© 2002 Jonathan Bernstein
JUST A THOUGHT
Most of your stakeholders expect you to do what's right, not just what's required.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
Why Do Some Crises Become Disasters?
by Phil Cogan, Executive Vice President, Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc.
Crisis: 1. A crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point. 2. an unstable condition, as in political, social or economic affairs, involving an impending abrupt or decisive change.
Disaster: 1. An occurrence causing widespread destruction and distress; a catastrophe. 2. A grave misfortune. 3. Informal: A total failure.
In a now widely quoted speech during the 1950s, former president John F. Kennedy noted that "when written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity."
The maxim illustrates an important and often overlooked point; not all crises lead to disaster. While it is popular to assume that an individual or organization that finds itself "in crisis" is also "in trouble", it is not correct to further assume that the organization ultimately finds itself in the midst of a disaster. Why is that?
First, note that a crisis, as Kennedy observed, isn't automatically and by definition bad. A crisis is "a crucial or decisive point or situation", or "a turning point". Handled properly, it is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to navigate out of harm's way. Damage, destruction and distress are not inherent in the definition of crisis; they are components of what a crisis may become, namely a disaster.
Second, let's acknowledge that some organizations in crisis avoid disaster through plain old dumb luck, or if more intellectually palatable, because of fate.
But dumb luck or fate can't account for all instances of disaster avoidance. So what does?
Preparedness stands between crisis and disaster. Political educator Morton C. Blackwell said it succinctly: "In moments of crisis, the initiative passes to those who are best prepared. "
However, preparedness takes many forms. In studying some of these forms of preparedness we may learn why disasters -- grave misfortunes -- happen to some organizations in crisis, while bypassing or less severely affecting others.
Why Some Crises Become Disasters and Others Don't
1. Arrogance (version one): Bad things always happen to the other guy.
It's human nature to assume that other organizations get into trouble because, well, they're either unlucky or made mistakes. It's also human nature to assume that the same things can't happen to you. End result: no crisis preparedness activities. Period.
2. Arrogance (version two): whatever happens can be handled.
An aerospace company for whom I provided consulting services put it this way (and this is almost a word-for-word quote): "We hire seasoned professionals and pay them a lot of money. They don't need crisis plans; they just need to do their jobs." End result: no crisis preparedness. Period.
3. Lack of crisis plans, or inadequate crisis plans.
Some organizations fail through an act of omission; they simply and completely fail to prepare crisis plans. Why? There are many reasons, none relevant in this discussion; they just don't prepare plans.
Not much better off are their cousin organizations who, in an act of commission, have inadequate plans, sometimes which are nothing more than off-the-shelf, fill-in-the blank, computer-generated plans with little relevance to the organization's activities.
4. Ineffective crisis response training programs.
Even great crisis plans are useless if the people who are expected to execute them aren't adequately trained. That means training, keyed to the plans, needs to be done by professionals with emergency prevention and response experience, needs to be done regularly, and needs to include new hires and those filling in for people who have departed the organization.
5. Failure to regularly test the adequacy of plans and training.
How do we know if plans or training will prove adequate when a crisis occurs? Administering a written test, absurd as it sounds, might be better than what many organizations do to test their preparedness, which is nothing.
Organizations serious about improving preparedness conduct tests ranging from simple "table top" emergency simulations to full-scale, "turn on the sirens and start the smoke machine" field exercises. Such organizations are the opposite of the proverbial ostrich; rather than hiding their heads in the sand they want to know if they're going to fail, and they want to know when finding out does the greatest good: BEFORE the crisis.
6. Failure to regularly monitor the internal and external environments.
It was in high school biology classes that many of us learned the fate of organisms that were unable to monitor the environments in which they lived. Unaware of changes in the environment, such as temperature, they often perished because they couldn't or didn't react. Similarly, a failure to detect the presence of predators and either leave the area, hide, or attack also threatened the organism's continued existence.
Despite the well-known, elemental need to monitor the environment around us, many organizations today routinely ignore what's going on internally and externally to them. The advent of instantaneous global communications and the proliferation of media may make the task more difficult than in the past, but it does not make it any less necessary. Even organizations with the will to act cannot if they deny themselves access to the critical information needed to know WHEN to act.
7. Ignoring or failing to identify crisis warning signs and precursors.
OK, let's suppose that you've established a very impressive program to monitor what's going on within and without your organization. Your people are generating reams of reports documenting almost everything that's being said, written and rumored about you.
But he who has the thickest report doesn't necessarily win. More important than volume is ANALYSIS. What does it all mean? Are there trends evident, and if so, do those trends require action or response?
8. Implementing single disciplinary responses to multidisciplinary crises.
Ever notice how a legal crisis rarely has implications limited to the law? Or how a school's handling of a grading controversy usually involves a range of issues involving parenting, educational policy, rules and regulations, labor unions and psychology? How environmental incidents involve science, land use laws, property rights, healthcare, victim rights and community activism? And notice how all of them seem to involve the media?
