Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review your Crisis Plan. Do it Now

The crisis at a nuclear plant in Japan is a sober reminder that crisis plans need to be reviewed, tested and updated regularly. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Tokyo Electric Power’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Nuclear Plant had a disaster plan that was last updated in 2002. The plan downplayed the potential for damage from external events like earthquakes and tsunamis. The plan directed most emergency communications to be done via fax.

Via fax.
I’ve seen crisis plans that still have pager numbers listed for key executives. Perfect if they have to be notified of a crisis in 1982. (Hat tip to the writers of “30 Rock”)
Here’s what the Fukushima plant’s disaster plan said about the possibility of a worst-case-scenario disaster:
"The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable."
There are so many things wrong with that statement I barely know where to start. First, when I hear something is unthinkable, I hear someone choosing inaction because it's is either too hard or too overwhelming to consider. What’s unthinkable to me is the abdication of responsibility that TEPCO captured so perfectly with that sentence.
Here are three things you can do today that can make your crisis plan better:
Check your notification procedures: Look at the list of people to be notified in an adverse event. Is there anyone on the list that no longer works there? (I’ve never reviewed a notification procedure list that didn't include a former employee) Does the list include cell phone numbers and non-work email addresses? Call a few numbers on the list and see if they are accurate.
Check scenario assumptions: Does the plan focus only on operational events unique to the facility or plant? Let your imagination run wild and test the plan’s assumptions against the most horrific scenario you can imagine. What can happen externally; something over which you have no control that can impact your operation? Start planning for that event. Better yet, plan a drill.
Confirm integration with external agencies: You will rarely respond solo to a major crisis. Are the right external agencies included in your plan? Do you know how they will respond to a crisis involving your organization? Have they seen your plan? Have you seen their plan?  
We all have great faith in technology and engineering. Both make our lives better and in normal times keep us safe. But technology can fail and engineering has limitations.
Remember, your crisis plan is fundamentally flawed if it fails to account for the two things that never, ever operate from an engineering standpoint: Human beings and Mother Nature. 
Bill Salvin

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Crisis Communications Lessons from the Japanese Disaster

It's been nearly two weeks since Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami. Large crises are good labs for lessons and this one is no exception. Despite a far different culture than the US, there are some factors common to all large organizational crises that are worth taking note of.

People want transparency even when the news is bad. The company that owns the nuclear power plants, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been accused of withholding information and downplaying the severity of crisis. It got so bad, a senior government official asked a TEPCO leader, "What in the world is going on?" The government then effectively put TEPCO under its control late last week. Now the government is faced with the same challenges (but doing much better at communicating than TEPCO).

Best advice: Play it straight. Don't judge facts bad or good. Deliver facts in context quickly and completely. Then tell people your plan of action to address the challenges you (and in some cases they) face. When people don't believe you are telling them everything, they don't trust
anything you say.

Demand for information in a crisis always exceeds supply. Solid information is always hard to come by in a crisis, even for those working it. People always think those at the center of a crisis know more than they usually do. This feeds a public perception that those involved are withholding critical news and people default to thinking the worst.

Best advice: Be ready to explain why you don't have certain information and keep working to fill the information gaps. Also, have a thick skin. Realize that people's desire for information is human nature. Don't turn the need for more information into anger by ignoring people's legitimate desires to know as much as possible.

In a crisis response, the public believes more people and material is better (even when it’s not going to solve the problem). The US Pacific Fleet Facebook page received a question about why the Navy hasn't yet sent its West Coast-based hospital ship USNS Mercy to Japan to provide medical care. The simple answer was that the Government of Japan has not requested the Mercy and the US Navy has nearly 20 ships off Japan's coast with ample medical facilities. Plus, Japan is very well developed and well equipped to provide medical care to its citizens. That wasn't good enough for the questioner. He got testier and testier with the Pacific Fleet folks demanding to know why the Navy hasn't moved the ship to Hawaii so it can be closer “just in case.”

Best advice: Acknowledge the concern reflected in the question, in this case a concern for people's health and safety, and talk about how your actions address those concerns. Talk about what capabilities you are using instead of the capabilities you are not using. Be prepared to tell that story again and again. The Pacific Fleet staffer answered all the questions respectfully and explained as best he or she could. 

Media will cover your crisis live if they can. NHK-TV had a helicopter in the air and they broadcast live pictures of the wiping out cities and villages. Other news outlets picked up the
NHK feed and the world witnessed the disaster as it happened.

Best advice: Streamline bureaucracy and empower your people to communicate fast. If you have a crisis plan that provides for a one- or two-hour deadline for a first news release, revise your plan because one-hour is too long. Give your people the training they need to communicate in real time.

Crises may be unpredictable, but people's reactions to them remain fairly constant. Don't let the crisis get the better of you because you focus on the event instead of the people hurting because of it.

Bill Salvin