|Five Questions about Crisis Readiness and Response at Siemens: Lessons from the Frontlines
Katie Walton is Communications Manager at Siemens Energy Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina.
You work in manufacturing. What are some important crisis lessons from that arena?
Manufacturing has a different set of hazards and risks than other industries. Because of our unique and substantial hazards, we focus a lot on prevention. At Siemens, we call it "Zero Harm Culture." Zero harm, in safety, quality, and business does not necessarily mean zero crises. There are other factors that can affect our organization and demand the appropriate response. Geopolitical issues or forces of nature, for example. But, if we focus on what is in our control, as an organization, we can limit our exposure to crises. Getting an organization to that point where it is forward-thinking and executing in a way that avoids self-harm must be an ongoing, consistent, and constant journey. Leaders and communications professionals can help their organizations “grow toward the light” in several ways.
How can you sustain the energy and performance for such a culture?
- Collectively and deliberately identifying hazards, risks, issues, remedial actions, policies, and procedures brings everyone into the game. It also helps ensure everyone will take responsibility in a sustained way. Sure, it helps to get key leaders, safety and quality control, and communications professionals to drive and facilitate this kind of program. However, everyone in the company should be fully engaged.
- Expect the rules and processes that are established to be followed by everyone, always, since they should all have good reasons behind them, that can be shared freely with everyone. That sharing part? Communications pros can help lead that.
- Look at past data. Are there areas that have more tendency to be frequent issues or have significant impacts? Focus on proactive communications efforts, such as workshops, posters, articles, and videos in these areas.
- Know that before your organization gets to a mature level in terms of safety, security, and quality, lots of missteps may occur. A robust near-miss program will identify what kinds of behaviors or circumstances led to issues and require corrective and preventative measures. Having large numbers of near misses, when starting out, should be viewed as opportunities for learning and improving crisis preparedness and response. Learn from every incident in order to improve crisis readiness in the future. When you have those learning opportunities, sing them from the rafters internally. This normalizing helps create a safe space for internal stakeholders to acknowledge shortcomings, areas of vulnerability, and ideas for greater preparedness and then collectively push for better results overall.
Continuing the conversation and involvement of everyone in the journey is key. You must always have targeted content to focus on to sustain the commitment to zero harm. But it is also important to remind people that there is a purpose to that culture. In athletics, you may have heard the expression, “Play to win, don’t play not to lose.” The idea is that focusing on excelling, and not on failing, is going to put you in the right mindset to actually succeed. It is more motivating to look at your work and say, ‘let’s knock this out’ or ‘let’s win more orders’ than ‘let’s not hurt Carl moving this rotor.' So, ultimately, the hope is that a Zero Harm Culture opens the door to what we are here to do. While we have safety and quality incentives such as bonuses, luncheons for milestones achieved, etc., it is very important to tie those achievements back to our employees and customers in our messaging. Why is it important that we have this kind of zero harm performance? For the well-being of our employees and the continued confidence of our customers.
You acknowledged that even with a robust culture of prevention, bad things can happen. What then?
Of course, regardless of your company’s best efforts, crises can and do happen. Another favorite expression of mine is “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” We like to take a holistic approach at Siemens in Charlotte, which means that crisis communications is one important piece of a full Emergency Response Plan. For crisis communications, we think about it like any other communications challenge. You must collectively have the clear vision of successfully moving through the crisis—that is, limiting or eliminating immediate and long-term ill effects of the crisis on your stakeholders, reputation, and the brand. In addition, you must have a clear strategy, processes, and a highly trained team in order to succeed. The nature of the specific crisis can then be less of a factor in your response and outcome. If it is an emotionally charged ‘big-deal’ crisis, you will put in more energy upon responding, but the challenges will not prevent you from executing your plan. The overarching goal is to be prepared for whatever issue, risk, or crisis may impact your business and brand equity.
There is valuable information contained in past issues of C4CS’ Communication Command e-Newsletter, as well as other resources that also do a great job of assisting with putting together a crisis strategy, training, and so on. Key contact sheets, fact-finding templates, statement templates, media lists, pre-crisis video and in-person scenario-based training, an employee info-line and dark website, emergency text messaging service, etc. are all great tools that we incorporate into our plan at Siemens in Charlotte.
From the perspective of a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ communications professional, what kinds of things have you seen in practice that relate to crisis communications planning?
