Near motorcycle crash is a lesson in crisis communications

June 8, 2011

This past Memorial Day, I nearly died. My motorcycle skidded on a patch of wet leaves, throwing me left then right. It could have been bad.

A leg crushed under the bike. Or worse, my head hitting the pavement. Instead, I kept the bike upright. It all happened in an instant.

But as I unpacked the event, I realized there a lot of parallels between the near-accident and the crisis communications work we do at Gregory FCA.

Invest in quality equipment. On the bike, I was wearing a helmet, sturdy boots, and thick riding gloves, so even if I lost control I still might have averted serious injury (although the damage to the bike would have been catastrophic). Even before a crisis hits, organizations must equip themselves with a basic toolset to marginalize risk, including:

  • A working group list including contact information for all key players in a crisis is essential and should be compiled far in advance. This should also include contact information for important outside resources, such as the PR firm and outside counsel. It should include all pertinent contact information such as office, cell, and home phone numbers (including vacation homes — what if the CEO is at her house in Florida when the crisis hits?), e-mail addresses, etc. Nobody wants to run around tracking down e-mail addresses and cell numbers when the pressure is on.
  • A well thought-out crisis plan that includes various crisis scenarios. While we can’t prepare for every possible scenario, there are a number of crises that can be anticipated and planned for, such as natural disasters, employee or executive malfeasance, workplace violence, accidents, etc. Smart organizations chart the most likely, highest risk scenarios, and build plans around each in order to jump start response in times of crisis.
  • Core messaging that is ready to go and easily adaptable to any crisis. Every company has certain core messages that can be leaned on when the going gets tough. This can be prepared and documented in advance, then nuanced based on the actual crisis scenario.
  • A flow chart with steps that can be followed so that when emotions run high, there is an easy-to-follow road map. The crisis has hit, now what? Who instigates the response and alerts the team? What action steps need to be taken? It’s important to have these details hammered out in advance. When emotions are charged and the stuff is hitting the fan, it’s easier to follow a pre-prescribed plan than try and create one in the heat of the moment.
  • A chain of command. Who’s running point on a crisis? Who needs to be notified right away? Who sits on the crisis committee? When should they know? What should they know? What is their role in crafting the message and delivering the message? Who approves? Who follows?

Trust your instincts. One of the main reasons I averted a catastrophic motorcycle crash is that I trust my instincts. Or did I? And is there such a thing as instinct? In his book, “Blink,” Malcomb Gladwell contends that instinct is the product of practice, study, and training.

In motorcycle safety class, I had been taught the exact procedures for averting a deadly skid. That training kicked into action without much conscious thought. During a crisis, there are typically many cooks in the kitchen, and advice flies from all corners, including the lawyers, the shareholders, the management, employees, and even the CEO’s husband or wife. It’s conflicting and confusing. The best instincts lead you back to your training, ignoring distraction and pollution that comes under stress.

Rehearse. A friend of mine had a serious motorcycle accident a few years ago. Riding at night, he couldn’t see a rise in the pavement. When his bike hit the elevation at 50 mph he toppled sideways. He walked away unscathed by using a technique he had rehearsed many times in his mind. He simply raised his inside leg to avoid pinning it against the road. Such is the power of practice.

In a crisis, you often can’t see the rise in the road. Accidents are inevitable. But practice can condition your response to mitigate risk by resorting to best practices, planned for, communicated, and rehearsed as part of an effective crisis communications plan.

Debrief. By reviewing my experience, I now know the mistakes that were made. I parked on wet leaves that spun the tires as I accelerated to set in motion a chain of potential lethal events. It won’t happen again. By debriefing after a crisis, you can constantly hone your program to avert future risk and improve performance during the next eventuality. All that is learned must be folded back into the plan, and institutionalized through practice and preparation.

The Business Dictionary defines risk mitigation as “A systematic reduction in the extent of exposure to a risk and/or the likelihood of its occurrence.” Corporate communicators might not be able to eliminate the likelihood of all occurrences, but by following the steps outlined above, they can help their companies reduce exposure to risk with time-tested crisis management disciplines. But the time to act is now, not when the call comes in.

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