It's no accident that effective and efficient crisis response comes from the creation and actions of effective and efficient crisis response TEAMS; teams made up of representatives of a wide-range of disciplines who, working together, can provide both a comprehensive multidisciplinary analysis of the crisis and a response plan to minimize its effects.
9. The magnitude or severity of the crisis overwhelms the available resources.
No amount of preparedness guarantees an organization that no crisis will ever become a disaster. Having said that, though, there is ample evidence that establishes that sound crisis preparations almost always mitigate the effects of crises.
10. Crisis preparations focused on preparing for scenario-specific emergencies instead of creating response skills enabling responders to innovate as circumstances require.
Crisis experts and those who have endured crises will both tell you: actual crises rarely, if ever, happen the way they're described in crisis plans and training. And aside from referring to checklists, phone numbers and resource listings, most people with crisis plans who have responded to crises will tell you that aside from looking at those lists they rarely used the plans.
Good crisis plans, and the effective training that is based on those plans, should develop general capabilities that permit responders to innovate. Think of crisis plans and training as putting crisis tools into a responder's toolbox. When the time comes to face a crisis, an effectively trained and equipped responder will have the knowledge and skills necessary to know what crisis tools to use and when to use them.
That crisis will strike an organization at one or more points in its history is a given; that the crisis will become a disaster is not. Although not a guarantee of crisis immunity, a comprehensive crisis preparedness program is the best immunization against disaster. To do nothing is to gamble the organization's reputation, resources and future. It is not a good bet.
Phil Cogan, besides being my executive v.p., was formerly deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Emergency Information and Public Affairs. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
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Want to REALLY get some of this information into the hearts and minds of your organization? Your ineffable ezine editor and crisis communications consultant and his talented associate, Phil Cogan, are available to make presentations and lead workshops. Their presentations can often be certified for the continuing education credits required by a number of professions. A list of our recent and pending speaking engagements can be found by clicking here or on the "Presentations" button to the left. For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (626) 825-3838.
Editor's Note: As regular Crisis Manager readers know, I'm a big fan of PIER System's technology, having now used it for a half dozen clients. Yes, we have a business relationship with them -- but it's because they do what they do so well. And I love it when we get to read a case history about PIER's use, because we often can't talk about our own confidential client matters. At the time Gerald sent this in, four Coast Guard districts were using the system to respond to Hurricane Lili.
Coast Guard District 13 Uses PIER System Technology to Facilitate Public and Group Communication
by Gerald Baron
Communicating quickly and efficiently with multiple audiences is essential in the Internet age. U.S. Coast Guard District 13 (Pacific Northwest) has implemented Internet-based communication management technology that has greatly improved the speed and efficiency of public information management, inter-agency, and intra-agency communications.
PIER: Fast, Simple and Secure
The PIER System (Public Information Emergency Response) delivers the full power of the Internet to District communications officials, allowing them to quickly distribute information to the media and the public. PIER also improves the efficiency of private communications among units within the district and other government agencies.
The system provides a password-secured intranet site from which a dispersed communication team can perform all necessary communication functions. For example, District staff in different offices can work together to prepare, draft and edit any type of document, and then secure the necessary approvals. Drafting and editing is done in a Word-like HTML editor. Staff can easily upload images and other digital files by simply browsing and selecting them from their server or hard-drive.
Once a document has been developed and approved, it is instantly uploaded to the public website. It can also be distributed by email or fax to a distribution list developed from a database that is accessible from the intranet site. The database contains contacts such as reporters, agency representatives, stakeholders, government officials, and community members. Because the system is Internet based, staff can work from any Internet connection and are not restricted to a LAN location.
The external websites can be designated public or private. Public sites can be accessed through links on the main district website; private sites are password-secured. Private sites provide easy and convenient communication among different groups within the agency and between different agencies. According to Lt. Chris Haley, Public Information Officer for District 13, the system enables a government agency to efficiently communicate with geographically dispersed units, maintain communication consistency and minimize costs by using websites as communication tools.
Inquiry Management Ensures Rapid Response
The PIER system also allows communications teams to efficiently respond to requests for information from the public with the Inquiry Management feature. With this feature, inquiries automatically enter the system through the public site. Team members are notified of inquiries via standard email or text pagers. A Public Information Officer can monitor new inquiries, see who has responded, and see the nature of the response. Details about response time, method of response, and so on can also be tracked, allowing for improvements to both the quality and efficiency of external communications.
Flexibility Allows for New Sites
A PIER feature heavily used by District 13 allows communicators to launch new sites at any time. Sub-sites are used for a variety of purposes, including private, intra-agency communication; public sites relating to specific Marine Safety Offices; and for specific, news-related issues, such as the Arctic Rose investigation, or tracking the progress of an ice breaker. Databases and data contained in existing sites can serve as templates for new sites, allowing for easy data transfer. Communicators can fully manage content and email/fax publishing for multiple sites from the single "control room" of the intranet control site.
