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Crisis Control

To paraphrase one of the more colorful axioms of the American lexicon: Stuff happens. Does your company have a plan in place for when it does?

Construction can be a risky business, and the best in the business do everything they can to prevent the worst — whether the casualties fall under the heading of technological, environmental or human — from happening at all. But while the factors inside your operation can be controlled to a reasonable degree, the rest of the world outside it, alas, cannot.

“There’s an old adage in this business: failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” says David M. Marriott, 35-year veteran of the public relations industry and nationally recognized expert in the field of crisis management and communication. “Trite though it may be, it’s often true …. If you believe an organization’s reputation is one of its most valued assets, shouldn’t you be doing something to protect it during times of crisis?”

The largest construction firms often have staffers devoted exclusively to issues of safety and communication; smaller companies may need to enlist high-level personnel to wear an extra hat or two. Regardless, AGC of America professionals — and qualified colleagues in education, insurance and media training — agree that crisis management plans are a must, not merely to insulate a firm’s reputation in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, but to care for its employees and return to business as usual as swiftly as possible.

In recent years, Bruce McGaw, safety director for the Woodinville, Wash.-based Mowat Construction Company, an AGC member in Alaska, Washington and Oregon-Columbia, and his team have effectively managed operations in the wake of numerous incidents — vandals releasing the brakes on a mobile crane over a weekend, a crew witnessing a (nonemployee) suicide while on a jobsite and still others traffic-related, like when an alcohol-impaired truck driver entered a closed lane where people and equipment were put at risk. Preparation and safety measures can help reduce the impact of such incidents, but outright prevention? It’s simply out of your hands.

“If you don’t take the opportunity to manage [in the wake of an incident], things can spin out in all kinds of ways,” says McGaw. “Impacts to your people, personally and directly. Impacts to the company both financially and on its reputation. Impacts to the traveling public. Impacts to infrastructure.”

Whether an incident involves an injury, power loss or environmental hazard, your company’s leaders will certainly be hard at work managing fallout and ensuring that the workflow continues, and good planning, says Bob VandePol, president of the Wyoming, Mich.-based Crisis Care Network, ensures that the key players will have support as well.

“Leaders are human too and fall within an incident’s circle of impact,” he points out. VandePol was among those on-site following the Boston Marathon bombing, counseling a new CEO who was seated at the finish line with his family when some of his firm’s employees were injured. “They are the ones charged with making decisions with immense consequences that will be Monday-morning quarterbacked at a time when they … are more likely to make expensive and dangerous reactive decisions and statements while under the influence of traumatic stress themselves. Having a plan in place reduces the risk of someone making an additional mistake. It provides an opportunity for muscle memory so people automatically know what to do.”

Identifying what constitutes a crisis is a natural first step, says Marriott, who teaches a crisis management course for AGC of Washington. “I try to get them to understand that a crisis doesn’t have to just be a catastrophic event with loss of life or property. It can be anything from that to environmental issues, high-visibility litigation, corporate malfeasance … anything with the potential to damage the organization’s reputation and disrupt normal operations.”

Once said crises have been ID’d, says Marriott, the likelihood of their occurrence should be determined and any steps that can be taken to reduce those likelihoods should be taken. “Ask some ‘what if’ questions. ‘If X happened, what would we do and who would do it?’ This is how you begin to see the tasks that need to be accomplished and who should be assigned those tasks.”

At the core of Mowat’s modus operandi is what McGaw refers to as a “call the chain of command” system. Its basic principle: regardless of where or when an event happens, call up the chain of command and don’t stop until you speak to a live person. “We have a vast amount of in-house expertise and we all have connections to government and emergency agencies,” he says. “It’s amazing what we’re able to mobilize outside of 911 to mitigate these terrible incidents.”

Mowat is a union operation. Within a given project’s circle are the foremen who supervise small groups of people, a superintendent who oversees the labor side and the project manager who manages just about everything else with regard to logistics. “We break it out into a pocket reference guide,” McGaw explains, “a little booklet we try to make sure everyone has at all times that includes the critical contact list.” The way it works is simple: the first responder calls the person above, going up the chain of command until you get hold of someone directly.

