Surviving the future 101

by Joanie Spencer
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When my 5-year-old son experienced his first fire drill about two years ago, it scared him so badly that whenever he walks into a building, he still searches out the fire alarms, just in case. When I moderated the crisis planning panel at ASB’s BakingTech 2015 in Chicago last month, I could’ve pointed out the fire exits as an opener, you know, just in case, but alas, the little guy wasn’t there to point them out for me. 

“Coulda,” “woulda,” “shoulda” — words that inevitably follow the statement, “It can’t happen to me.” When I assembled my panelists, Sandy Whann, president of New Orleans-based Leidenheimer Baking Co., topped the list. Who better to speak about crisis preparedness than someone who rebuilt his business after surviving Hurricane Katrina and who, eight days after the storm, found himself standing ankle-deep in about 10,000 lb of melted yeast inside his darkened plant with armored trucks lumbering through the city’s remains outside?

But not everyone lives in hurricane country, and Mother Nature doesn’t dispatch every crisis, so I called upon Scott Skifstad, vice-president and risk control manager for Lockton Co. in Chicago, and Gini Dietrich, CEO, Arment Dietrich, Chicago, to speak about risk assessment and crisis communication, respectively. The panel presented an invaluable 360° view of what constitutes a crisis and what steps you can take to navigate whatever sort of disaster the future might hold.

Most companies don’t have a crystal ball in the board room, but a white board can be the next best thing. It all starts when you bring together your key stakeholders to brainstorm every possible worst-case scenario. Determine alert levels for your plant, from early to severe. “Each of these levels has specific instructions and responsibilities for all managers and employees,” Mr. Whann said.

Once you can identify what “crisis” means for your company, decide now how far to drill down. “What are the lengths you’re willing to go to, to work with employees, vendors and customers to get up and running? How bad does it have to be, and how far are you willing to go?” Mr. Whann asked.

It’s easy to assume — or even hope — that your insurance policy is ready and waiting for you when you need it. But hope isn’t a plan, and setting a plan is not the last step. Remember to take it out and dust it off regularly. Mr. Whann has group text lists set up in managers’ cell phones and makes sure the numbers, whether for internal or external contacts, are updated several times a year.

While technology can be on your side in a crisis, don’t forget that social media has the potential to create one, too. A crisis plan should include communication that uses social media as a tool and not an avenue for further destruction. Keep in mind that someone who knows how to use Twitter might not be an expert in crisis communication.

Crisis planning might feel like you’re inviting trouble, but take it from Mr. Whann: “You’ll think more clearly on a pretty spring afternoon than you will in the midst of chaos.”

As for me, I’m heading home so my kid can help me check the smoke detectors, you know, just in case.

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