Virtual Communications Improve Crisis Management
Coast Guard Districts become significantly involved in both public and inter-agency communications during major environmental disasters. Lt. Haley says the value of the PIER system was obvious during the New Carissa incident, for which he served as the Public Information Officer. The Incident Command System is employed for events of this nature, and communications officials establish a Joint Information Center (JIC). The JIC serves as a focal point for response communications between agencies, as well as communications with the public. The PIER System is the operating platform for the JIC, enabling dispersed team members to fully participate -- creating, in effect, a "virtual JIC."
According to Lt. Haley, it is the Coast Guard's intention to be the first and best source for information about crisis events, and the PIER System helps accomplish that goal. Private, secured communication among responders and agencies involved in the response can be accomplished alongside highly efficient distribution of public information. The key, according to Haley, is to give the communication team full control of Internet resources without requiring extensive training or technical knowledge.
A Common Platform for All Players
Because large-scale events such as oil spills involve both private companies and a number of different government agencies, sharing a common communication platform facilitates cooperative and efficient response. Major oil companies such as Shell Oil have adopted the PIER System; the technology is featured in drills involving multiple players, including state environmental organizations, the EPA, the Coast Guard, local departments of emergency management, and others. The PIER platform improves the teams' efficiency, improves accuracy of the communication and greatly reduces lag time between releases of updated information.
Crisis-Capable Servers Protect Private Data, Prevent Crashes
The PIER System is hosted on non-agency servers built specifically for secure communication and able to absorb high hit rates. Companies and agencies at the center of news are discovering that Internet users go directly to agency websites for information and not just to news websites. The US Navy's website absorbed five million hits following the USS Cole incident; the Florida elections department website crashed under the burden of hits during the 2000 recount; and the FBI's website went from a three second access time to 180 second access time following the September 11 attacks. Crisis-capable servers are essential for agencies with the potential for significant public exposure. Hosting public information sites on non-agency servers provides the added advantage of increasing security and protecting the agencies internal Internet resources during a time of crisis when it is critical to protect the infrastructure to manage the response.
While the highest value of this technology may emerge during a major public crisis, Lt. Haley places high value on the intra-agency communication it provides. "It's a great way to leverage costs, reduce training, and enhance communication in a de-centralized agency," said Haley.
Gerald Baron is president of PIER System, Inc. If you'd like more information on PIER Systems, contact email@example.com.
CRISIS MANAGER ON THE SPOT
Q: What are some of the challenges facing crisis management teams after September 11, 2001? -- Kevin Harris, graduate student, Hood College.
CM: Kevin, the #1 challenge, without a doubt, is getting senior management to take crisis preparedness seriously. A lot of them "talk the talk," but very few of them "walk the walk." Even after not only 9/11, but also after the horrendous series of corporate disasters of the past year or so.
This is not a new challenge -- it's been that way as long as I've been employed in PR, more than 20 years. There's certainly more visible evidence why preparedness is necessary, but apparently denial and delusion remains preferable to action for far too many.
PLAIN ENGLISH DISCLOSURE
Bernstein Crisis Management has formal or informal co-promotional and mutually beneficial business associations with PIER Systems, Inc., PR Newswire's ProfNet service and CustomScoop. No, we can't go into details because that's confidential, proprietary, etc. But our relationship is NOT "arm's distance" and you should know that, since we regularly write about how we're using these services for crisis and issues management. That said, you should also know that Bernstein Crisis Management sought the relationships because its staff is convinced that these services are the best of their kind for Bernstein Crisis Management's needs and those of their clients. If you have any questions about these relationships, please contact Jonathan Bernstein, (626) 825-3838.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Jonathan Bernstein is president & CEO of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a national public relations agency specializing in crisis prevention, response & issues management. It is also the only national PR agency able to create crisis- and issues-specific websites for its clients in as little as five minutes by employing proprietary PIER System technology. Information on the firm's services can be found by Clicking Here or by calling (626) 825-3838. Information on its PIER capabilities can be found at www.crisiswebsite.com.
(Have a newsletter and/or website and want to exchange links? Let's talk about it! Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
These sites have proven valuable to my business and may do the same for yours.
"Media Insider" is a free service for the public relations community hosted by PR Newswire and ProfNet, its online resource linking reporters with expert sources. Updated daily with contributions from members, Insider reports on the people and new technologies behind the production of news. Go to http://www.mediainsider.com.
"The Publicity Hound" is a bi-monthly, 8-page subscription newsletter featuring tips, tricks and tools for free publicity. I'm a fan of editor Joan Stewart and heartily recommend her to anyone wanting positive publicity, the kind that helps you create a cushion of goodwill essential to surviving crises without going under. Sign up for her subscription newsletter as well as her free ezine, "The Publicity Hound's Tips of the Week," at www.publicityhound.com.
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