Saturday, 3 September 2016

Priceless Crisis Communication Lessons From 9/11 pt 1

Precious Lessons We Can Learn From Successful Crisis Communication Of Some Companies During The Disaster Of The World Trade Center Terrorist Attack From Paul Agenti.

In my conversations with a range of executives, I was able to distill five lessons that I think can serve as guide-posts for any company facing a crisis that undermines its employees’ composure, confidence, or concentration. 

Many of these lessons relate to preparation—to establishing plans and mechanisms for emergency action. But if 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t anticipate every contingency. Sometimes, we have no choice but to improvise. 

Here, too, the experiences I uncovered can serve as useful models. Improvisation, after all, is most effective when a strong corporate mission and vision are already in place to inform and guide it.

1) Get on the Scene

In a move that would soon attain legendary status, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani arrived at the World Trade Center within minutes of the first attack to take charge of the rescue operation. In the days and weeks that followed, he would conduct several press conferences in the vicinity of the destroyed towers, attend many funerals and memorial services, and maintain what seemed like a ubiquitous presence in the city. His visibility, combined with his decisiveness, candor, and compassion, lifted the spirits of all New Yorkers—indeed, of all Americans.

During the crisis, the most effective managers maintained similarly high levels of visibility in their own organizations. They understood that a central part of their job is political and that their employees are, in a very real sense, their constituents. 

In periods of upheaval, workers want concrete evidence that top management views their distress as one of the company’s key concerns. Written statements have their place, but oral statements and the sound of an empathic human voice communicate sincerity. And if the voice belongs to a company leader, the listener has reason to think that the full weight of the company stands behind whatever promises and assurances are being made.

 In the words of Rob Densen, Oppenheimer’s director of corporate affairs and a survivor of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, most people engulfed in a crisis “want to be led and accordingly need to trust that you are going to lead them.”

As the local telephone service provider to much of New York, Verizon faced enormous business and operational challenges in the wake of the Trade Center attacks. The 2,200 Verizon employees who were situated in the vicinity of the Center were involved in running the densest knot of cables and switches anywhere in the world. 

The attack knocked out 300,000 voice access lines and 4.5 million data circuits and left ten cellular towers inactive, depriving 14,000 businesses and 20,000 residential customers of service. Within hours, Larry Babbio, the head of the company’s telecom business, traveled to the site to inquire after the safety of employees and inspect the damage. 

The CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, during the week following the attack, worked closely and at length with the communications team to craft and record voice mails addressed to employees who could still be reached outside the area of devastation. These messages went out daily until the stock market reopened the following Monday. “This was a time for leadership, and employees wanted to hear directly from the leader,” Bardin says. 

The messages focused on employee safety, those unaccounted for, the condition of the network, and how Verizon was going to get the New York Stock Exchange open for business. In addition, senior managers toured various facilities to meet with employees, and Seidenberg himself inspected the damage to Verizon’s building at 140 West Street.

Employees at the New York Times faced a particularly harrowing challenge after the attacks. They were as traumatized as other New Yorkers—the company’s main offices are on West 43rd Street, about three miles from Ground Zero, close enough for them to see the smoke. But it was their job to cover the attacks with the clearheadedness and distance of professional journalists. 

The sheer scale of the event, and its effect on friends and neighbors, shook even the most hard-bitten news-room veterans. Russell Lewis, CEO of the New York Times Company, realized that the leadership team had to be seen acting “calmly, rationally, and humanely”—indeed, to be seen smiling—“so that our staff would mirror our behavior.” 

One of the first things he did was to go to the building’s fire command station and use its emergency public-address system to assure the staff that, until more was known about the attack, the safest place to be was within the Times’ fortress-like headquarters. He would use the system frequently over the next several days to reassure and update employees.

“When people heard us on the speakers, they listened. Your voice must sound calm, in control and, most important, earnest,” says Lewis, thinking back. 

He, Chairman and Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., and Times newspaper President Janet Robinson became the crisis management team, walking throughout the building each day to answer employees’ questions concerning such matters as building security and to thank them for their dedication. “Most of all, we wanted people to know we were all in the same boat,” Lewis says.

Communicating with the people actually covering 9/11 was far from unnecessary. “If anything,” he says, “journalists needed more information [than other Times employees] about what the company was doing in response to the crisis. They are paid to be skeptical of authority, and if you can’t adequately explain and defend what it is you’re telling them, they won’t go along.”

