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August 15, 2002 9:23 AM CDT

Dealing with Catastrophe: What to Do If Things Go Wrong

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It used to be that the kinds of crises a business might face included power outages, loss of revenue, or product or service safety recalls. Hard to believe that now the list of possible challenges includes acts of terrorism.

Be that as it may, the number one action you can take to handle any catastrophe is to plan for them before they happen. Admittedly, planning always sounds like a boring, time-wasting activity. Crisis plans are not difficult to create, however, and have certain recommended components, regardless of the catastrophe.

The following outline suggests guidelines for what your business should include in its crisis plan. You can probably draw one up yourself over a weekend. Keep in mind that the time you spend now will save you money and unnecessary grief when and if the unthinkable happens.

Make a list of your company's key management. One of those management members should be designated as the "crisis team leader." Add to this list key supporting vendors (such as legal counsel, public relations) including their addresses, phone numbers, cell phone numbers and email addresses.

Have a one-page fact sheet on your business and facilities, as reporters often ask for this data when a crisis occurs. Include information on the square footage and age of your building, names of other tenants in the building, information on its owner, the year your company was founded, and the number of employees.

Compile a list of contact information for the local media (TV, newspapers, radio) and local, county, state and federal representatives. Your chamber of commerce may already have such a list prepared. More than likely, they will be willing to share it with you if you indicate your reason for needing it.

Prepare a list of steps that should be followed immediately when a crisis occurs. Some recommendations are:

The crisis team leader's job is to alert the rest of the crisis team when an incident occurs. That leader will establish a schedule for any regular meetings of the crisis team until such time as the crisis is deemed over, resolved and/or minimized.

As a team, meet and determine/agree upon the facts to disseminate to all with a need to know (depending on the type of crisis), which typically would include company employees, community, media (press, radio, TV) and county officials

Identify who on the team will be the official "spokesperson" for the company during the crisis. This may or may not be the same person as the crisis team leader.

Instruct the company receptionist or person handling incoming calls at your business on to how and where to direct incoming inquiries during the crisis.

Set up a special hotline number if the crisis warrants it. If your company has inadvertently polluted the local groundwater, for instance, residents will want to be able to call and receive updated information regarding the problem, how it affects them, what if anything they should do, and steps being taken.

Keep a log of all incoming inquiries and how they are handled. Write a brief press release if necessary, to inform the public of the basic details surrounding the incident.

Write a second announcement after the crisis to notify the public of what your business did in order to correct the situation, or to notify them of the outcome.

These are the major steps to address a catastrophe. They describe what to do, but not how to do it. How you handle the situation will determine the positive or negative image of your company in the long run. There are some tried and true media do's and don'ts to remember. Include these tips in the crisis plan, as it is often difficult to remember how to react in the heat of the moment.

  • Do not have multiple people speaking on behalf of the company. This can lead to convoluted and contradictory information and messages. Make sure all the media and community officials go thru the same person to ensure consistency.
  • Return media phone calls as soon as possible. Sometimes if the crisis is severe enough, a company will hold daily press updates.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, say so, and tell them you will endeavor to find out the answer. Don't speculate.
  • Treat the crisis with the somberness it deserves, and avoid minimizing the problem. Some companies hope that by downplaying the incident it will blow over, but this usually just serves to fan the flames of curiosity.
  • Treat all conversations with the media and other public officials as "on the record" ? never assume, even if you ask them to hold it in confidentiality, that it will remain so.
  • Show compassion and sensitivity. Former New York City Mayor Guiliani and his calm yet sensitive leadership during September 11 is a wonderful example of how to handle a crisis.

Once the crisis plan is completed, distribute it to your management team and any outside support vendors that might be involved, such as your lawyer, accountant, building owner, service distributor, and so on. An ideal way to communicate the information is to schedule a face-to-face meeting to present the document both in hard copy and electronically. This enables the members to see who else is part of the crisis team, and enables you to explain the purpose of the plan and answer any questions on the spot.

Update the plan whenever there is a change in management or when there are address and phone changes.

Let's hope you never have to use it.


About the Author

Linda VandeVrede is the principal of VandeVrede Public Relations, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company that serves clients nationwide. VandeVrede Public Relations offers expertise in public relations, crisis planning, issues management and analyst relations.

 

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