Above the Trees

Crisis Stage

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Tom Nunheimer knew when his disaster would strike, but he didn’t know much else. Would it be a flood? A terrorist attack? As the spokesperson for a chemical plant in South Charleston, W. Va., in the mid-1990s, Nunheimer knew he had to be ready to respond to anything.

The mock catastrophe that struck Arco Chemical that day was a barge fire on the Kanawha River. In the scenario, the barge was sinking and chemicals were spilling into the river. Nunheimer and other managers received phone calls and pages to alert them to the situation, just as they would in a real-life crisis.

“We more or less synthesized what would happen at the ground level,” Nunheimer says. “My role was to deal with the community, the media. …. I had to find out what was going on and put together statements.”

That’s the first step, Steve Wilson says, in any crisis situation: figuring out what’s going on by gathering as much information as quickly as possible. Wilson is in the crisis communications business. A former reporter, he and his company, the Wilson Group of Columbus, Ohio, help clients develop crisis plans and then test them. Wilson has worked with chemical com­panies, hospital groups and nuclear facilities. His goal is to make sure they are prepared for–and in some cases able to avoid–the worst.

Wilson teaches his clients that, after gathering data, they must look at the situation from the outsider’s perspective. How will the media, the community and the company’s employees view the situation? How does the crisis affect them and what should they be expected to do?

Then it’s time to start working on a strategy to get the company back in action and dealing with the incident. In Nunheimer’s case, that meant holding media briefings throughout the day–with real reporters and real cameras–and keeping in constant contact with his counterpart, who was also in the hot seat, at corporate headquarters in Newtown Square, Pa.

“You have to communicate what’s happened and what you’re going to do about it,” Wilson says. “People will forgive you for having a problem, [but] they want to know how you’re going to deal with it.”

In retrospect, Nunheimer gives his company’s performance a B+. “I think overall it was good,” he says. “We probably could have devoted more time to the media briefings; those always felt rushed.” But Nun­heimer learned practical lessons, such as how to best provide a place onsite for reporters to do their jobs.

A PR Disaster

Another key to successful crisis communications is working closely with company employees. Stephen Shivinsky, a vice president for corporate communications at Trinity Health in Novi, Mich., learned the hard way when one of his mock disasters became an actual disaster in employee relations.

Working with Wilson’s company, Shivinsky staged the crash of one of his hospitals’ med-evac helicopters. A vice president rushed to the hospital as part of the drill and flew off in another helicopter, supposedly to the fictional crash site. “That got people’s attention,” Shivin­sky says. Then reporters started showing up. The reporters were in on the act; the hospital staff was not.

“Some of them got very upset,” Shivinsky says. “The staff are very close, particularly the trauma staff.” After the mock disaster, the chief of the medical staff asked for his resignation. “But the CEO stood behind us,” he says. “He said, ‘No, this is important for us to do, to be ab­le to identify many of the areas we need to improve on.’ ” In this case, that meant not just being prepared for media scrutiny. “A lot of it focused on communication with the staff, the physicians,” Shivinsky says. “That’s where we learned a lot.”

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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