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Crises & Emergencies

College campus with yellow tape that reads Police Line Do Not Cross to protect students from crises and emergencies

Never go to sleep when your meat is on the fire.

- Native American (Pueblo Tribe) proverb.
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Onsets distinguish crises from emergencies! But one can turn into the other.

Emergencies (accident, fire, terrorist attack, heart failure, chemical release, poisoning, etc.) requires immediate response.

Crises (corruption, public dissatisfactions, scamming, internal conflicts, interest group interruptions, debt etc.) typically start without notice.

One exception is clever, sophisticated manipulation by forces using surprise as a disruptive tool. Minus adequate foresight, planning and precautions, sophisticated manipulation can fracture valuable operational continuums in any section or even throughout a business organization.

Crises normally creep until perpetrators seize the moment and then control circumstances.  Unprepared victims start at a disadvantage.

First is the shock wave. Second, either a delay in regaining control or immediate knee-jerk responses aggravating the predicament. Third, say hello to social and traditional media pressing for comments. Off-the-cuff remarks usually come back as stingers. Do not jeopardize initial mistakes with added burdens! Accommodate the press but never at your own expense.

Another explanation declares that true, rather than superficia,l crises always reach a turning point.

These display no regular pattern. Nonetheless, something positive or negative will emerge from the event’s critical hour or day or series of days. What ultimately occurs most often is based on early– correct — crisis management.

Conversely, emergencies instantly produce apprehensions about seriousness — real or imagined. Fast, capable professional response is required. First responder agencies will be on every scene except for very rare incidents. The smart leader will initiate and maintain close relationships with these skilled teams.

Many, many such happenings can be prevented. If not prevented, then mitigated. If not mitigated, then the heavy weight of critics is felt by CEOs, presidents, general managers and others including communication specialists. Dealing with critics is helped immensely by experience. Pitfalls abound. The most vocal, and who attract media, usually are woefully informed or completely ignorant of facts. Facts are beneficial only after verification.

Because of their nature, crises are easier to foil than emergencies.  When united, one’s accurate interpretation, calmness, prior involvement, skillful approach, whetted knowledge, and adaptability yield favorable results. Despite best practice methodologies failure is conceivable. But without best efforts particularly in advance, failures skyrocket.

Here are five case summaries:

  • Widespread panic roared across the country in 1982, when 7 people were killed after taking capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. Once people started questioning the safety of over-the-counter drugs, Johnson & Johnson CEO James E. Burke quickly realized that his company could face its greatest challenge ever if the crisis was not handled properly.

In a major news conference, Burke said Johnson & Johnson would stop selling over-the-counter products in capsules, which easily could be tampered with, unlike solid caplets. The company also adopted new triple-seal tamper-resistant packaging standards for its products. J & J recalled more than 32 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves at a major cost to the company. He offered an unequivocal apology as soon as reports of deaths were verified. 

When a reporter asked if he was sorry the company had not acted sooner, Burke responded, “Yes, indeed I am.” Because of his actions, he gained a reputation for strong, decisive leadership in the face of disaster. Fortune magazine named him one of history’s 10 greatest CEOs. The Tylenol case has been cited in countless studies as an example of excellent crisis management.

  • In 2014, Mary Barra was named as General Motors’ first female CEO. An electrical engineer who had been at GM for 30 years, she was more than qualified to take the reins. The press gushed, praising Barra’s leadership style and her initiatives to promote women in engineering.

But good feelings can be brief. Soon after reaching her two-month mark, negative news stories circulated. General Motors had put at least 1.7 million cars on the road with an ignition switch defect. It was reported responsible for more than a dozen deaths. A massive recall ensued. In no time a PR catastrophe crowded out the new CEO’s planned agenda.

Wisely, GM’s leader stepped forward, addressing the recalls in a filmed statement. Millions of viewers saw and heard Ms. Barra admit, “Something went very wrong … and terrible things happened.” Her forthright mea culpa impressed traditionally skeptical reporters and editors. Why? She wasn’t the first, second, third, or 50th CEO to accept responsibility. Maybe Berra’s “stand-up” decision challenged media quality more than other 21st-century leadership traits.

Significantly, to backup her mettle she quite transparently issued sincere apologies. Mary Barra blamed herself for a bad situation!

  • In 1987 Chrysler innocently, yet wrongfully (as agreed in a settlement) rolled back odometers on test vehicles, ultimately selling those cars as new and providing full, standard guarantees for each in the evaluation program.

The feds intervened.

Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca demonstrated terrific leadership. After intensive questioning of internal advisors Lee took complete control, instantly announcing his decisions, and orders. 

They included not only his own public admittance and regret but also his pledge to compensate every purchaser of a vehicle in the company research project.

The chairman gained worldwide acclaim by keeping his word.

  • Ashland Oil’s John Hall learned of a storage tank fracture emptying environmentally damaging contents into a creek and then a river.

In demand for numerous other reasons noted on his crowded scheduled, Ashland’s CEO took charge of the emergency. Personally accepting responsibility Hall immediately went to the scene. He put together and oversaw a remedial action plan to protect citizen water supplies while also halting increasing threats to nature as well as farm animals.

John’s responsible actions substantiated his own and his corporation’s regrets to all affected. He stayed on the job until remedial tasks concluded successfully.

