Brace yourself

Chemical spills. Fires. Bomb threats. Hostage situations. Couldn’t happen in your company, eh?

What about strikes, layoffs, closures or hostile takeovers? Alleged discrimination, sexual harassment, workplace violence, injuries or even a fatality?

You’re more vulnerable than you think, say crisis management experts, and if you’re not prepared to handle these predicaments, you’re risking your company’s reputation.

“Reputations take years to build and can be destroyed in a moment if a company in a crisis situation does not handle it well,” says Stephen Lee, senior vice president and manager of the Akron office of Edward Howard & Co., a public relations firm.

Rod A. Covey, president of Covey & Koons Inc., a Canton-based public relations firm, says crises threatens every organization, from Wall Street giants to Main Street moms and pops, hospitals, nonprofits, schools,and government agencies. No organization is exempt, and a crisis management plan is paramount.

“But it’s too late to develop a plan after the crisis occurs,” Covey says. “That’s when people panic, rumors fly and the media calls.”

Lee emphasizes that having a crisis plan and using it to steer through chaos can actually strengthen a company.

“You can emerge as a stronger company, with a stronger reputation,” he says, using as an example a classic case of crisis management: Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol scare.

But you must be proactive, not reactive.”

As clients of Edward Howard & Co., companies such as 3M, GenCorp, Hoover and PPG Industries take Lee’s advice seriously by planning for a crisis. PPG’s crisis management plan preserved its reputation and minimized damage during a recent fire in a key production area of PPG’s Barberton plant.

“I can tell you that without having planned for it, and without having the relationship we’ve formed with the local emergency responders external to the plant, the response to the incident probably wouldn’t have gone as well,” says Carl Johnson, PPG’s Barberton plant manager.

PPG’s risk management planning program also earned the Ohio Chemical Council’s top award for community relations.

Here then, is Edward Howard & Co.’s 10-step guide for preparing for a crisis:

1. Assess your assets and obstacles. Where are your company’s vulnerabilities? Who would be affected if a crisis occurred? How can you resolve unstable issues now?

2. Assemble a crisis team. The fewer members, the better. Clearly define each member’s responsibilities. When crisis comes to call, empower those trained to make decisions and act promptly.

3. Put a plan in writing. Keep it simple, well organized and easy to understand. The format should allow for simple updates and supplements.

4. Prepare background data. Include company and facility information, product lists, fact sheets and applicable data. This is critical to quickly open lines of communication.

5. Set up an internal notification procedure. Designate a single spokesperson and an alternate. Decide who does what, and when. Each should have simple incident reports on which to record facts.

6. Establish external contacts. Compile (and update) lists of emergency response teams, media contacts, key customers and suppliers, major investors, elected officials and industry experts.

7. Practice your PR plan. Train spokespeople how to communicate with assertive reporters, concerned investors, frightened employees and others that may affected by a crisis.

8. Establish a command center. Determine where the crisis team will convene and operate from during a crisis. The space must be centralized and secure, with adequate computer and telecommunications capabilities.

9. Test the plan. Initially — and periodically — act out drills and scenarios using the crisis management plan. Evaluate results and make adjustments where needed.

10. Remember, time heals. Accidents and mistakes can be forgiven and even forgotten over time. But the way your company handles the crisis will dictate the shape of your reputation once you emerge. That’s probably the bottom line.

How to reach: Edward Howard & Co., (330) 376-6500; Covey & Koons Inc., (330) 456-7381