The Drill on Crises: A Guide on What to Do – And Not to Do

Crisis plans, no matter how well thought out, don't amount to much if they haven't been put to the test. So to find out if your plan passes muster, it's smart to devote four to six months for planning a full-scale drill; allotting between $25,000 and $100,000 to make sure it's pulled off (just for the drill stage); and working to recruit the core divisional and business-unit execs and your lead communicators to participate. It's no secret that an increasing number of corporations are developing multi-pronged crisis plans - many of them spending millions of dollars hypothesizing what accidents, controversies, product recalls or administrative disasters they could face on a day-to-day basis. But there are fewer businesses striving to uncover whether what they've conceived is workable. According to a recent study of Fortune 1000s by The Corporate Response Group, Washington, D.C., even though 86 percent of senior managers (up from 75 percent the year prior) said crisis management is very important, of the 79 percent who view their companies as global, only 51 percent review their plans and only 37 percent conduct drills and exercises overseas as well. "I estimate that only about 50 percent of companies [major corporations] have crisis plans but of those, only about 10 percent test those plans," says Larry Kamer, principal with Kamer-Singer & Associates Inc., the San Francisco public affairs boutique that has helped companies such as Chevron run drills to find out if their crisis tactics are up to snuff. In 1991, Chevron spent about $1.5 million, with 600 of its employees involved, to run a mock oil spill. In tandem with Alyeska Pipe Line, a consortium of oil companies in Alaska, ships and helicopters were deployed and execs flown from all over the world to test Chevron's plans and to augment and/or refine what had been set in stone. Kamer said the drill helped planners tweak two aspects of the plan: because it took place in March when the weather in Alaska was still rather erratic, Chevron learned it had to make adjustments to its transportation contingency planning; and, on a separate note, it had to tweak its on-shore impact plan, which is the stage that surfaces after the oil hits the shoreline. (Chevron has also conducted other drills, including one in the Santa Monica Bay.) Staying Ahead of the Game A good crisis plan contains everything from up-to-date employee phone lists and guidelines on how your spokesperson (hopefully, your CEO) should handle press queries to an operational blueprint of who's shouldering what responsibilities and which point people will ensure that there are enough mobile phones and pagers. But the value of those details can't be left to lip service. According to Karen Berg, president and CEO of CommCore Communications Strategies, a firm based in White Plains, N.Y., plans can be tested in two ways: there can be regular role-playing sessions during which employees' communications and decision-making skills are tested or full-blown drills that test everything from shut-down capacities to what to do if the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission beckons you. Execs should be notified months ahead of time as to when they'll be expected to convene in a room and handle a simulated disaster. Even though you won't have any advance notice if a real crisis hits, planners say it's too risky (because of high costs, traveling execs and conflicting schedules) to leave it to chance that the main players you'll need will be on site. Among those players are business unit/division superiors, PR, human resources, legal, safety, IS and the company's principals. Kamer and Berg also advise playing out a reasonable and real crisis - as opposed to some far-fetched, extremist rundown of something that would be a fluke occurrence (for an airline, that means that a crash is feasible; however, a plane crashing into the White House isn't). "You want to fabricate but you don't want to exaggerate. You don't want people to walk away saying, 'Whew, that could never happen.' You want them to walk away saying, 'We can fix this,'" Berg adds. During the drill, encourage participants to think who their allies (community partners), business partners and stakeholders are; what the communities' needs are; what assistance they'll need from consultants (including grief experts to help victims cope and position the company as responsive); what messages they'll send both internally and externally; what regulatory bodies they need to work with; and what the especially tricky components are depending on the nature of the crisis. But Kamer cautions that a crisis plan can't exist as a separate document that's kept in a vault and dusted off - if needed. A plan and a drill should serve as catalysts for how your company views crises; how it trains its employees to recognize the possibility they can happen; and a benchmark for measures you can take to prevent them. (Corp. Response Gp., 202/775-0177; Kamer-Singer & Assoc., 415/512-6800; CommCore, 914/684-2330; Institute for Crisis Mgmt., 502/584-0402)

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