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Hurricane Sandy's Crisis-Management Lessons for Business

Salvage something good from the frakenstorm by learning from the competent government response to improve your crisis management skills.

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Hurricane Sandy was exceptional in many ways, almost all of them negative. But along with its once-in-a-generation destructive power and record-setting size, the storm was special in at least one positive way--the government actually seems to be doing a fairly good job of responding to the crisis. 

"That the loss of life was not far greater…owed much to the emergency response of the authorities," writes the generally sober Economist, which adds: "[Local officials] were ably supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, partially offsetting its ignominy in New Orleans in 2005."

That competence is of course good news for those in the path of the storm, but does it also hold lessons in crisis management for business?

A handful of crisis-management experts think it can. While hopefully your business won't be facing problems on the scale of Sandy again any time soon, the principles of solid crisis management demonstrated by the authorities during Sandy can apply to lesser emergencies. Here's what you can take away:

There's No Such Thing as Too Much Communication

"During the storm, the president was calling governors and other officials in affected states to stress the administration's support and to hear about their needs. He communicated to the American public and ensured the availability of information about first responders, the number of FEMA officials deployed to the field, where and how to file claims, and other facts that, in the past, often took much longer to learn," Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, writes on the HBR Blog Network in praise of Obama.

Businesses can also win plaudits and cement customer relationships by reaching out and being both informative and personal in times of crisis. As Jeremy Quittner points out here in Inc.com, Fab and Zipcar both won loyalty by sharing their stories with customers and offering assistance, while a very human e-mail from the owner of a boxing gym in lower Manhattan bucked up fellow storm victims and won him some press from Business Insider.

Social media, an in-house blog and a smartphone app helped FEMA stay in touch during the hurricane, according to the Project on Government Oversight blog. Similarly, using any and all available channels could help you reach out to customers in a crisis.

Don't Play Hot Potato

The Project on Government Oversight also gives the government high marks for cooperation, coordination, and the agencies' ability to work together without buck-passing or starting turf wars.

"FEMA posted information… about how their federal partners were taking action to respond to the crisis. In coordination with Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA was able to activate ambulance contracts to support state requirements to evacuate patients if necessary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed temporary emergency power teams, and Department of Energy worked with state and local partners to mobilize," reports the post.

Your business should follow suit in a crisis, according to HBR's Stiller Rikleen, who favorably compares the cooperation after Sandy to BP's bungled response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. "Both [President Obama and Governor Christie| chose to focus in a clear-eyed way on disaster relief, and in so doing, demonstrated bipartisanship," she writes. "Contrast their actions with those of then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, who seemed more focused on shifting the blame than on capping the well."

Be There, and Get Your Hands Dirty

Delegation is generally a good thing, but in a crisis on-the-ground knowledge and in-person leadership are irreplaceable.

"By touring some of the hardest hit areas, the president and the governor were able to personally witness the physical scale of the calamity and the human toll. Written reports to leaders are not an adequate substitute for first-hand observations," says Stiller Rikleen.

Lead and Empower Your Team

When it's crunch time, make sure your team knows exactly what you expect from them. "The President directed federal employees to return all calls within 15 minutes. He also ordered them to figure out how to say 'yes' instead of 'no' to requests for aid," Stiller Rikleen reports, adding "giving clear directives like that is critical."

But it's not enough to convey your (high) expectations. You also have to empower your team and demonstrate you trust them. Which is just what Mayor Bloomberg did according to Government Executive. "In every press conference… Bloomberg had the leaders of the relevant city agencies lined up behind him," Scott Eblin writes. "Bloomberg went out of his way to recognize specific leaders and their agencies for the work they were doing."

 

Last updated: Nov 8, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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