The recent bombing and shootings in Norway remind us again of the importance of having a crisis plan in place, whether your business operates in an assembly plant, a beer warehouse, a law office or a cookie factory.  All have been the sites of workplace violence. Whatever your venue, it’s equally prone to the crises that can irrevocably impact your staff, your business, your customers, your suppliers and your future. 

However, in conducting crisis communications planning at client facilities across the nation, we have uncovered a series of planning mistakes that local managers and/or corporate policy makers consistently have failed to consider because they have not tested a crisis scenario or been subjected to an actual crisis.

Here are what we at Airfoil believe to be five of the most dangerous mistakes that businesses are making in dealing with a potential crisis:

  1. Placing evacuation points too close to their building.  Some facilities have designated gathering areas for employees in a front parking lot or on the front lawn.  Remember that, in case of a fire, tornado damage or even a gunman on the loose, the last place you want to be is in range of a bullet, explosion or unstable structures.  Moreover, first responders will be filling the environs around the building, and your staff will be in the way.  Evacuate to the farthest walkable point, not the nearest, and have a backup gathering spot in case the first one is inaccessible or presents its own dangers.
  2. Storing emergency supplies outside the shelter areas.  Many plants and office buildings designate restrooms or other interior spaces as shelters during a crisis, but they store first aid kits, water and food in a supply room, on the plant floor or in the cafeteria.  These areas may be completely inaccessible when walls crumble or other dangers emerge. Always ensure that emergency supplies are situated in—or duplicated in—shelter areas, where the people who need them may be trapped.
  3. Leaving the sign-in sheet behind.  Your front-desk sign-in sheet is the only way you are likely to know exactly who is in the building when an evacuation is ordered.  While you may have a system to track employees, any number of visitors, suppliers or customer executives may be in the facility at a given point—and they don’t know the evacuation route or gathering spot.  Designate a person to be responsible for taking the sign-in sheet to the gathering location so that you can determine if anyone remains in the building.   And be certain to strictly enforce procedures both for signing in and signing out to maintain an accurate account of who is where.
  4. Failing to place phone and email lists in an accessible location.  Most executives these days keep their contact lists in digital form.  While they may access them via their mobile phone, the contact information actually resides on the company’s server.  If the server or network is wiped out in an explosion, fire or other disaster, you may have no ability to find the phone numbers or email addresses of your staff to communicate with them and their families in your efforts to verify their safe condition.  Keep updated paper copies of contact lists (yes, paper has a role in a crisis) either in the glove compartment of a manager’s vehicle or in a metal box permanently mounted at the evacuation point. Or keep them in the cloud where you can download them to a personal computer once you’re able to reach a safe place.
  5. Not pre-positioning resources at an alternate location.  If your facility is out of commission for a period of days or weeks, you’ll need a new, temporary base of operations.  After the crisis hits is not the time to try to find office space.  Your business usually is most endangered in the days immediately after disaster strikes, when you must organize to ensure the survival of your operations and your brand.  Make arrangements with a sister plant, a customer company or another business in the area that allow you to occupy some of its unused space and vice versa if a crisis strikes either of your organizations.  Pre-position the basic supplies you will need—laptops, printers, paper, wireless phones, batteries and/or whatever else may be required to jumpstart your business—in a secured area of your backup location.

Our crisis communications program recommends many other practical, precautionary steps that businesses often overlook in their planning efforts, suggestions related to everything from planning for the news media’s arrival to cultural differences among geographic regions that should be taken into account.  Some crises may be unavoidable, but they can be managed to limit injury to your people, your property and your reputation.

— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.