Disaster plan 101 for Small Business
In a recent management review session, I was quizzed about my time management line item related to disaster plan preparation. The issue revolved around the fact that we had not had a disaster recently, if at all in recent memory, thank goodness. I expressed that this was simply a proactive step to protect our nonprofit agency should one occur, and hopefully never be used at all. The Coast Guard’s motto “Semper Paratus” is “Always Prepared”. However, I try to manage by the corollary: “Never be Caught Unprepared”. These few simple steps can prove beneficial when things go south.
Prepare a disaster plan before it’s needed – answer two vital questions
A disaster plan typically has two major components which can be quickly summarized as “who to contact” and “what to say”. Normally, common sense and company protocol dictate the answer to the first question. Common sense would lead you to contact the appropriate emergency first responders if there are lives or serious injuries at stake. Similarly, if the corporate data or client personal information was at risk, a call would be made to the head of IT, and then the CEO. In some ways, this sequence is intuitive, and may even be spelled out in a company handbook. The calls are made for the purpose of mitigating further actual damage as much as possible. This is good. You want to be proactive in these situations.
As you can imagine, there can be a wide range of scenarios to contemplate, but a well-organized company will maintain a “who to contact and in what order” list based on the most likely occurrences. First line supervisors often are the best at determining the risks, but the worst at understanding the contact protocol. Conversely, top brass usually has a good handle on the protocol, but not the everyday risks that could blossom into big trouble. Having the call list readily available, and periodic training on various risk scenarios should bring most units up to speed.
The second question is the one which causes the most problems for organizations, both large and small. What to say, how to say it, and when, are all vitally important when facing an unfolding disaster. And being prepared for any event, large or small, can make a great deal of difference in your business’ standing in the community. Disasters come in all sizes, from mountains (think major company oil spill) to molehills (think mayor’s child pinches finger using ceremonial scissors at a ribbon cutting ceremony for new office).
Certainly, each is different in magnitude and scope of harm, but there are a few rules which can be followed that apply equally in almost all situations. When followed, these steps will bolster the public’s perception of your organization in light of the challenging situation you may be faced with.
Follow these five simple rules to avoid trouble
Convey your concern for the community
Regardless of the magnitude of the event, it is prudent to keep in mind that it is real people who are affected. Therefore, the absolute first words of any statement made to outside parties should begin with the words “We (or the XYZ Corporation) extend our most sincere sympathy to those individuals and families affected by this unfortunate event. Our thoughts and prayers are with these families now and in the days ahead”.
In many cases, the public will not know much about your business or organization. This statement will likely be their first impression of your firm. If you fail to quickly show sympathy for the people who may be portrayed in the media as “victims”, you run the risk of being labeled as heartless corporate entities. This perception is often hard to repair and can have major consequences for your stakeholders.
Do not appear to evade the issue
The fact is facts. Something did happen that affected someone. Not deniable. Any attempt to deny the event, or minimize the event is usually viewed either as typical corporate behavior, or evading responsibility. What can and often be disputed is the actual cause of the event. When this occurs, and the cause is unclear, stick to a simple statement of the known facts of the event. Then you can follow with a statement that the cause is currently under investigation. This should be sufficient. When pressed for details, the “under investigation” statement can be reiterated, along with a pledge to share these findings when the investigation is complete.
This strategy serves dual purposes in that it acknowledges that an event happened and fosters transparency by promising that you will be releasing accurate information at a later date. Your firm is seen as taking responsibility for determining the facts and taking appropriate action in a straightforward manner.
Practice appearing professional
A well prepared and delivered response will appear professional and lend credibility to your statement. Conversely, if the initial statement is poorly constructed and poorly delivered, the intention of the overall presentation may be diminished. This may lead to greater scrutiny than is warranted under the actual circumstances.
The media is trained to look for missing details in these types of statements. That is why there are always so many follow-up questions when a spokesperson addresses the press. By delivering a well crafted initial statement which covers the initial facts of the incident, and any additional steps that may be anticipated,
Don’t’ delay -You don’t want to look like you took time to have your PR firm or lawyers write the statement
Granted, it takes time and effort to produce a solid disaster response statement. And, we all want to appear professional in front of the media. However, taking too long to draft the perfect statement may have negative consequences. While there is no precise timetable for producing the initial response, the rule of thumb is “better earlier rather than later”.
The net result of a delayed response, regardless of how well written it might be, is that it will appear that you have waited until your upper managers, PR firm or (audible gasp) your lawyers, have vetted the wording. From a purely practical sense, the “optics” are much better if you are out front of the situation, driving the conversation with known facts. In many cases, any delay only serves to drive more intense inquiries by stakeholders wary of professionally sanitized statements.
Review the disaster plan periodically to update critical information and refamiliarize yourself with key points.
There is no specific timetable to determine when to review the prepared plan. However, based on your individual business circumstances, it is prudent to review the basics on a regular basis. Update the information needed for the contact list to include new team members or corporate officers. Also, review where and how you store the plan itself. Can you get to it if need be at 3 am? or if you are on a business trip to Palo Alto? or even out of the country? Having the perfect plan but not having access to it serves no purpose. Plan, review, and access are your keys to success.
OK, you have the perfect disaster plan statement core written out. It covers the “5 W’s and How” with clarity and brevity. What happens if it is never needed? Count your blessings. However, because disasters come in all sizes, and at odd hours, you constantly need to be prepared for that inevitability.
Disasters are unpredictable, and no matter how bad it may seem, things could always be made worse. Lack of planning will most likely have a severe impact on recovery from the event. The law of unintended consequences dictates that this negative impact will carry over. This can have an adverse effect on your bottom line and negatively influence your wide range of stakeholders. Being prepared sends a strong positive message about your organization, even when actual circumstances turn dire.