meeting place for our team, as well as a presence on site. We worked with the city to provide heating buses and other city services. Of course city representatives remained on site to get updates first hand. And of course, the media came calling for every single news segment of the day – morning, noon, and evening – TV, print and radio. They wanted the status of the situation as it unfolded, updates on customers restored as we got the gas flowing again, and a play by play of what had caused the problem in the first place. I had to know every aspect of the situation as I was the primary source for communicating it externally. It was a grueling, albeit short 36-hour incident (especially in light of the BP incident), but it was truly a lesson-learning experience. In the end, service was restored and our stakeholders were satisfied with our response and communications efforts. I was incredibly impressed with the team effort.
So how do you achieve this level of performance and structure? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. By the time this incident came around we had been through a few others. Unfortunately, practice does make perfect. But really, it starts with a process, continues with your team made up of individuals who know their roles and it ends with excellent communications with stakeholders and an on-site presence. But you better have a plan in place far before you end up in a command van.
It starts with a process…
For anyone who has worked in corporate communications, the crisis binder is a staple — A dust covered, outdated binder that is. But if a physical crisis hits and the first thing you do is reach for the binder, you’re already in trouble. You need to have process in place so that if an incident comes through your doors, the right team can make the right decisions quickly.
It continues with your team made up of individuals who know their roles…
The process only works if everyone within your incident management team knows their roles. It’s the critical piece to ensuring that the incident is managed smoothly from onset through to resolution. The other critical piece is that your executive team also needs to know their roles. Ultimately, if an incident is not managed correctly, your leadership will be called upon to provide “official” answers. Make sure they’re involved from the beginning.
It ends with excellent communications with stakeholders…
The biggest mistakes organizations make with physical incidents is that they don’t set the right expectations at the onset, show enough of a concern, or fail to provide timely updates. Even if an incident is being managed well on the operational front, if you’re not sharing timely news with stakeholders the perception could be that your response is inadequate.
A good place to start developing a process is by answering these questions:
- How are incidents reported in to the company (email alert, text message, calling tree)?
- How are incidents shared internally and with who?
- How are the incidents shared with external stakeholders (fire, police, city officials)?
- Who is the liaison with city or emergency officials?
- Who in your company needs to know about the incident?
- Who is the incident management team?
- How will you train them to know their roles?
- What types of incidents require the team to gather (levels of incidents)?
- How does the team gather to make decisions once an incident is reported (in person, by phone)?
- How does your organization want to communicate updates (on camera, formal statements, social media)?
- How will you show on-site presence?
- Who is in charge of incidents on site? Who is your spokesperson?
- What role will your CEO or president play?
- Who is going to resolve the physical crisis (within your organization, emergency response officials)?
These questions are by no means comprehensive, but are a good starting point for any size organization to begin to formulate their process. The bottom line in physical crisis communications is that there is a well defined system for receiving and sharing timely information with your internal and external stakeholders, and that it doesn’t exist in a binder. It can be the most important single thing you do to prepare for physical crises.
Elizabeth C. Castro is a vice president at O’Malley Hansen Communications in Chicago, IL (www.omalleyhansen.com) and was previously the spokesperson for Peoples Gas, the natural gas utility for the city of Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter @Eliz_Castro or @thecommsblog.