In most cases, the answer to the question in the headline is squarely in your control. Every transit agency or private contractor has the potential for crises such as accidents, labor negotiations, strikes, employee incidents, and management or board member situations. Even seemingly simple service changes can present the potential for crisis.
How you handle a crisis can determine your credibility in the community and ability to increase tax funding. It can also influence potential legal action related to the incident.
To keep a critical situation from becoming a disaster, you need to do three things — anticipate, plan and implement. Think of it as preventive maintenance for your organization.
Contingency planning is the exercise of honestly analyzing everything that could go wrong, developing solutions or responses and then implementing procedures. Regardless of the situation, there are common elements to be addressed, including identifying key messages, spokesperson(s), timelines, written materials, interdepartmental (and contractor, if appropriate) interactions and communications with your employees, board members, outside officials, emergency personnel, customers, media and the general public.
For instance, as you near the expiration of a labor contract (90 to 120 days out), you should analyze the likelihood of a strike, pickets, demonstrations, sick-outs or other actions. Do you have (or are you) a contractor? Who will deal with the media? What are appropriate comments by the agency or contractor? Have you developed an emergency service plan? Can you recruit qualified drivers from other agencies? What about peaceful, legal demonstrations? Will you make arrangements for additional security? After a strike, will you offer free or reduced fares?
What is your first-response protocol for accident reporting? Who is responsible for gathering facts — what happened, where, when, visible signs of injury, police citations, etc.? To whom does that information go? What do you do if reporters appear at the scene? What’s your policy about coach operators or supervisors talking to the media, whether they’re your employees or contracted? If the accident is serious, immediate, accurate response using established systems becomes even more critical.
In any crisis, the media should be considered your allies. They assist you in getting your messages out to the public. Do not avoid the media; instead, be prepared to give them good information.
Most managers do not want to take time out of their busy lives to plan for problems that they feel they can handle at the spur of the moment. However, if you don’t prepare yourself and your staff, both emotionally and technically — “crisis management” — you will spend more time under greater stress doing “damage control” with less actual control over the results.
The best way to pre-plan is to carve out time with your key management and go off-site so you’re not distracted. Bringing in an outside consultant who can facilitate the process will keep you focused and save you time. This expert can also prepare materials such as calling trees and outlines for media relations and provide training to your staff to help you implement your program. Once these elements and protocols are established, a designated person on your staff can keep most of it updated.
After the contingencies are analyzed and a plan is developed, don’t put it on a shelf. It’s up to you to ensure messages are conveyed and procedures are followed. Contingency planning — organizational preventive maintenance — won’t make problems any less critical, but it will make them easier to deal with and it will keep crises from becoming catastrophes.
Nancy Pearl is a marketing and communications consultant in Reno, Nev.