From past experiences, when things did not work exactly as planned, I have learned a few things to test and check so that the response plans will work better going forward. I think a good communications professional should go the step further and do whatever is possible to help their organization prevent crises from happening. Sometimes this means inserting oneself into operations and management, asking tough questions, and requesting reasonable answers and collaborative solutions. What processes and culture can be built to prevent and prepare for crisis? Communication professionals must ask themselves how they can help drive those solutions. Good leaders will appreciate your ability to ask these tough questions and help proactively drive through difficult challenges in order to reach effective solutions. The alternative is staring at a lack of comprehensive plans, policies, and procedures when it is too late. Then, you will find yourself and your team in reactive damage control. How can you assist your colleagues and executives in anticipating and answering the tough questions that your internal and external stakeholders will ask? If you know a professional who is very good at crisis preparedness planning, communication auditing and pointing out pain points, or raising alternative arguments, ask for their insights and recommendations. You will likely start to adopt their critical thinking. The point is not to sweat the small stuff, but to be vigilant when it comes to crisis prevention and preparation for different crisis situations. This approach will serve you and your company well.
Even small details about how the plan is carried out need to be thought about and exercised before crisis strikes. For example, the plan for our Emergency Response Team includes a step to contact the Emergency Response Lead, who will assess the situation and then notify others, if necessary. A few years ago, a new security guard had not been fully trained and did not know where to find the proper contact phone numbers. The guard hence called the local authorities instead of the proper internal contact when a warning signal came on for an ammonia tank we have on campus. The tank’s sensor is set to detect leaks of 25 parts per million, and was activated as designed, setting off the alarm. A sprinkler system was then activated automatically in response to the leak. However, the entire area is surrounded by a retention wall so water can collect until our hazardous materials vendor can assess the leak and proceed with the necessary clean-up and repairs.
Although the issue was fully contained, the back-up safety measures worked as required, and employees working in that area were directed elsewhere in an abundance of caution, media picked up that our site had an ammonia leak. Furthermore, I was not made aware of the situation until several hours after the security guard’s initial call, as I was driving in to work—another missed contact number and broken link in the chain. We quickly rectified the situation by contacting media outlets and employees with a series of campus notices, conveying facts related to the situation and that everything was under control. The next step was to ensure that any new Emergency Response Team members and security guards were aware of the protocols and how to access needed contact information.
Annual, semi-annual, and quarterly reviews of response procedures are great, but make sure you also consider your onboarding content for new employees. This ammonia leak story has become useful in telling the team members why the protocols are in place. It came as a surprise to some that the media picked up the news so quickly, just from the radio contact. We would of course never want to prevent contacting the appropriate authorities when a true emergency arises, and we have regular visits by our local fire and police units to ensure they know our facilities and personnel. But, if it is just a minor incident, and if we have full capability to deal with it – as was the case when the ammonia leak happened -- we should have a tested game plan in place and follow it closely.
What should an organization do to make sure its crisis response plans work the way they are supposed to?
It is necessary to run regular exercises and test for even the smallest details. In addition to conducting recurring crisis drills, tabletop exercises, and scenario-based crisis communication training, it is also important to regularly select a few processes and assumptions from your crisis plan and quiz the related personnel on what they would do. If your organization has a crisis and members of the media start calling, hopefully the media inquiries will be forwarded to the designated managers and spokespersons. But what if reporters show up at the site? Have you identified a media briefing room in a secure area away from employee traffic? Do your security and reception area teams know where that room is located? To come up with questions to ask periodically, develop realistic crisis scenarios and think through the series of actions from your team is a good idea. Then ask the team members how they would react. Their responses should match the plan, and if not, you can work on further educating team members and adjust the plan on an ongoing basis. You may also want to consider seeking outside help for conducting crisis exercises and a crisis communication readiness audit. Remember, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next crisis will happen. And maximizing crisis readiness long before crisis hits is essential.
Media Training Q&A
C4CS® regularly conducts on-camera media training and spokesperson skills development, which we customize to fit our client partners' needs. This article includes some of the questions prospective clients ask us concerning our media skills development approach, as well as key components of our group media training and one-on-one spokesperson skills coaching.
What makes your media training different from that of other companies?
In our opinion neither group media training nor one-on-one spokesperson skills coaching should follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, format, content, and delivery must be tailored to the client partner's and the individual participant's needs. That is why C4CS® media trainers and coaches work closely with designated client company contacts and use tools such as a pre-training questionnaire to assess training participant experience, skill level, public speaking preferences, etc.
Our objective is to develop skills building sessions that are challenging but not too advanced. Once we have produced a preliminary outline and related training or coaching materials, we discuss the proposed format, content, and delivery with the client and fine tune each training or coaching component.
