|Could It Happen Here?|
By Judy Hoffman
Thursday, 5th May 2011
As soon as journalists were done transmitting video, photographs and written reports of the horrific earthquake and sunami overwhelming the coast of northern Japan, reports started surfacing of the troubles of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in that area.
I predicted what would come next. I will wager that the most alert people on the staffs of nuclear facilities around the world figured it out as well.
With the public watching the explosion that occurred at that facility and listening to reports of radioactive fallout raining down on the surrounding area, we knew that it would not take long for reporters from coast to coast in the U.S. -- and the rest of the world -- to start questioning, "Could it happen here?"
It's a natural question for reporters and the public to ask
And it's certainly not limited to the nuclear industry. Any time a tragic accident occurs in any industry, people jump almost
immediately to wondering if it could happen where they or a love one live/work. When an operational upset causes environmental damage to air, land, or water anywhere, people begin speculating about how likely it is that it could happen in their neck of the woods. (We saw that dramatically when the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig owned by BP exploded and caught on fire and sank in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago.
The government's quick response was to shut down deep water oil exploration for some time.) When an epidemic outbreak of a contagious disease occurs at a hospital, current and prospective patients and their families in the surrounding area are frightened. I'm sure you all can imagine troubling situations related to your type of business.
There is a nuclear facility in my area - Raleigh, North Carolina -- so I was able to watch the local TV news coverage of a nuclear plant spokesperson being put on the spot. He was peppered with questions about their plant's safety programs and the engineering standards used when it was constructed and what upgrades have been implemented in the intervening years.
Most of the time, the spokesperson looked very uncomfortable. He tried to be reassuring about how unlikely it was that an earthquake would be strong enough to create the kinds of problems that were occurring in Japan. I'm quite sure this news story which was local for me played out in numerous media markets around the world wherever other nuclear facilities are located.
Maybe all of we viewers heard the various spokespersons saying something like the words found in the Fukushima plant's disaster plan: "The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that, from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable."
But the TV coverage would inevitably revert to the video clip of the explosion at the Fukushima facility and reports of radioactivity levels so high that workers could not respond as effectively as they would like. So the words of the spokespeople anywhere probably did little to reassure a nervous public, whichever facility they live close to.
It's called issues management
For some larger organizations, there may be a whole department called "Issues Management." In smaller organizations, one person usually wears a lot of hats, including this one. For the sole proprietor running his or her own enterprise, he/she has to wear all of the hats!
All of these people have to be aware of what is going on in the world outside their own doors. When they see a situation developing - or exploding -- on the scene and realize that a lot of people are going to be upset by it, one of the first things they need to do is objectively assess "Could it happen here?"
No Ostriches please!
When you see a serious issue developing in your industry or in your community, you should not adopt the ostrich position - with your head buried in the sand - and just hope it will somehow pass you by. Be proactive. Start immediately to prepare yourself and your colleagues with well developed talking points, backed up by as many solid facts as you can gather, so that you can answer that very reasonable question from a local reporter.
Work with a couple of people in your organization to word your statements well. Pass the talking points by Legal. Then communicate them widely in the organization because - even though only a few designated people will talk to the media - all employees must be confident they have the right information to answer that question when posed by their friends or neighbors.
It is a wise organization that spends some quality time -- right when something dramatic happens -- developing their answers and preparing for that reporter or blogger or concerned neighbor who contacts them.
It is an even wiser organization that has thought of these potential problems way in advance, has developed its major talking points and gotten them approved, done whatever is possible to reduce the likelihood that this situation could actually occur, and held role-playing exercises that simulate the exact potential crisis.
In this way, they can practice delivering their public statements and get feedback -- from their own employees and other trusted individuals -- on how those messages are likely to be received.
Until next month...
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