The presence of senior management wasn’t just important for companies in Manhattan—all around the country, bewildered and frightened employees were hungry for leadership. Think of Dell. It’s headquartered in Texas, and its people suffered little direct impact from the terrorism. Yet they were devastated emotionally. 

Within a few days of 9/11, CEO Michael Dell and Kevin Rollins, Dell’s president and chief operating officer, out of a simple desire to be involved and heard, decided they would meet with all of their directors and vice presidents, who were encouraged to talk about how they and their teams were holding up. To keep the meetings small and personal, three were held.

 The meetings were also taped and put on the company intranet for the benefit of every employee. In a stark departure from business as usual, Dell and Rollins said the focus should not be on sales or margins but rather on Dell’s people and helping affected customers rebuild.

2) Choose your Channels Carefully

Whether natural or man-made, disasters often disrupt normal flows of communication. Phone lines and power lines may be destroyed. Computer networks may go down. Groups of employees may be stranded or isolated. This was certainly the situation many companies faced after 9/11. 

To reach their people, managers often had to be creative in using unusual communication channels. Many, for instance, used the mass media to communicate with employees.
Oppenheimer Funds, which occupied five floors at Two World Trade Center, wanted to send a message to both its employees and its customers that it would be operational as soon as the markets reopened. So CEO John Murphy appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to deliver that message. In fact, its contingency site in New Jersey was ready for trading before the markets reopened.

Normally, of course, the news media and corporate America have what may best be described as an adversarial relationship—one that communications officers are asked to “manage.” 

However, as the events of 9/11 unfolded, many of them realized that they needed to start thinking of the media as allies—in part because their failed communications systems left them no other choice. At Morgan Stanley, the voice mail system serving its 2,700 employees based in Two World Trade Center and another 1,000 in Five World Trade Center, a smaller structure, had been disabled, as had the internal Web site for its broker network.

But affected companies did not view the media channel as merely a default communications system. Ray O’Rourke of Morgan Stanley explains: “[Our employees] take real-time news feeds on their desktops. They are very news sensitive. They read it, analyze it, question it. The media were critical for communicating with our employees.”

Oppenheimer’s Rob Densen concurs: “Employees take their cue from the external media, so you need to demonstrate your functionality through the media.” One way Oppenheimer did so was by publishing a full-page letter from Murphy to his employees in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York Times.

Some employees will trust a message that has been mediated by independent gatherers and distributors of the news more than one that comes directly from the company or appears as a paid advertisement. This filtering effect is especially useful at companies where employees tend to be suspicious of statements from management. 

American Airlines, for instance, has had a history of troubled relations with two of its unions, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants and the Allied Pilots Association. 

According to Tim Doke, “In a crisis, we usually end up relying on news media to get our message out… [CEO] Don Carty speaking directly to employees through media outlets such as CNN’s
Larry King Live and the network morning shows has built bridges and created understanding between management and labor.” In the aftermath of 9/11, both unions waived a number of the rights of their rank and file to help American Airlines get its planes back in the air.

Although some companies have put computer kiosks on factory floors, the continuous nature of manufacturing operations and the distance of some workers from on-line hookups make communicating via e-mail in such venues difficult. 

American Airlines found a way around this by using its reservation system to reach as many employees as possible. “[Carty’s] voice mails were transcribed and sent to the SABRE machines—those machines that print your itineraries and tickets—as well as posted on the Internet and e-mailed to employees,” says Doke.
The machines are scattered all over airports, including employee lounges. 

While their major function is to receive messages, they do have a module permitting the company to communicate with employees, especially those in the field. “The SABRE machines meant that even maintenance people on tarmacs, who might not have Internet access at work, could be kept informed,” Doke says. American Airlines also recorded Carty’s messages on Internet hot lines and posted transcripts of them on its Web site.
To confirm that they were safe, Morgan Stanley’s employees could call one of the toll-free numbers that fed into the company’s Discover Card call centers. 

The firm also put the number on the ticker display that wraps around its Times Square building. Here, too, the TV networks played a role by broadcasting the number. Quickly, the Discover Card call center became the call center during the crisis, even routing calls from non-Morgan Stanley employees looking for information.

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Ishola Ayodele is a Public Relations practitioner and a member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.

He offers the following services to Large Corporations, SMEs and Individuals.

Result Oriented Communication,
Effective Crisis Communication,
Effectual Political Communication,
Reputation and Image management,
And Impactful Presentation Coaching.
He can be reached on
BBM 58ED6030,
twitter @ishopr and via

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