Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

On the Home Front

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

On the Home Front

Article excerpt

On the home front

There were certainly plenty of crises to go around in 1989. In fact, the year could go down in crisis history for the Exxon Valdez oil spill alone. But while the Valdez was certainly the most dramatic crisis of the year, it wasn't necessarily the one that made a major impact on the operations of other companies.

When several organizations in fields ranging from chemicals to drug rehabilitation were recently asked how they've changed their thinking about crises during the past year, every one--those with crisis plans and those without--reported that they were more affected by crises in their own backyards than by the Exxon accident. Many of those with crisis plans said they had been deeply affected by Union Carbide's Bhopal tragedy in 1984, and that the Valdez incident only served to affirm their company's wisdom in having set up crisis procedures.

"Bhopal had a profound impact on us," says Mark Schannon, corporate public relations director for Monsanto Company. "It made us take a long, hard look at everything we were doing in crisis management and communications. The Exxon Valdez reaffirmed what we've already learned--that you must have a good crisis plan that's been carefully tested in the field to make sure it works under actual conditions."

At this point, Schannon says, "our plants are prepared for every possible calamity, from spills to explosions, and we pay careful attention to our coordination with, and reporting obligations to, the local community. The re-evaluation we undertook after Bhopal caused us to revise a number of our safety procedures, and to change our posture on community right to know."

Nevertheless, the company continues to learn new lessons--in large part because it has set up systems, such as crisis drills, to make sure it does so. "We did a drill at one of our plants in Ohio, and discovered that the fire department's radios operated on a different frequency than ours, severely hampering communications," Schannon reports. Every Monsanto plant's crisis plan is tested several times per year.

Formality allows agility

Several companies with inadequate crisis plans, also learned important lessons from crises that arose during 1989.

Melvin Simon & Associates, one of the largest developers and managers of shopping malls in the country, had dealt with bomb threats and other calamities in the past. But the discovery of a live bomb at one of its properties in Oklahoma in April propelled Simon to develop a formal crisis plan.

"After the bomb was removed, the local police detonated it and discovered it was real. We were criticized for an apparent delay in evacuation and in responding to the media," explains Billie Scott, director of public relations at Simon headquarters in Indianapolis. "In truth, any delays were caused primarily by conflicting information from law enforcement agencies, public safety agencies and the mall staff, a fact which the media chose not to relay. Also ignored by the media was the fact that the mall had been promptly and thoroughly searched upon discovery of the bomb. As a result, we have begun formalizing our policies on headquarters notification and press relations, and are pulling together a crisis team," she says.

Scott adds that the increased level of preparation has already helped Simon effectively manage a chemical spill and several fires at local mall properties. "Some of our malls have also conducted mock disasters and emerged more confident and better prepared to handle the real thing," she points out. "And, they've gotten very positive publicity in their local communities."

At Phoenix House, a nonprofit organization that treats drug abuse patients in facilities in New York and California, a rash of salmonella poisoning the day after Christmas 1988 set crisis planning into motion in the new year.

"It was a slow news day in New York, so, when the television stations monitoring police 911 emergency medical service radios found out that we had 20 people sick with salmonella, our phones started ringing at 5 a. …

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