Are You Ready?

Given the odds that something bad will happen at your facility at some point in the future, now is the time to prepare for dealing with an environmental crisis

Readers of this publication are typically highly trained and credentialed professionals; many have graduate degrees in technical fields. Whatever your field or job function, you can count on one more thing in addition to death and taxes: something will go wrong. We all followed the extensive, painful analysis after the blackout in 2003; the finger-pointing and bad publicity continues. If your company suffers a spill, emission, explosion, contamination, fatality or any one of a number other incidents, are you ready? Most people think crisis preparation and crisis communication are someone else's job.

Crisis Mismanagement
One of the lessons we've learned over the years is that it's amazing how much companies can pay for bad advice. They can't differentiate between people who really know what they're doing and people who look good on paper. And because they haven't done any comparison-shopping, they don't differentiate between mediocrity and excellence.

Let's compare two real examples. First is Company X, which we will mercifully leave nameless but is a nationally known company. They suffered a painful publicity attack after a contractor used a backhoe near a right of way without bothering to call the local utility companies to have them mark their lines. While digging a natural gas pipeline was broken into, which subsequently exploded. Local emergency services responded immediately and transported the operator to the hospital, evacuated several dozen local families and turned off the main line. Also instituted was an "Incident Command," comprised of several official organizations including Company X as owner of the line. The Office of Pipeline Safety and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) representatives arrived as well. The evacuated families were housed in local Red Cross shelters.

Is this picture complete? Not yet. Arriving right behind emergency services were members of the media, training their TV cameras on the flames and rattling off a series of predictable questions. Who's to blame? How dangerous is natural gas really? Will anyone be fired? Is anyone dead? When can people go back to their homes? A representative of the company, posed with flames behind him, explained patiently that the company installed "stopplers," something he mentioned twice without bothering to explain. And when the reporter asked if the smoke was toxic or dangerous, he obligingly repeated her words and said the smoke was not "toxic" or "dangerous." Reporters who interviewed the dislocated families found them disoriented, eating cold pizza and worried about their pets and belongings.

What's wrong with how this company handled this situation? Only one company representative was on-site, and he spoke to the news media using technical jargon. He allowed himself to be filmed with flames behind him. Missing were what should have been this company's major messages of concern: safety, responsibility and commitment. Other company representatives should have been with the evacuated families to reassure them, make them comfortable and assist in retrieving animals left behind, and, in turn, to communicate their efforts to the reporters there.

Colonial Pipeline: A Success Story
Now let's look at Colonial Pipeline (CP), a company that's made crisis preparation a priority. CP has thousands of miles of pipeline that transport refined petroleum products across the country. "The only way to be handle a crisis is to have anticipated it and be prepared long before it occurs," says Susan Castiglione-Baranski, CP's senior manager of corporate and public affairs.

"The first step of our plan is to develop ongoing communications with emergency responders in every community our pipelines pass," Castiglione-Baranski says. Today regulators require this. But CP instituted this practice long before it was required, including face-to-face meetings to develop personal relationships that are crucial during an incident. We call these objective, non-company responders and regulators "third-party endorsers" because they can verify to the media and other affected constituencies that a company has a good safety record and a good track record of living up to its promises.

Next, every on-site CP person gets basic communications training in how to deliver the company's core messages of safety and accountability. They also know how to immediately put media in touch with the company headquarters' crisis team while a field team is en route. Within hours, headquarters professionals will be on the scene and will stay for the duration of the response to deal with press and government officials, again, people they already know and with whom they have established relationships. While this probably sounds like operational strategy, more important is the philosophy, attitude and core values that are the foundation for operations.

"We really mean it when we say we are good neighbors," says Castiglione-Baranski. "We tell people we regret what happened, even if we didn't cause it, and we let them know we will make it right."

This philosophy, set at the top by CEO Dave Lemmon, means that everyone has to be on board, including the engineers and lawyers. During a crisis, a company doesn't have the luxury of time to figure out exactly what happened before dealing with its public stakeholders; and lawyers can no longer view things through the narrow prism of what the company may be legally liable for. "Our most important asset is our reputation. We are a highly regulated industry. If our various stakeholders trust us, we are in a much better position when we have to deal with regulators or the legal system," says Kalin Jones, CP vice president & general counsel.

CP knows the benefits first hand. In February 1999, the company experienced a spill. The company followed through on its promises and developed so much good will that five years later the local communities strongly support a planned expansion line. This is the real test: when a company can overcome a crisis and surmount the "not-in-my-backyard" (NIMBY) attitude. As part of its philosophy of openness, CP also tries to keep in touch with and educate the media and regulators about its safety efforts. This is more than altruistic. Although most crises, (like the real example with the backhoe above) are caused by a third party, there are incidents for which the company is responsible. There are "seepers," slow leaks that can discharge product or contaminant, and operator errors such as over-pressured pipelines.

"We have invested in sophisticated internal inspection tools so we have a lot of information the industry didn't have 10 years ago," says Castiglione-Baranski. She adds that CP will never be perfect, but the company pioneered risk-based comparison tools that allow it to look for anomalies or potential problems, and to priorities and where to check them. The chairman of the NTSB came in person to see a demonstration, and with him, of course, came reporters. The point was to demonstrate the company's commitment to safety and responsibility.

Doing Your Best to Prepare for the Worst When will your next crisis come? Will you succumb or do you have these proactive tools in place?

  • Crisis-planning team. A cross-functional team, with inside support and expert outside facilitators that has developed a list of potential crises. "Don't forget to include intellectual crises, too," warns Castiglione-Baranski, referring to security issues such as a breach in information technology (IT) or data manipulation. This team develops your crisis communication plan. Our view is that we, as outside experts, can facilitate the process, but company personnel need to feel they developed it in order to be totally familiar with it and buy into it.
  • Training for all company personnel. This is not a "one-time" box to check. It must be refreshed and updated for employees on a variety of levels. At CP, top management and a core team have been through days of training while in the field, managers have had enough training to handle initial queries and have highly simplified, laminated cards with reminders.
  • Know your key audiences. Know them, understand them and develop ongoing relationships with them. You can't say "hello, my name is..." and "I've got a problem" in the same conversation.
  • Know your key media contacts. Cultivate an ongoing relationship with local and trade media. Many companies fail to understand the importance of local press. They may introduce themselves to the press where the corporation is headquartered, but "local press" really means whatever local paper and news stations your target audience pays attention to.

The national press regularly covers only a few companies, but coverage from local and trade press can influence how national press covers an incident. Too many media training companies are still pretending that the crew from the television program 60 Minutes is about to show up unexpectedly on your doorstep. It's not impossible, but the more typical story will look like Company X's local media debacle. They blew an opportunity to align their corporate messages with their communication to regulators, the media and the public. Instead, they talked about stopplers and used words like toxic and dangerous.

"Crisis planning is the best investment you'll ever make," says Castiglione-Baranski, noting that some of their senior executives were initially dubious about the expense and time commitment but ended up being strong champions. "It ended up turning risk management into reputation management as well as being a real team-building effort in the best and most enduring sense."

So -- Spill? Explosion? Strange odor? The list is very long. Is your team ready?

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Merrie Spaeth is president of Spaeth Communications Inc. in Dallas. She is one of the country's premier crisis counselors and served as director of media relations for the White House under former President Reagan. She has worked in many areas of the media, including being a producer of the television program 20/20 and writing a regular column, "Words Matter," for the United Press International news service and she teaches at the Cox Business School at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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