Preparation is key for any crisis, especially one as large as the West Virginia chemical spill

Contributing columnistJanuary 27, 2014 

Around 7 a.m. people start smelling an odd smell as they start their day. The smell is out of place even for those living around a chemical plant.

At 10:30 a.m., employees at the nearby chemical company discover one of the tanks is leaking. No one from the company has notified local officials of the leak.

By 11:05 a.m., after receiving numerous calls from neighbors of the chemical plant, inspectors of the state department of environmental protection arrive at the plant to investigate the smell. Officials have still not been notified of the leak.

At 12:05 p.m., the call to the spill hotline from the company to report the leak is made. In the meantime, unknown quantities of a chemical have leaked into the river when the chemical plant is located on. The plant is upstream from a water treatment plant.

Within five hours of the call, an immediate ban on using water in surrounding communities of the chemical plant is ordered. The chemical planted is ordered to cease operations immediately.

The next day the president of the company holds a brief press conference. Details are not forthcoming and people are left with more questions than answers, adding to community confusion and mounting fear regarding their safety.

Citizens, groups and governmental agencies soon rail against the company. Probes and criminal investigations are mounted and lawsuits filed. The company continues to do very little to communicate.

This is not a fictional example. In early January, a chemical plant near Charleston, W. Va., had a leak, which contaminated the water for over 300,000 people. Citizens were told not to use the water. Numerous people fell ill with stomach ailments and rashes. It is estimated that 7,500 gallons of the industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, leaked from a one-inch hole breaching the plant's containment wall and seeped into the Elk River. A health crisis unfolded.

For any business or organization, communication is key in an incident like this. Getting the correct facts and instructions out to the public as efficiently as possible is important.

Within crisis communications, there are four impact levels from one impact with minimal communications required to four impact, which is considered a catastrophic event. A chemical spill is a level four impact requiring immediate action.

A crisis communications plan should be part of an organization's risk management plan because during a crisis, an organization will not have time to figure out how to communicate with staff and the public.

What is essential for a crisis communications plan? There are five elements fundamental to a solid plan:

People: You need to have a well-trained crisis response team made up of people who understand the situation, and those people need to be media trained.

Monitoring: An organization has to be listening at all times. Because of the speed of social media and the rapid pace at which a crisis could evolve, it's mandatory that monitoring systems be in place. That "golden" hour has been cut in half.

Scenarios: In order to be fully prepared for a crisis, you need to be aware of possible scenarios facing your organization. You need to understand your organization's strengths and weaknesses, as well as the threats to it.

Statements: Having "holding statements" developed around scenarios will buy you the time you need when a crisis is breaking. Holding statements — information prepared in advance — will bridge the gap between when the initial crisis breaks and when you get more concrete information on the situation. Statements should be prepared for all channels including social media platforms and be pre-approved by executives and legal before a crisis strikes.

Notification: Getting information out during a crisis is important. Notification systems are necessary to disseminate correct information quickly to both internal and external audiences. Websites, phone calls, SMS texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook, and traditional media are all acceptable channels, and a multichannel effort works best.

While most businesses will never face a crisis of the magnitude of a chemical spill, preparation is key for any crisis. Remember how you respond to a crisis may affect whether your business survives or not.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations. She proudly called Lexington home but now lives in North Carolina. Email her at ann@mindthegappr.com, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.

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