If you think an accident or other catastrophe won’t happen to you and your operation, think again. If you are not prepared to handle unforeseen serious incidents, not only are you jeopardizing your reputation, but your long-term bottom line as well.
“Operators need to recognize that a serious, catastrophic crash can happen to anyone, but a lot of passenger transportation companies perceive that it’s not going to happen to them — and that’s illogical,” says Bob Crescenzo, vice president of Lancer Insurance Co., who led a seminar on crisis management at the 2014 International LCT Show in Las Vegas, Nev.
Crescenzo should know. Having run more than 80 catastrophic simulation exercises with companies, he understands firsthand that many companies do not have a sound plan to implement when disaster strikes. He outlines three first steps operators need to get started.
1. Recognize that a serious or catastrophic event can happen.
2. Put together a crisis management plan to deal with any and all incidents.
3. Test the plan to make sure it is functional and operational.
Crescenzo advises that an initial first step in preparing a crisis management plan is to “flatten the organization.” By that, he means to empower lower and mid-level staff to be used as resources to help manage and solve problems and issues in time of an emergency. “This is critical because a lot of limousine company owners think they are the only ones who are going to solve all the problems. But if they are on vacation, or on a plane, or elsewhere, then what happens? That’s what I mean by flattening the organization.”
Bob Crescenzo advises that an initial first step in preparing a crisis management plan is to empower lower and mid-level staff to be used as resources to help manage and solve problems and issues in an emergency.
This is often an overlooked strategic part of an effective crisis management plan but is the best frontline defense when a serious situation arises. “Operators hire people to fit into their culture and yet they don’t let them do anything when they have a serious problem,” Crescenzo says. “From my experience conducting crisis simulations, companies are not aware of how deep their staff’s talent pool really is and what experiences and capabilities they have that they can bring to the table to help manage certain crisis situations.”
Crescenzo recalled a past simulation exercise at one company to make his point. “We were conducting a simulated vehicle hijacking at a border crossing and during the exercise, I noticed that the receptionist was focused and calm during the exercise. I discovered after talking to her that she was new to the company but was a former Canadian border security guard who was trained to handle such situations. That kind of employee experience would be invaluable during a real event.”
His advice to managers is to dig deep to find out what other skill sets employees possess that can be used in an emergency situation, and implement their skills to handle certain things in the strategic plan. “Oh, she also knew that if the hijacked bus had crossed the border, the guards would have opened fire. Nobody knew that.”
In addition, knowing your employees’ strengths and weaknesses can help diffuse a crisis situation, say if a fatal accident occurs, if families, community members, and the media all show up at your office for information.
Operators also need to realize that a crisis management plan is not just about dealing with and responding to a serious accident. “What is a crisis? It can be a political crisis such as a city or region is in lock-down and you can’t service clients, or a natural disaster, such as hurricane or tornado, or a big event such as the Super Bowl. It’s very important to have contingency plans for your staff and vehicles to deal with various situations,” Crescenzo adds.
What To Do When The Media Knocks
In a digital world where any catastrophic incident goes viral around the world, knowing how to deal with the media — especially under stress — in the aftermath of a vehicle fatality is a vital part your crisis management plan.
“Most reporters want to know what caused it five minutes after the accident happened,” says Dan Ronan, senior director of communications, media and marketing for the American Bus Association, and an expert in crisis communications and reputation management. “You can’t make an accident go away so be professional and honest to protect your reputation. Saying ‘no comment’ doesn’t work anymore because if reporters sense you are hiding something, they will dig deeper into your operation. Also remember that law enforcement leaks information to the media, so it’s important to have a plan.”
Ronan, a former TV reporter, producer, writer and assignment editor at CNN, and other national news organizations, advises operators to be accessible and engage the media on your terms. Craft a message that presents the facts and also protects your reputation. “Don’t be belligerent to reporters. Get your facts straight, choose your words carefully, show empathy, express compassion without expressing guilt.”
Ronan also stressed that a driver should not talk to the media because his role is to help customers in the event of an accident and cooperate with authorities. “It’s not their job and it’s a recipe for disaster if drivers talk to the media. Some companies provide drivers with a card that gives them instructions on what to do following an accident and who to call.”
One critical component to a sound crisis management plan is to manage the phone system. “If the phones start ringing off the hook and the wrong person answers and says something negative about the driver — that’s a problem,” Ronan says. He advises operators that it’s OK for staff to take down a reporter’s contact information and have someone return calls later. Then someone can respond with a statement. “Everyone in your company can play a role but make sure only one person is the spokesman.”
Steps to Develop a Plan
Here are four basic steps to forming a crisis management plan:
1. Teamwork: Establish a program management team that can handle multiple duties across the company. Draft a mission statement on key deliverables.
2. Analyze capabilities: Make sure the plan includes evacuation plans, media plans, safety and employee policies and procedures.
3. Execute: Develop and implement the plan that includes emergency response procedures, contact information, management/staff decision tree, media policy. Have insurance company and legal contacts available for advice.
4. Maintenance: Train, test and update the plan. Establish a communications and training schedule; coordinate with outside organizations, integrate the plan into operations, conduct drills and exercises, and modify as necessary.
Source: Bob Crescenzo, Lancer Insurance
Key Media Points to Remember
• Reality: No organization is immune from crisis.
• Speed: React with best intentions within 24 hours.
• Accuracy: Provide facts not opinions.
• Credibility: Be honest and communicate openly.
• Consistency: Develop and stick to key messages.
• Communicate: Internal and external communications are equally important; be aware of media needs and how they will react to your crisis.