Response to Tragedy Can Make or Break a Business
Between January and April 2012, the province of British Columbia was hit with a double shot of tragedy. In three months’ time, two sawmills exploded and burned to the ground, killing four workers and injuring 42 more.
Many people involved in the wood processing industries are familiar with the story. On Jan. 20, 2012, the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake suffered a catastrophic explosion and fire that razed the mill, leaving two dead and another 20 injured. Three months later, on April 23, an eerily similar explosion leveled the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, taking the lives of two more workers and injuring 22.
Companies involved in resource industries all face the prospect of an event similar to the experiences in British Columbia. Biomass producers, like lumber producers, operate in an environment where the byproducts of the manufacturing process create potentially explosive consequences.
In Canada, during the past two years, considerable attention has been paid to the issue by government, regulators and industry. But there has been a vacuum in the area of crisis response and risk mitigation that companies have been slow to react to.
Truth be told, organizations with well-thought-out communications strategies fare better in the face of crises: The duration of the crisis event and public scrutiny are reduced, reputational impacts are minimized, social license to operate is maintained, and bottom line impacts are mitigated.
So what do you do when tragedy strikes? A preplanned, coordinated strategy is a must in responding to the overwhelming demand for answers from all quarters: government, regulators, the media, employees and others. Whether you have a plan or not, there are some key steps to follow.
First of all: don’t panic. Start by assembling a team. This should include senior management and emergency response personnel. Establish lines of communications to each of your key stakeholders. Designate a spokesperson and other key points of contact.
Next, you need to assess the situation. Find out what happened, where it happened, when, who was involved, and, most importantly, what you are doing about it. Determine a communications strategy to ensure people are getting the information they need when they need it. If you allow an information vacuum to develop, people will fill it with rumor and speculation. It’s important to get in front of the media as soon as possible. Stick to the facts. Don’t speculate, and certainly don’t lie. Commit to openness and transparency. Acknowledge the negative, but emphasize the positive things you are doing.
Ensure you are monitoring and responding to news reports about the incident. Speculation and inaccuracies on the part of the media can quickly get out of control. Ensure misinformation is corrected swiftly and publicly. You’ll also need to collect information for the legal record.
Think “people first” in everything you communicate. Your employees and their families are your most important stakeholders. Speak to them directly. Provide as much information as you can as soon as you can. Seek and accept feedback. Acknowledge the impacts, express empathy and ensure you are supporting those who need it most: those impacted by the tragedy. Expect anger, blame and insults, but don’t take it personally.
Throughout the process, don’t forget to keep your local elected officials, community leaders and support services informed. They will be the ones who have your back as the crisis grinds on, so they need to know you are doing everything you can to mitigate the impacts on their community and its citizens.
Crises end; issues don’t. Tragedies like these take seconds to occur. But the fallout will go on for months or years. So you need to be prepared to continue to respond proactively to reassure all of your stakeholders that you are responding appropriately to the incident at hand, while doing everything possible to avoid anything like it ever happening again.
Tragedies such as the Babine and Lakeland explosions are first and foremost about the health and safety of the workers and the companies’ assets. But it is also important to note that the way the company responds to the crisis, and the way it communicates that response, can have important consequences on its business going forward.
Author: Cam McAlpine
President, PRMedia Strategic Communications