If you have to ask, 'What do we do now?' it's way too late

Posted on May 11, 2010 by Joseph Osterman

It is 5 a.m. on a Sunday, and you have just been notified of a serious fatal accident involving one of your buses. Do you think your company is ready for what will happen next?

For more than 25 years, I have watched with considerable concern as operators, who believed they were prepared because they had diligently attended to risk avoidance, were stunned at the speed, scope and magnitude of attention suddenly focusing on every aspect of their company. Mind you, I'm not talking about the outliers in the transportation world, but solid, established and conscientious companies.

Most of you reading this can quickly recall a company or set of managers that were consumed as a result of their poor response to a catastrophic event. It is a simple fact in our 24/7 news world that if you mishandle your response, the consequences will multiply the impact on your business, even if your company was not at fault. You may increase the financial losses, damage your reputation, lose future revenues, and make devoted customers and industry partners ­hesitant.

Why do some reliable companies stumble when a crisis strikes? As with most complex problems, there are often several contributing factors, but one obvious mistake is the lack of appreciation for the differences between risk management and crisis management. Many businesses believe that their efforts to prevent accidents and the personnel, who are experts in those areas, will carry them through a crisis. Unfortunately, this belief is not always correct.

Risk management involves assessing potential threats and finding the best ways to avoid those threats. Our heavily regulated industry focuses immense effort and resources on avoiding risks. The pursuit of safety through regulatory compliance, vehicle maintenance, operator training, safety management systems and other very worthy endeavors results in a relatively safe experience for the traveling public.

Risk management is framed by the recognition, evaluation and prioritization of risks followed by the corresponding use of resources and countermeasures to minimize and control the likelihood or consequences of those risks. By its very definition, risk management requires methodical planning and execution, but its focus is prevention.

On the other hand, crisis management, often considered a subset of risk management, involves threats that have already occurred with rapidly changing conditions. It is defined as the process by which a company copes with a major unpredictable event, such as an accident. Like risk management, methodical planning and execution are necessary and, also like risk management, you are working to prevent more harm to the organization.

What's the difference, you might ask? Try applying complex assessment techniques to a situation in which information is changing by the minute, media coverage is escalating, and the demands on your time are immediate and coming from all directions at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Good luck with that.

Regardless of how tirelessly you work to prevent catastrophic accidents, they still occur and when they do, you must be prepared with a framework that can provide flexible, straightforward and rapid response capabilities. Multi-chapter crisis management plans that collect dust on a shelf and address predetermined scenarios will be of little use.

Honestly, do you think you will correctly predict the accident you may have, or have time to pull out a 2-inch binder and bone-up on your crisis management plan? Of course not.

What can you do? Readiness is the key. Be ready to respond to an incomplete problem at the worst time. Be ready to control your response with core principles and company values, but also be ready to be flexible. Be ready to address the unfair, the untrue, and the uncertain nature of information and opinion. But most of all, be ready to direct a professional, compassionate response, or events will control you.

Readiness does matter. Here are some steps you can take today to prepare for tomorrow's crisis:

Keep It Simple: All aspects of your response must be simple for your employees and contractors to understand and ­implement.

Create a Rapid Response Plan Framework: Plan ahead for a crisis, practice your plan and make certain your plan is elastic but remember, keep it simple.

Understand your Capabilities: Assess your internal crisis management strengths and weaknesses in advance. Identify roles, responsibilities and where you will obtain help during a crisis. After the accident happens, it's too late.

Manage the Message: There are many parts of a crisis beyond your control, but the message can become one of your strongest allies. Be compassionate, responsible and professional. Predetermine the company philosophy and values you wish to highlight; know who will be your spokesperson; know how you will interact with the media, including the Internet; and know how you will achieve continuity of message among your employees and advocates.

Communicate Beforehand: Make certain your partners, attorneys, insurance carrier and, in some circumstances, customers know how you intend to respond to a crisis.

Care for Others: Demonstrate your concern and compassion for victims, their families and employees during a crisis. You can do this without increasing your liability. Avoiding this critical issue may actually escalate your problems.

Be Flexible: Wouldn't it be terrific to know precisely what catastrophe we were going to encounter so that we could develop the perfect plan of action? And wouldn't it be nice if you could predict the winning lottery numbers? Face it; neither of these things is going to happen. So, your approach needs to be elastic.

Remember, once crisis management is used, you're already in a pickle. Your primary goal is to avoid making that bad situation worse.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese General Sun Tzu wrote about readiness. Paraphrasing his thoughts to match today's reality, his teachings are still true: You can't rely on avoiding all crises or on the chance that the consequences will be mild; you can only rely on your readiness and that your response will rise above the ­pressure.

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