"The plant is on fire!" A crisis communication real case
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
In executive roles there are quite a few things people have learned, during their studies, maybe later at business schools or during company's training. An important part of our learning journey is as well based on experiences. Being prepared is essential but the way you and your team act under heavy pressure, faced to very high urgency and to huge potential damaging factors can only be experienced under real crisis conditions.
To illustrate that I would like to share a personal experience that happened shortly before Christmas 2016. I do not pretend to be an expert in crisis management neither do I intend to become a specialized consultant in this field. But sharing how we first reacted, then managed the communication and finally fast prepared the immediate future may prove interesting to some people. The lessons learned at that time are part of my experience.
It’s 3 pm Friday December 16th 2016. The whole management team, the whole of the Swiss headquarters, representatives of the management of all three factories and the whole European sales organization have gathered in Lucerne, Switzerland, for the year end meeting and later for the party. It’s coffee break time.
It’s 3.03 pm in Roermond, The Netherlands. In one of the production halls a fire starts at a machine.
It’s 3.05 pm. The fire expands incredibly fast, it can’t be stopped by the operators. The alarm is given, the fire brigade is called.
It’s 3.06 pm in Lucerne, the plant director received a phone call. He turns to me and tells me: “Igor, Hall 5 in on fire!”
We are on crisis mode.
As of this very second it is important that everybody knows his role (or the absence of) very well. There is only one line of communication (Internally as well as externally). The plant director deploys it locally (he is the local official representative), the CEO deploys it for the rest of the world (he is the “umbrella” of the organization). When not available (the plant director had to fly back) the deputy (ies) are in charge. There, preparation matters. In our organization we had a corporate crisis management manual, regularly reviewed. Group crisis communication’ guidelines were deployed and the local plant management team had a regular crisis/safety training. So, the local “crisis room” was available immediately, roles were allocated on beforehand, presence rotation over nights was organized.
At this initial phase a well-coordinated communication is of utmost importance. And there is one golden rule: Say ONLY what you are SURE about. No assumptions, no inventions, no too positive or too negative notes. Facts, just facts. The first communication to the whole organization and to our Japanese headquarters was done at 3.35 pm and was basically:
- Fire in Hall 5 - All halls evacuated - Fire brigade on site trying to avoid fire propagating - Next info upon needs or in 2 hours
And the next one was sharp at 17:30
- Fire under control - Nobody injured - Majority of hall and equipment (machines x,y,z) lost - Other halls not severely affected
Added to this second memo was a guideline for external communication (For local media, community, customers, suppliers) to be distributed to all employees:
“There has been a fire on our factory – Nobody is injured – The firemen have the fire under control, no more damage expected – The reason for fire is so far unknown but under investigation – More communication can be expected on Monday December 18th”. And that’s it. You don’t want to start assuming things. You want to have 2 days to be ready to communicate on facts.
From an internal prospective this communication is not a big challenge. How the external world sees it may be different.
We decided NOT to react to social medias.
Around the city some people were making videos and posted them on Facebook or Youtube, pictures and comments went around. We let it go. Because there is no more to say than what we say officially in the guideline for external communication and to the organized media (see below). We believed that if you try to “control” the flow on social media it’s a critical game. You can’t anticipate the background of any single individual “hater” or “lover”. Starting to “justify” with comments like “there was no injury”, or “the smoke is not toxic” etc is only adding possibilities to have people inflating a polemic. So, when people would post a picture of the huge smoke cloud going out of our factory and covering a part of the city with comments like “They are infamous B*****ds”, “bad company” or “chemicals kill” we instructed our people NOT to comment. And the “hype” of social media faded away in 2 days. Who cares about the fire of a factory without personal injuries 2 days later? Not many.
The only external communication channels we accepted were the ones asking for personal interview. And there the rule for all employees was pretty simple: Everybody has to know and to say: There are only 2 persons that can answer interviews: The local Plant Director and the Group CEO.
We accepted the main local TV and Newspaper journalists on site the morning after. Our objectives were clear:
- Show that there is nothing to hide (Anyway the whole building was down on the ground)
- Show that we take personal responsibility seriously
- Take the opportunity to apologize to the community
- Take the opportunity to announce immediate action to rebuild (show future)
- Close the external communication chapter
It was very well taken by the local media to be invited on site and not left outside. I would do it again today.
Coming back to internal communication, we prepared the recovery plan draft (Mitigation of the hall loss) in 24 hours. From building availability and reconstruction, to machinery alternatives and outsourced supply chain many aspects had to be covered. It is, seen from now, a great exercise. My learning from this phase is that under this sense of urgency the whole team focused its communication to the core of the action. The result was that we were able to communicate the recovery plan to the shareholders and to the whole team on Monday morning, 65 hours after the fire started.
To finish with external communication I would like to mention a letter we wrote to the Municipality Mayor 3 days later. For many people public services and infrastructures seems like a given and it sounds “normal” that the administration takes care of us. During and just after the huge fire that happened what the local administration did was:
- Close motorway tunnel, railway and stop any surgery operation at the Hospital as long as:
- Air quality measurement are done in various spots and confirmed the air is OK
- The fire brigades arrived in 5 minutes and were reinforced by neighboring cities
- The regional crisis management unit install a mobile command post on site
- Press conference to insure there is no asbestos or toxic elements in the environment
- Clearance of specialists to allow site re-entrance
It was for us clear that we send a letter expressing:
- Our apologizes for inconvenience and pressure put on many people
- The relief that nobody got injured
- Our thank you to the fire brigade and crisis team
- Our congratulation for the municipality team reaction and support
- Our faith on the future to further invest in such a place
The feedback from this letter was very positive. My understanding is that it was possibly the first time the local authorities received such a thank you letter after an incident.
On this article I focused on the communication part of a crisis. It goes without saying that the management of a crisis is far more complex than only the communication. In a nutshell, our crisis management was based on following principles:
- Crisis management manual updated and reviewed regularly
- Local crisis authorities known (local crisis procedures and support exist in many places)
- Local team trained to crisis (regularly)
- Prepared and documented crisis room and procedures
- Existing communications guidelines
- Clear roles matrix
During interim missions we bring our experiences. I hope I won't need to make use of this one too often. But I am ready.
Article written by Igor Allinckx