Do any of the following headlines sound familiar? They all appeared in the news on a single day this past February in cities and towns across North America.
Hopefully, they didn’t involve you or your transportation department. If they did, it’s a safe bet you’re still dealing with the aftershocks created by these unwanted, and often unexpected, crisis events.
Let’s face it, student transportation operates under an enormous amount of public scrutiny, and when things go wrong, it’s a big story. During a crisis, your credibility and reputation are on the line. How you respond in the first few minutes may very well determine whether one or both will still be intact when the crisis is over.
So, just what is a crisis? Simply stated, it can be any threat or event that creates chaos and, usually, suffering. A crisis compresses a great number of events into a short period of time and simultaneously magnifies the responses of people both inside and outside your organization. With attention focused so strongly on your operations, change is inevitable.
The 7 deadly sins
Crises arise from both natural and man-made causes. Natural causes — winter storms, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes — while unexpected, are not difficult to explain and need no justification. They do, however, require thorough preparation, as we’ve learned from the mistakes rising from Hurricane Katrina.
In reality, most crises are caused by human error or intent, not by random events. And these threats are usually much harder to manage since the instigators are often victims of their actions or unwilling to help.
In the student transportation field, I believe that most crisis events come from what I call the “Seven Deadly Sins”:
Danger zone encounter — A child has been struck by the bus or a passing vehicle.
Vehicle maintenance problem — A mechanical failure has resulted in an accident.
Child dropped off at wrong stop — A child is left to wander the streets in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Driver misconduct — Physical, verbal or sexual abuse on the bus, or inappropriate behavior brought to light off the bus.
Driver background problem — A driver with a checkered past.
Driver substance abuse — A driver caught drinking and driving or under the influence of drugs.
Child left on the bus — Failure by a driver or aide to thoroughly check the bus for remaining children.
Yes, there are hundreds of other incidents that create crises — from stops situated too close to the homes of known sexual predators to environmental concerns over diesel exhaust emissions — but most of your problems will come from these seven categories.
When a crisis arises, the effects inside your organization will be immediate and disorienting. While all crises are unique, there are usually eight characteristics that will be experienced by managers as the crisis unfolds. In normal times, any one of these characteristics would be viewed as a management short-coming. During a crisis, they are a fact of life:
Surprise — No matter how well prepared or how seasoned a veteran you are, crises will always catch you by surprise.
Information vacuum — During the first few minutes, and possibly hours, there will be a shortage of accurate information on which to make decisions.
Escalation — Events surrounding the crisis will continue to escalate, especially as the media spotlight causes heightened awareness.
Intense scrutiny — With heightened awareness comes greater scrutiny by all involved audiences.
Loss of control — With inadequate information and intense scrutiny, there will be either a perceived or real loss of control.
Siege mentality — With all of these factors affecting your decision-making abilities, you will begin to develop a siege mentality.
Panic — Panic will set in as you feel you’re losing your grip on the situation.
Short-term focus — Your focus will be to make it through the next few hours, not the next few days.
As you ride this emotional roller coaster, your employees will be reacting also. How well they react, and whether their reactions will help you come through the crisis or cause even more harm to your reputation, depends on you. If you don’t inform employees of the facts, they’ll have no way to respond to untruths and innuendo generated outside.
In this situation, employees can’t help but suspect the worst. They’ll begin to question objectives, doubt managerial wisdom and ability, challenge policies and ignore procedures. Instead of helping to quash rumors, they may actually fuel new ones. And they certainly won’t support the organization when questioned by family, friends, neighbors and others.
Employees can be your most loyal ambassadors when they understand and believe in your goals and objectives, but they may be your severest critics when suspicious of management’s motives and actions. If they aren’t kept informed and involved when you’re under siege, the net result will be a loss of confidence in management and doubt in your organization’s integrity. You can’t afford that — no organization can.
Bill Koch is principal/owner of Bill Koch PR, a strategic public relations counseling practice. An expert in crisis communications, he was previously vice president, communications for Laidlaw Transit. Contact him at [email protected].