We believe in skills building through repeated practice and empowering client partners to conduct effective media interviews no matter whether the questions are coming from print, broadcast, or social media. Our team of trainers and coaches has decades of experience conducting media skills development workshops and working as journalists. In fact, some of us continue to freelance as reporters so as a firm we stay abreast of the latest trends.
How do you make media training a pleasant learning experience and realistic at the same time?
We create a supportive training and coaching environment that provides constructive feedback and builds confidence along with competency. Participants should embrace the idea that media interviews are valuable opportunities to get targeted messages across. Investment in C4CS® media skills building prepares participants to have the confidence and ability to make the most of such opportunities
To achieve this goal, our media training and one-on-one spokesperson skills coaching cover both message development as well as non-verbal and verbal message delivery. Each session includes plenty of on-camera time, performance review, and individual critique, but also real-life interview excerpts illustrating good and bad interview performances.
We use professional videographers and TV studios as requested by our client partners, and our firm employs a post-training evaluation questionnaire to collect participant feedback that enables our team to improve future training and coaching. In addition, a post-training debrief with the designated company contact provides further input as to how we can better customize our services.
What are the main components of the full-day media training that C4CS® provides?
On-camera interview practices that are taped and later reviewed and critiqued are a critical skills-building element. We integrate the latest media technologies and trends in our media training. From "live talk back" to simulated news conferences and interviews with bloggers that utilize Skype, our trainers and coaches gently build individual skills in a highly supportive and contemporary style.
In addition to essential on-camera media interview practices, both our group media training and our one-on-one spokesperson skills coaching are geared toward conveying core fundamentals including the role of the news media and how traditional print and broadcast media and bloggers work.
As already mentioned, media interview preparation including message development techniques and non-verbal and verbal message delivery are other important C4CS® media training components. We typically also prepare separate handouts on Media Interview Preparation Steps and Reporters' Interview Tactics And How To React and walk participants through what to do and what not to do before, during, and after media interviews using real life examples and anecdotes.
Do you also provide media training outside of the United States?
Yes, we do. A number of client partners use our media skills building services outside the U.S. We have worked with groups of managers and individual leaders in various countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. On an as needed basis we have utilized local videographers and TV studios as well as interpreters. Flexibility and the willingness to customize each media skills building session are the keys to success.
Some C4CS® client partners ask that a particular training format and basic content be used on an international basis. That makes sense for instance in conjunction with global policies covering traditional and social media interaction as well as the company-wide One-Voice Policy. However, certain country-specific components are almost always added to make sure the training is not too ethnocentric.
No matter the country or region, we often work with clients who tell us about their uneasiness when it comes to facing the media. Regardless of the geographic region, our training participants' concerns are usually rooted in a perceived lack of control in the process and unfamiliarity with the reporter and his or her motives. 'Is he or she out to get me?' is all too often the debilitating thought in the back of the mind. Our advice is the same to client partners in every country: training participants will do well when there is thorough training and preparation for each media interview opportunity, and when and they stick to their key messages.
How often should a company like ours offer media training through your firm?
That depends on a number of factors including the current level of media interview experience within the group of designated spokespersons, the number and importance of upcoming media interview opportunities, whether the company is expecting the emergence of strategic issues that will likely result in media attention, and so forth.
Most of our client partners want us to train a portion of their designated spokespersons as well as relevant topical experts at least once every year. In many cases, senior managers and communication professionals who are new to the company are automatically enrolled in group media training but may elect to go through one-on-one media skills coaching instead. Other companies open up refresher training to larger groups of managers and leave it to the individual manager to decide if she or he wants to go through our training.
The bottom line is this: We firmly believe and tell our client partners that on-camera media training and one-on-one media skills coaching is a critical skill-building tool. In fact, the skills acquired during our customized group media training and one-on-one media coaching not only assist in building critical communication skills for spokespersons and executives, but they build fundamental expertise in professional communication in any arena; from the boardroom to the newsroom to the break room.
In the end, practice makes perfect, as in every aspect of life. Simply put, consistent and ongoing on-camera media training and media skills coaching, along with seizing media interview opportunities, is going to enhance media interview skills and ultimately lead to success.
Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org should you have questions concerning our group media training and one-on-one media skills coaching.
If you would like to receive our C4CS® Media Training & Spokesperson Skills Building Q&A, please contact us at email@example.com.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Food For Thought
“If you don’t choose to do it in leadership time up front,
you do it in crisis management time down the road.”