“If things work properly,” he explains, “once the call gets to the project manager, that person is making all the other contacts. The foremen and superintendent are in the field managing issues on the ground, directing EMS, calling for reinforcements, whatever critical things need to be done on-site.”

The path of communication, says McGaw, all the way up to the president and owner, is clear. “Each person knows his or her role. You can’t anticipate vandals releasing a brake on a crane or a semi driver plowing into your traffic-control zone, but if we have a fuel spill on the road, the project manager is going to know the person who’s been managing the storm water issues so he can make sure someone is out there putting absorbent materials at the drain sites. There are all kinds of considerations and no one person can do it.”

Marriott, who had written and updated the crisis communication plan and participated in mock drills at Alaska Airlines well before its Flight 261 hit the waters off California, knows firsthand the importance of a company’s initial response to tragic circumstances. In this case, all lives onboard were lost. “The plan was quickly activated and fully operational in less than 30 minutes. The company received praise for its quick communication with the public, for its handling of the families and friends of the victims, and for its general response to the situation.”

But 13 years of technology, among other factors, means the best plans should be reviewed regularly and evolve accordingly. “If you look at the recent crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, cell phone photos, videos, etc., were on the air within minutes of the accident,” he points out. “In today’s wired world everyone is a ‘reporter’ with a camera.” Time is ever more of the essence. “[A company’s] communication needs to be quick, with information updated often. And whoever acts as the spokesperson for an organization should be trained. Verbal mistakes and miscues can be damaging.”

Few companies, says Calvin Beyer, vice president, Construction Solutions, Large Account Sales & Development for the Lancaster, Penn.-based Murray Securus, have done effective training of their designated spokespersons. “Very few to field-level supervision,” he adds. “And it’s very difficult when something happens at a construction site for people to stop and wait for that designated spokesperson. Until you get three, four cameras in your face, it can be hard for people to have the discipline to [remain quiet]. And then, before you know it, the [damaging] sound bite is on the news.”

Smaller companies especially, says Beyer, can benefit by bringing in public relations or crisis management professionals, “someone who can write shell statements — generic messages to key stakeholders so that a unified message can be delivered across all fronts when an unfortunate event occurs.”

Staffers at Mowat do some drills, but McGaw notes that life presents them with plenty of smaller, unplanned events, each an opportunity to practice, learn, revise and perfect. “We’ve practiced for those big traffic events because we’ve had smaller traffic events. And every time we go through one, we take a little time to debrief and review what we did, what we could’ve done better and — here’s the hard part — capture that lesson in a meaningful, concise manner and then weave it back into our routine …. We approach every incident as an opportunity to get better.”

The purpose of crisis management, says VandePol, is to help business continue. “It’s to have people return to work as soon as possible, as safely as possible.” Construction companies are committed to time lines. Missing deadlines can mean paying penalties. By and large, employees understand. That said, on-site accidents — whether fatalities, injuries or even near-misses, and regardless of circumstances — can affect crew members in ways that aren’t always visible.

Not long ago, a Mowat crew working at the Aurora Bridge, arguably Seattle’s most notorious site for jumpers, witnessed such a tragedy. “Our crew was in line of sight of someone who landed on hard ground,” says McGaw. Witnesses were identified “and we insisted they spend a little bit of time with a post-traumatic event counselor …. Initially, people don’t know how they’re going to respond psychologically. We get them some coaching about what the signs and symptoms are, and we’re touching base with them 30, 60, 90 days post-event and reoffering those services.”

Investing in employee training, says Diane Kocer, executive director of the AGC of Washington Education Foundation, is a direct investment in a company’s bottom line. “The concern about post-recession employees” retention requires companies to take a hard look at employee engagement. This is particularly important now and into the future, as all data points to a looming labor shortage for the construction industry.” Training, she says, improves employee satisfaction and self-worth and provides employees with added skills and a message that they’re worth the investment. “Reputation management … has the benefit of helping strengthen the relationship between the company and its employees, as it helps rally support for the company and its values.”

Quality care in the wake of the abnormal, says VandePol, is the best way to get things back to normal.

“If you take really good care of people on the worst day of their lives, not only do you mitigate the human costs, which makes grandma proud, but you can control a lot of the financial costs — people don’t quit; they show up and they’re more productive; morale improves; no one files for workers’ comp, disability claims or losses — because people know their company cares about them.”