  • Our last example: Highly respected owners of a private, legendary educational facility devoted to marine science received shocking information.  A seasonal instructor  became a prime suspect in a series of child-molesting incidents. Young boys were housed, like other camp attendees, in supervised bunk-bed cabins. The suspect had cabin authority, and of course, responsibilities.

Having been vetted by several sources including federal authorities, the part-time teacher and cabin  He passed every pre-employment investigation. Preston Global, which ForeseeNow is emerging,  was recommended, interviewed and instantly retained.

Camp owners realized they needed external crisis intervention, on-site strategies, and someone who could work with law enforcement. We also recognized the importance of protecting our client’s outstanding international reputation and particularly the wellbeing of their attendees. 

Management’s unhesitating decision in this delicate matter paved the way for an outcome that couldn’t have been better for all publics involved – directly and indirectly. Except for the pedophile. He’s imprisoned federally without parole until age 87!

At FSN, we don’t mince words.

During eras up to the mid-1900s, most execs thought keeping their heads down at crisis and emergency time should be sufficient.

Serious adjustments began soon afterward. Executives urged by talented communication specialists, most from prior print, radio and TV days, began studying hard news trends. Naivety continued but eased significantly during the 60s and 70s.

Corporate and institutional leaders found out the ramifications of constant silence — many the hard way. It implies guilt. Not so with public sector types. A tradition of making excuses, pointing fingers elsewhere and simply avoiding responsibility contributed to their remaining laggards.

In essence, successful crisis management requires accepting responsibility as well as accountability for what happens during one’s watch.

However, we do take a different view concerning apologies. The 21st century hastily transformed into an era of sham regrets. People hearing them would say, “Yeah, he regrets only because he got caught!”

Never Forget

Phony expressions of regret become dead bugs on unkept floors; they generate resentment rather than assuaging it.

Acknowledging fault IS the ultimate public response if someone definitely is to blame for a crisis, emergency or other act of intended or unintentional wrongdoing. Yet it’s merely a first step. Unless validated by subsequent superior actions illustrating true remorse the party accountable usually comes across shallow, weak, and deceitful.

Few apologies are believable, especially to victims of business mishaps. The best aren’t prepared in haste. Neither should they be the product of only a lawyer, only a person engaged in reputation management, or the guilty party!

This single chance to begin restoring good will must include input from carefully selected individuals. Yes, whatever is expressed publicly is within the domain of the person sitting on a hot seat. He or she should listen carefully to those they trust. And here’s a warning: Winning in only one court — law or public opinion — is a pale victory at best.

Another side to this issue prompts attention. Even astutely superb CEOs frequently don’t know if/when a crisis will strike or why. But assuming it’s inevitable, openly talking about and preparing for it, they transfer it to the category we at FSN describe as “anticipated, foreseeable tomorrows.”

Doing so makes it easier for everyone in the organization when the worst happens. After all, avoidance is the best way to manage a crisis.

Several unproductive factors prevail among CEOs, presidents, VPs and general managers, most self-imposed. Among them are being too near the situation, feeling paralyzed from prior commitments nearly impossible to change, reliance on overburdened internal associates, severe miscalculations, and costly delays in securing independent counsel.

Suddenly, ominous reality gains an emotional foothold. Valuable time passes. The crisis or emergency intensifies.  It avoids timely control rather than being expertly managed.

When either is recognized correctly, the most important step  is overcoming tendencies causing erroneous decision-making. Usually the first error is underestimating situational seriousness.

From a practical standpoint:

  • Remain calm
  • Continue working judiciously
  • Trust the right person’s ability to think systematically
  • Keep subsequent emotions in check
  • Select independent, unbiased crisis/emergency counsel in advance, and retain the specialists!

The above guidelines best serve any CEO’s future and any at-risk organization. In these times “at-risk” applies extensively within our society.

Below you will find 12 early steps to take when organizations experience violence.

  1. Secure/control areas for employee/visitor safety.
  2. Contact law enforcement and other first responders.
  3. Open a direct line to your crisis/emergency consultant if one is retained. Heed advice!  Confidence in the expert chosen is based on credentials, experiences, successes, maturity and familiarity with your organization
  4. Depending on the event, evacuations may ensue. Location pre-determination is vital. [Beware: A single outside assembly point is insufficient. Perpetrators will know that location. Identification is easy. They watch security exercises. Logic and observation after calling in a false bomb threats permit first-hand knowledge about where people will gather. Assailants will attack there.]
  5. Concurrently, activate your fortified operational center and crisis team. Communications, supplies, working arrangements and other needs (beyond a day) require pre-planning.
  6. Account for all employees. This capability should be part of previous exercises and testing.
  7. Keep first responders informed throughout as they ought to do for you. Feed and hydrate those on the front line. Again, such arrangements should be planned in advance.
  8. Notify/update board members. Depending on your type business, there may be others (officials, regulators, etc.) for your immediate call list.
  9. Issue to traditional/social media an early situational “heads-up.10
  10.  ASAP begin conducting fact-finding efforts verifying incoming reports.
  11. Announce time and location for first formal press conference. Well trained executives and spokespersons (more than one in each category in case the primary isn’t available) must decide who else, if anyone, should be available for guidance or help in answering certain media questions. Offer no information lacking substantiation!
  12. Brief trained company representatives to meet immediately with victim families.  Other family assistants should be on standby for whatever length of time is appropriate.

Showing no signs of subsiding, violence comes in diverse packages. Ignoring can be fatal!