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Is your business 'crisis' ready?

JAMAICANS love to laugh; so do I. Read my name and rest assured that the 'grin' is also in my DNA. But even as we love to laugh out loud and roll on the floor, I think we sometimes take a joke too far. I am talking about the earthquake simulation drill that took place in Spanish Town last month where the participants "laughed uncontrollably instead of accounting for the workers in their respective departments" (Lead story, Saturday Observer, January 30). The article did not mention that it was a live Ity and Fancy Cat performance, so I am guessing it was clearly no laughing matter.

The emergency simulation which was reportedly organised by the Regional offices of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), was a very useful and significant exercise, coming hard on the heels of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked our Haitian neighbours on January 12. But that did not stop the participants from having a rollicking time, poking fun at the scenarios. On that day, it appeared that everyone was a stand-up comic with their very own HBO-special.

Crisis preparedness and having a communications as well as a business continuity plan for your organisation is not something that you 'might do'. It is a must-have for all businesses. How many of us vividly remember Hurricane Gilbert of September 1988? I do. Apart from the fact that that disaster helped me develop a very healthy respect for the infinite ways tin corned beef can be prepared -- as an appetiser, the main course or dessert, if you please -- it blew me away as to how at least 99 per cent of us were unprepared. After all, that Sunday in September -- the winds and rains started in the night -- was a nice, hot day.

But do you remember businesses being looted, some because of poor to no security systems; roofless businesses (zinc was everywhere); flying satellite dishes; uncertainty about going back to work after the rains because there was no crisis communications plan which would include how to stay in touch with staff? Most businesses operators were caught with their pants down.

But Gilbert was the worst-case scenario and taught us how to prepare ourselves for subsequent hurricane disasters. The jury is still out on how ready we will be if (God forbid) we were impacted by a major earthquake.

But what about the other crisis that stands at our door and will deeply impact staff productivity? It could be a major accident or a natural disaster. Who is authorised to speak (to the media) on behalf of the company if there is a disaster at your plant? Do you have a scripted response to possible queries if a colleague is murdered? Do we have within our crisis plan, how to communicate the facts (and only the facts) to staff? No lazybones, an e-mail is not an appropriate medium. What if the victim is higher up within the ranks of management? Does your crisis plan include how to communicate this kind of workplace disaster?

Apart from our deputy manager, who always seems to be in the dark about most things anyway, to whom do we listen? How do you get people to focus on productivity and not be too distracted to work? Because, as you and I well know, there are staff members among us -- let's just call them 'those self-appointed keepers of the office grapevine' -- who thrive on disasters. It legitimises their gossiping. And they can meander through the office, self-righteously feigning concern and wasting company time pretending to commiserate. And what about the post-crisis period and the need for grief counselling for staff members? Is our Human Resource Department 'on top a things' in giving staff members timely counselling? I claim no authority in the area of counselling, but I think it is a safe bet to say that one month after the trauma is not a good time, as the damage would have already been done. But I stand corrected.

A blackout is another crisis point. Most businesses have stand-by generators but what happens if there is a disaster that closes down our supply of electricity for an extended period? Do we twiddle our thumbs, play Sudoku or -- for the more adventurous among us -- find a comfortable sleeping place/position until the light returns? How do we know when to return to work if we are off-site? Should we take the word of 'Careless Cathy' who has it on firm authority that we should take the rest of the week off?

Communicating in a crisis requires teamwork and it is at this point in your organisation's history that all the cracks and crevices in relationships, hitherto undisturbed, will come to the forefront. You will know who is truly a team player and who will not turn up but will be reported missing in action because of 'bad blood' or 'Don't Care'. The trick is to try to solve these team problems before the real crisis is upon us.

As I write, the history books are recording the tragedy of Haiti's earthquake. The toll has so far been: bodies recovered -- 150,000; estimated dead -- 200,000; rescued from collapsed buildings -- 134; injured --194,000; the displaced and homeless: one million; living in makeshift camps -- 700,000-800,000; tents needed for homeless -- 200,000 family-size. Let us take heed and realise that being prepared for a crisis is definitely no laughing matter.


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