Preparing your Organization to deal with the Worst


For the past 11 years I have been an independent consultant focusing on Corporate Reputation. Yet, there is another side to me. I am also a trainer and consultant in Occupational Health & Safety Compliance and it is a passion of mine.

For the past 11 years I have also been doing Health & Safety training a few days a month on behalf of an ISO registered OSHA Compliance consultancy.

What I find so enticing is to raise people’s awareness of health & safety issues in the workplace. After these workshops delegates cannot express enough gratitude and the statements are always universally the same: “Thank you for raising my awareness”!

The South African Occupational Health & Safety Act has a number of conditions and issues that has made it one of the most benchmarked Acts in the world. One of the interesting requirements and questions that arise from it: "Have you given the employee adequate information, education, and training in his task considering the task, the hazards, potential outcomes and consequences of non-compliance"?

It is only when we comply with that statement that wecan say we have raised the level of awareness in a person.

Let’s apply this question then to Crisis Management. How do we make people more aware about potential crises in the workplace? This question should interest all managers.

I believe that it is necessary to expose managers to crisis management type of thinking, that we educate and train managers how to prepare for and manage crises, and that we share our knowledge.

Recently I had the opportunity of standing at the top of the Empire State Building in New York. Standing there with the wind blowing me nearly off my feet, I could not help but visualize friends jumping of the burning World Trade Centre.

911 has come and gone. Yet for many organisations the impact, reality and lessons from it does not remain. How many organisations have not slipped back into the normal mode of doing things? Assuming that an incident like 911 will never happen to them?

Recently I was in a building in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa when I decided to use the fire escape instead of the lift, but between the 3rd and 4th floor was a locked gate. When I called the Facilities manager he said the following words to me: "Deon, you worry too much. If a fire breaks out, someone will come and unlock this gate!" No way, in my experience most people look out for number one in any crisis – themselves.

Standing at the 911 site, the thought arose in my mind as to what should an organization do if you are faced with a situation that is beyond an organisation’s normal scope to act? Health & Safety experts teach that 2% of accidents are "Acts of God", 10% caused by unsafe conditions but that 88% of accidents are caused by unsafe behavior.

How does a company deal with the hand of fate and at the same time protect its reputation and integrity? How can a company come out "smelling like roses".

One simple lesson is that stakeholders will forgive you for mistakes, but they will not forgive a company for not caring. Therefore in line with industry experience a company who aims to be a good corporate citizen should prepare for any eventual crisis. But for what and how? Since 9/11, nearly every emergency preparedness and business continuity regulation and industry best practice in the USA has been strengthened, several even mentioning the threat of terrorism as a prime motivation for their enhancements. In South Africa, interest seems to be only to cope with the demands of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Considering the following points will help you prepare your organization for the worst.

1. Remember that the very things you believe cannot happen to your organisation can. Professor Ian Mitroff, who for more than 20 years headed up the Institute for Crisis Management ran a crisis management workshop in New York about two weeks before 911 happened. Most of the executives present, represented multi-national companies. In compiling likely risks, car bombs featured at the top of the list. However no one mentioned "flying bombs". Mitroff goes on to say that something is lacking, and that "That something is our ability to think comprehensively about crisis". Are you thinking comprehensively about crisis?

2. Equip yourself with knowledge so that you can help your organization be better prepared. One of the most frequent comments I hear from clients is not that they do not know the answers, but that they don’t know the right questions to get started in their planning or to persuade management to allocate resources for this planning. You can read the various good books out there in shops or you could equip yourself in the short term by attending training workshops such as REPUCOMM’s Crisis Management & Communication workshops.

3. Talk to the specialists (consultants, local authorities and emergency management service providers) in your area. If possible, contact your suppliers and find out who has done this type of planning before so that you can reduce your organisation’s learning curve.

4. Revisit the basics of crisis management. I walk into many organisations to do OSHA Compliance workshops only to find out that the organisation have not recently conducted any fire drills, if any. To assume that everyone will be able to escape the building and be accounted for is dangerous. One large firm affected by 9/11 took more than three days to account for its personnel because they lost their primary means to track and contact employees. 

5. Appoint one person who is responsible for crisis preparedness across the organization and communicate his or her identity to managers at all levels. Ensure each crisis planning team (strategic crisis management, business continuity, crisis communications, disaster recovery, emergency response, employee impact, etc.) knows the relationship between their plan(s) and the overall organization’s crisis management goals and objectives. (REPUCOMM provides a two day training course that enables managers to create one integrated crisis management action plan that can assist you)

6. Audit your organisation’s crisis plans. The audit should cover evacuation/egress planning, personnel accountability, emergency system shutdown procedures, correct names/numbers on emergency phone lists, media and other stakeholder communications guidelines, family communications guidelines, expectations for employee communications and support.

6. Consider holding a tabletop exercise or discussion around a likely event. Brainstorm likely crises; determine the roles each team member is expected to play while responding to an incident will help identify strengths and weaknesses in your organization’s ability to respond, especially for teams requiring interaction during the response. Scenario planning is a helpful tool leading to overall preparedness. No organization does everything well, and exercises are a terrific way to highlight improvement needs for multiple areas at one time. (REPUCOMM works together with organisations to design, develop and facilitate likely scenarios unique to that organisation)

7. Nearly every survey taken after 9/11 has shown that the most overlooked area of crisis preparedness is the human and communication side. When Saambou, the South African bank closed down one employee committed suicide. Work closely with EAP (Employee Assistance) experts, psychologists, the church and other specialists to determine modes of action prior to problems happening. Communication is integral to making any plan work and should be factored in from the outset.

8. It isn’t enough to know that your organization is better prepared. The impact of a crisis may become an industry issue and affect your business. Build alliances with suppliers and industry experts before a crisis breaks, so that you can make use of this expertise when the time comes.

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