Picture this scenario in your mind: As you are preparing to leave work for the weekend, dispatch delivers an urgent and tragic message – one of your tractor-trailers just collided with a school bus. Your driver is OK and conscious but several schoolchildren were hurt – maybe even killed. Though police are apparently on the scene, details about the crash are sketchy and inconclusive. And though the police haven’t contacted your company yet, you know it’s only a matter of time. On top of that, photos of the crash from eyewitnesses are starting to show up on Facebook – and your company’s logo can be easily viewed in them. Dispatch wants to know what to do.
This is a worst-case situation, for sure, but it’s one every motor carrier must be prepared to deal with. And deal with it fast, urges Kathryn Kolaczek, CEO of Alchemy Communications. Because a company dealing with a scenario like that one has at most 60 minutes to get a message out to the media and general public. After that, the “social media” reaction kicks in – which will most likely obscure anything you and your company is trying to say about the incident.
“Crashes happen; they are a fact of life in any transportation business,” Kolaczek, a crisis communication expert based in Calgary, Canada, explained to me by phone. “But today you’ve got a very tight timeline in which to respond to it. So you really need to prepare for such situations well ahead of time.”
That’s because pictures and video from cell phones and tablet computers will start ricocheting around the Internet via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels oftentimes before even first responders reach the scene.
“You really need to discuss, for example, who is going to go on the air and what they will say following an incident like the one above; that is not a conversation you want to have at 3 a.m. five minutes before you are on television,” Kolaczek stressed; or live-streamed on Facebook for that matter. “You need a checklist already in place that tells you what to do and who will do it. Then you have to practice your response to such an event – you need to put your executives on camera and so they can learn to answer questions from reporters and others in a coherent way.”
She emphasized to me that this process is about teaching executives how to stay focused and not let a discussion go “sideways,” in her words. “You may respond to a question about how a crash affects your company financially – but that is not what people in your community want to hear,” Kolaczek said. “You don’t want to talk about your business when injuries or loss of life is involved. You need to forget about the business concerns until later. Not that you won’t address them; just that you will discuss them at a later time.”
It’s also a chance to observe the body language of a fleet’s managers when they are put in a crisis situation. “How you physically react to questions may create negative impressions; that’s something you need to tweak and keep in mind. It can be mitigated,” Kolaczek noted.
Another thought: consider translating your message into other languages where applicable. “In Texas, it’s a good idea to have a Spanish translation available; in Canada, a French translation would be needed as well,” she said. “You need to do this is a respectful way, as well – using Google translate is not sufficient.”
From her perspective, then, Kolaczek offers a list of “crisis management” preparation tips fleet executives and managers should consider using:
- Anticipate Crisis Scenarios – Devote and entire day conducting a thorough review of your fleet’s current internal and external communication practices, as well study “crisis situations” suffered by other trucking companies to examine what went right and what went wrong. “You should develop a list of the top five crisis situations your company experience – a crash, a failed safety audit, etc. – and review all of our safety policies and procedures associated with those procedures,” she said. Then you need to figure out if they hold up under the harsh glare of social media as well as build up a ‘war chest’ of information to highlight how those policies are supposed to function.
- Media Training is Essential – Crisis situations attract the attention of mainstream and social media quickly and the way in which a company responds to a crisis is heavily scrutinized. A poorly worded response can make a bad situation worse and destroy the reputation of a company for years to come. “One mandatory thing you need to do is create a genuine apology; you need to be prepared to acknowledge an employee fatality or the loss a community faces due to a crash in a way that isn’t fake and that doesn’t expose you to further liability,” she stressed. “That takes a lot of planning.”
- Develop a Crisis Communications Checklist – In a crisis, Kolaczek noted, it’s difficult to think clearly. Having policies and procedures in place, along with a crisis management team increases the likelihood of handling a crisis well. “You have to know what media channels you are going to use to get your message out, as well,” she pointed out. “Many think it this is easy, but if you’ve never written a press release or used Twitter, a crisis is not the time to learn how. You need to do that all in advance so you can look for holes in your strategy.”
Kolaczek added that none of the above is easy and executives need to be brutally honest with themselves as part of this planning process. “Do you want your CEO to be calling the families of the children killed in a crash with your truck? Or not? Should another executive make those calls? This is something the people in your community are going to care about – so you need to practice and make this a priority,” she emphasized.
Also, Kolaczek stressed that in a crisis people come first before everything – and that trucking executives need to accept they’ll face tough emotional situations as a result.
“In one situation we worked with, four people were killed in a crash with a bulk transporter; two sets of grandparents,” she explained. “The CEO called each family – four in all – to express his sorrow at their loss and to give them his direct phone number. He got very emotional on the phone. But it is in the best interests of the company and the community to address situations like this right away,” she said. “It’s always about saying sorry; it shows empathy. But when the community is angry at you, this can be a challenging place to be.”