This is the last of a three-part series on crisis management from a recent PRSA seminar.
Planning for the Unpredictable
Our final keynote speaker, Mike Herman, served as a member of the communications team for the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. In December 1984, a cloud of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas was released from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. More than 3,000 people who lived near the plant died immediately, with thousands more dying in the next few weeks, and still thousands more being injured by their exposure. While Union Carbide claims an employee sabotaged the plant by deliberately using a hose to introduce water to the dangerous chemicals which caused the gas reaction, faulty or lax maintenance and construction was also suggested as a cause of the accident, which may be the world’s worst industrial disaster. In the more than 20 years since that incident, Herman has gone on to help many other companies with crisis situations. He summed up his years of experience in a series of clever aphorisms built around this theme:
A Cowboy’s Guide to Crisis Management
The Indians Looked so Friendly at the Dance Last Night.
You Can’t Stop Trouble from Visiting, but You Don’t Have to Offer It a Chair!
Herman’s folksy sayings kept us all engaged while he gave solid advice about the importance of planning for a crisis, but remaining flexible enough to adapt to the changing situation. My favorite piece of advice:
- There are three ways to ignore saddle sores (or the media) and none of them works.
Which translates to this useful advice for working with the media:
- Talk low, talk slow, don’t say too much.
- Say it plain. Take a breath. Wait for the next question.
- Letting the cat out of the bag is easier than putting it back in.
While I’ve shared some of the excellent advice given by three tremendous professionals, the biggest take away for me is the importance of imagining all kinds of scenarios that could befall our clients and then planning for them. Then checking the plan. Then adapting the plan for new scenarios. Then planning again. Did I mention planning? Our speakers hammered this point home over and over again. Having a written crisis plan is a good first step, but it won’t get you through a situation like the ones they experienced. And a crisis plan gathering dust on the shelf isn’t what you’re going to grab when people around you may be injured or dying and you’ve got to spring into action. You have to live your crisis plan, practice for it and be flexible enough to adapt it to the new situation.