Could you manage a crisis?

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”

Warren Buffett – businessman, investor and philanthropist

In business, often the hardest issue to manage is a crisis. Crisis management should form part of your organisation’s Risk Management Plan. A properly developed and implemented crisis management plan can result in resolving the crisis, continuation of business as usual, and preservation of your organisation’s reputation and financial stability.

So, what is the definition of a crisis?

A crisis has three common elements:

  1. It is a threat to the organisation
  2. It has an element of surprise
  3. There is a short decision time

One of the worst examples of managing a corporate crisis was the BP oil spill in 2010 where 11 rig workers were killed and millions of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The crisis went on for months, billions of dollars of damage was done to the environment, BP’s share price plummeted and the CEO, whose incompetence in managing the crisis contributed to the disaster for BP, lost his job.

How should a crisis management plan work?

By way of example, many years ago I was a manager of a large trucking company in an Australian rural city when a major incident occurred that met the three common elements of a crisis.

  1. it had the element of surprise
  2. was a threat to the business in terms of reputation and financially
  3. a decision had to be made quickly

In the very early hours of the morning I received a phone call from the Maintenance Manager to say one of our trucks had crashed into a house in the city. The truck, a fully laden semi-trailer had driven into a residential area and when finding it was in a cul-de-sac had reversed into a house, partially destroying the front bedroom. To add to the drama, inside the bedroom was a young mentally disabled adult. When she heard the truck backing into her room she became hysterical. You can only image how stressed the family were.

In the initial telephone conversation with the Maintenance Manager, I did not recognise the driver’s name so drove to the Police Station to try and identify him. When I arrived, I could not identify the driver, who was apparently drunk. Further confusing the situation, it then became clear that he had broken into the transport yard and stolen the truck. It would have been even worse if the truck thief had driven up the highway drunk and then crashed into car killed a family.

So, was the trucking company responsible?

Technically, we were not responsible, as the driver was not an employee, had stolen the vehicle and was drunk.

Was denying responsibility and walking away from the incident a sensible action?

No, unlike BP in the Gulf of Mexico’s oil spill we immediately implemented our crisis management plan. This included a clear communication strategy in stark contrast to the BP situation.

We had to act quickly.

The family was immediately placed in a motel. Working with the Police, we released a media statement to the local radio station, newspaper and TV station explaining what had happened and what we were doing for the family. Repairs to the house were organised, completed and within 2 weeks the family moved back in.

The company’s reputation enhanced in the community as already one of the largest employers in the city, we were now also seen as being the most socially responsible. The family affected formally thanked us, the business was not financially threatened, and the business continued as usual.

So, does your organisation have a crisis management plan?

If not, I would recommend developing a crisis management plan and testing it, something that BP failed to do.

Post Note: the driver gave the Police several false names, however he was eventually identified by his tattoos. He was charged, convicted and sentenced for vehicle theft, drunken driving and malicious damage.

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