Is Your Business Crisis Proof?

The construction industry faces a variety of crises, not the least of which is the economic downturn. But the business also faces a variety of high-profile problems including injuries and deaths on the job, labor issues, cost over-runs, natural disasters and structural collapse, among others.

According to preliminary figures from the Associated General Contractors of America, there were 721 deaths in 2011, down significantly from 2006 (1,239). This could be tied to a weakened economy, but nonetheless good news.

But what about other types of business interruptions such as lawsuits, bad press and regulatory citations? Planning for the worst and hoping for the best is typically how we advise our clients to be ready for just about anything that can affect their businesses. The construction industry is not unique, but recently released statistics show that only about 25 percent of businesses and individuals are prepared for a crisis.

The Anatomy of a Crisis

Every crisis has the same characteristics. It’s unexpected, seen as a threat to operations and creates uncertainty. A crisis is made all the worse when a company is totally unprepared to handle the event. Henny Penny had it right when she exclaimed, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” We become chickens with our heads cut off running in 50 different directions. The prepared company, however, is ready for just about anything from bomb threats and earthquakes to labor strikes and murder.

The identification of potential risks and pre-planning to handle them should be part of the job of upper management. The team must put together a list of potential threats and then create ways of dealing with them. No potential crisis is handled the exact same way.

Take the Vulnerability Survey

The first step is to see where the company is vulnerable, and the following questions are critical to developing a plan of action. Use this 10 point checklist and see how you do.

  1. Who is on your crisis team? Pick people who can think on their feet, are good spokespeople and have related experience. The intense pressure can push some high-strung people, no matter how high their rank, over the edge. Pick those who have shown levelheadedness over the long term. Make sure all areas of construction are covered since the crisis may need the expertise of an engineer, an electrician or a lawyer, for example.
  2. Do you have friends in your court if you need them? This would include reporters, regulators, inspectors, politicians, police and other community representatives. If not, start making appointments to do a meet and greet with them on your site. Host a Chamber of Commerce event to get people familiar with your location.
  3. Do you regularly monitor possible problems that could lead to a crisis like employee relationships, in-house safety issues, confidentiality issues or termination problems?
  4. Do you have a written book of organization crisis policies? This does not have to be a bible of sorts, but can be guidelines that can provide a step-by-step process to handling a crisis.
  5. Do you have a list of emergency numbers/cell phones to be able to reach key people at a second’s notice? Your company’s crisis team should be close by and available at a moment’s notice. The list should also include police, fire and other key individuals besides employees.
  6. Who is your spokesperson? There is the great debate – should it be the company CEO or someone down the ladder a bit? I tend to put the CEO out of this critical role because if everything crashes down around you and the initial crisis plan fails, he or she can step in and save the day.
  7. How do you handle sexual harassment accusations, angry employees who have been terminated, social media gaffes by employees, etc.?
  8. How do you handle internal communications: by phone, e-mail, text messaging or instant message? Not everything works well in a disaster and phone lines could be down – think about all the ways you can communicate better in a crisis. Remember too, you may not want the world to know what the crisis is – the best crisis management is one where no one ever knew you had a crisis. So think about “need to know” scenarios. Employees must be kept in the loop or there will be an active rumor mill, but not everything they need to know is critical.
  9. When was the last time that you had an emergency evacuation drill? There is a  chance a disaster can interrupt your business right where you work.
  10. What’s your media list like? When was it updated? You can count on the fact that local media will be calling. Put a media list together and make sure it is up to date.

Susan Tellem is a senior partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc., Los Angeles, where she heads the crisis group. Her experience includes representing the district attorney in the Michael Jackson molestation case; a lettuce company accused of E-coli poisoning; the first hospital chain accused of Medicare fraud; and many other major high profile crises. She has served on crisis management teams at Burson-Marsteller and the Rowland Company. She can be reached at [email protected]

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