Fire destroyed the factory belonging to a client of ours in the middle of 2012. Although the company is smart and nimble, and their recovery plan is excellent, the actual recovery was a long time coming.
In the wake of a disaster with a high level of tragedy, good corporate communication is vital for almost all stakeholders – consumers, customers, neighbours, councils and local government, and for the many staff who may need emotional support.
What people are looking for is information, fast and ongoing. And nature abhors a vacuum; if you aren’t supplying the information, watch for negative rumours.
What you, the company, needs most from you stakeholders is trust, from your workforce, from customers, from the community. To gain that you have to be — trustworthy.
You do have a crisis plan don’t you? People like us bang on about this day-in-and-out. Fires, explosions and similar catastrophic events have special needs:
Normally media statements at the event can be managed by the police or fire services. However you may need to issue a brief statement. Keep it short. Assess the likely headline, photo and first paragraph of the news story, then compose your statement accordingly. It should at least contain:
- A one sentence summary of events: what, when, where.
- A message of compassion or support to people affected.
- An indication of next steps (e.g. there will be a press conference (or press release issued) at 11am tomorrow).
The Crisis Team
Day one after the fire: the Crisis Team needs to meet and plan. Plus, if the fire is serious all the C-level execs will need to be included in the room: CEO, HR, COO, CFO, Marketing, Corp Aff, and more.
Injuries will add an extra dimension of anxiety. Even accident-free, emotions will be running high, possibly because these execs, besides worrying about the welfare of their staff may be in various stages of shock and possibly concerned for their own jobs. The stiff upper lip is definitely passé. So the CEO needs to unite this team immediately with words of comfort, but also honesty.
People will be thinking short term, which is good; however, we need to alert them to the long term issues; after a recent fire we’ve been involved in, it’s taking 1.5/2 years to rebuild, and then there’s rebuilding lost markets.
From this meeting will emerge a plan. It will be short term and dynamic, because information will be limited: how great is the damage; what about pending deliveries to customers; what about the sales pipeline, what is the insurance status. There will be so many questions…
Nominate a spokesperson, and probably warn the rest that ‘loose lips sink ships’. The meeting may need to approve a press release, or speech notes for the spokesperson for what happens next – the presentation to anxious staff.
The staff meeting: Chances are this is the afternoon of day one after the fire.Staff may be shattered, and some will have had almost no sleep. Be careful not to under-estimate the level of trauma; some workers are heavily impacted by this kind of calamity, particularly if there is injury. There is a lot of information available on the deep-seated emotional after effects of a fire.
Employees are going to think first about their families, not the company, especially if they have children: do I keep my job? Do I keep my current income? Will I be forced to part-time work? Will the family need to relocate? What about school? So messages need to be tailored to that. People need words of comfort, and honesty.
Speech notes need to be written and the speech maker needs to stay on-message, especially during the Q&A. What is said here will endure – possibly into a court room. Be careful with commitments that you may regret in six months; issues like insurance become complex. Be honest, after a calamity most people are realists; they know if there’s likely to be fallout.
- Write down what outcome you want from the meeting. Then you speech can be focussed on that goal. It will probably include:
- If there has been injury spend time talking about it. However, don’t be a pseudo-psychologist; obtain expert assistance for yourself, and support for staff.
- Do what you can to look on the bright side. Praise where praise is due: “Thank you all for ensuring … Congratulations to the evacuation team…”
- Address the key issue: “Your own short term welfare is your first concern, we understand that, so this is how we see it….”
- “Now that we’ve addressed that, let’s talk about the company situation….”
- Allow for discussion; let the meeting breathe so that people can express their anxieties. You may want to prep a couple of staff to make comments. Most likely some positive feedback from people wanting to help will emerge; you might be surprised. The others will draw strength from that.
- “Now, let’s looks at what the executive team is going to be focussing on over the next 2-3 months….”
- “And this is the role we expect/would like you to play during this period.”
If there are a large number of employees you may want to break up into groups to discuss further details (HR, work, etc.).
Make sure there is tea and coffee and a place for people to congregate after the meeting.
The media and social media
Chances are the local media will be watching outside the meeting and may already have spoken to staff, so information may be leaked to a journalist(s) as soon as you say it. People will be tweeting too, to their families and friends and possibly to a much wider audience, and the tweets may be loaded with emotion.
In our experience customers will cut you some slack if you already have a good track record, but only for a short period. Sympathy gives way to reality quickly. Listen to your sales team and to the market. This is going to be important because if you can’t deliver product, and you are facing a two year rebuild, you are going to have to cut costs. Remember your insurance company (assuming you are insured against this) is always one step ahead of you one this – they’ve had more experience at calamities.
Governments want to help, but within limits. Each play a role. Local government may be concerned because councillors want you to rebuild in the area. Likewise the state government, and may have set aside funds for such events. The federal government departments can help, depending on the calamity. State and federal politicians should be able of help. Consider setting up a reconstruction committee with a rep from each level of government.
This is one occasion when legal counsel needs to work closely with the communicators. Counsel may have sought outside support – HR and insurance legal advice.
The re-brand or re-launch
This is for later, but you will want to create positive news about the recovery – literally creating opportunity out of calamity. Start people thinking about this once the initial shock has passed; a lot of staff will be motivated by the rebuild and a re-brand/re-launch.