This is Not a Test

NO INDUSTRY IS IMMUNE to the threat of a crisis. Especially in the waste industry, people do not care that there has been a flood or hurricane. If they smell decomposing garbage or see piles of trash blocking their alleys, they want a quick resolution. Failure to address problems could hurt your reputation and bottom line.

A waste crisis could require dealing with a Superfund site, properly handling construction and demolition (C&D) materials, or maintaining driver safety. The common denominator is that all these events are easier to confront when a crisis communication plan exists.

A crisis communication plan is simple in theory and can greatly alleviate the stress and panic of unforeseeable problems. Preventive measures include maintaining an open relationship with stakeholders and employees through letters and meetings; reinforcing a commitment to safety with regular reviews; creating specific emergency procedures; furnishing maps, graphs and news release templates; establishing proper documentation with a legal team; and training a spokesperson to develop contacts with and communicate with the public.

Beyond knowing the elements of a comprehensive crisis plan, waste companies should ensure their employees know the step-by-step order in which to implement safety measures, reach emergency contacts, enact containment processes and manage any legal requirements. The first five things to do when a crisis hits are to respond quickly, use a spokesperson, express empathy, stick to the facts and track contacts.

A trained spokesperson will know how to approach confusing issues, such as explaining what defines normal landfill operations or chemical reactions to an unknowledgeable audience. Training a spokesperson before a crisis occurs allows the person to focus on the details of the event during critical periods. Having one spokesperson also presents a unified, clear and credible voice for the company to ensure that messages remain consistent and organized.

The spokesperson should be prepared to explain the situation quickly to those affected and to the media. The sooner a company can explain its side of the story, the less time it will spend correcting inaccuracies and combating confusion. Before issuing public statements, the spokesperson should gather facts from all sources and should identify key messages for employees, families and the press. To maintain employee morale, as well as to minimize public concern, the spokesperson should make information available and illustrate that the company is willing to take responsibility for its actions.

Some questions may require more time to properly answer. In such cases, the spokesperson should reply to calls but avoid inaccuracies and false estimates by committing to a later response time.

It is essential that a company demonstrate empathy for people affected. Employees need to focus on resolving the problem. But the spokesperson should emphasize that, beyond trying to correct the situation, the company understands the difficulty customers are facing. For instance, haulers collecting garbage after a hurricane likely will be focusing on regaining electricity for equipment, storing waste and keeping drivers safe under busy conditions. Yet haulers must acknowledge that customers are trying to juggle the recovery process, so should do their best to keep odors down and animals out of growing trash piles. Haulers also should illustrate that they appreciate their customers' patience.

A good crisis communication plan implements follow-up steps after the event. Be prepared to re-evaluate operations, including normal conditions and the crisis response. Although it is impossible to change what has already occurred, companies can learn from their experiences. For example, by filling out lessons-learned evaluations and continuing to build communication among employees, a company likely will recover faster and will maintain more confidence. Although keeping employees and communities safe takes priority, companies will want to examine how the crisis affected their reputations, revenue and future direction to pinpoint necessary improvements.

Crises cannot always be avoided, but being prepared with a crisis communications plan can be a helpful guide when accidents happen.