I participated in an American Bar Association webinar on responding to disasters on April 15, 2013. The webinar ended at 2:30pm Eastern time – just 20 minutes before the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
I’ve written about crisis management before (see here on workplace violence and here on crisis communications). The events in Boston on the afternoon of April 15 and in the days that followed reinforced the need for crisis management – before, during and after the crisis.
As the speakers at the ABA webinar emphasized, improbable events are becoming the norm. Smithsonian Magazine reports that nearly every American has had to deal with a weather-related disaster in the last few years. The same is true for businesses.
Whether it is a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or tornadoes in the Midwest, or a criminal or terrorist rampage like Sandy Hook Elementary School or bombs at the Boston Marathon, every business and every government entity needs to be prepared to respond to a disaster.
1. Before the Crisis
The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. – John Kennedy
Before the crisis, businesses should anticipate as many potential losses as possible. Some occurrences are semi-predictable, such as floods and hurricanes, fires and electrical outages. Beyond those, all a business may be able to do is to have a comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery plan.
Since 9/11, much has been written about how to recover when a business location has been completely disrupted. Do you have all critical systems and data backed up? Do your employees know how to find out if your business is operating, or what they should do if you are unable to open for business? Do you have adequate insurance to protect against sudden losses? Do you know what your insurance policies cover and what they do not?
Now is the time to address answer these questions, not after disaster strikes.
2. During the Crisis
Public calamity is a mighty leveler. – Edmund Burke
Since the specifics of any crisis are not predictable, you should discuss with all employees a clear set of priorities for decision-making during a disaster. For example, in a customer service business, the priorities might be (1) to protect the lives and health of customers, (2) to protect the lives and health of employees, (3) to protect property only after people are safe.
Cooperation with government authorities should also be part of your priorities for employees. And every employee should know both how to evacuate the premises and how to shelter in place (or where to go, if your premises are not safe for sheltering in place).
Perhaps all you say is, “safety first,” which everyone should be able to remember, even in a crisis. When people are safe, then do what you can to minimize business loss.
Do not hold employees accountable for following detailed procedures or rigid standards. It will be difficult during a crisis to remember more than a few basic principles, and even then, different people will react differently, depending on whether the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Be forgiving.
But after the event, recognize those heroes who perform as expected – or who rise above expectations, as so many did in Boston.
3. After the Crisis
When any calamity has been suffered, the first thing to be remembered is how much has been escaped. – Samuel Johnson
The bulk of crisis management work necessarily happens after the crisis. At that point, businesses need to approach the situation as they would any operational problem: Assess where you are and where you need to be to recover, determine your options in obtaining the resources you need, decide on a course of action, and continually re-evaluate your plan.
And throughout it all, communicate, communicate, communicate with all your stakeholders –employees, customers, shareholders, insurers, the media, government authorities, and anyone else with an interest in your recovery.
How will you minimize operational disruption? How can you best return to your pre-crisis status? Can you even improve on where you were before the crisis? What resources are available to help you recoup the losses incurred during the disaster, whether from insurance proceeds or the government or other third-parties?
Often, recovery from a crisis will take months or even years. Rarely will it go smoothly. Anticipate as many problems and you can, and stay flexible.
What has your business done to prepare for potential disasters?