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Crisis Comm

by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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Russian Power Plant Disaster
August 17, 2009
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Emergency managers and communicators the world over are likely watching the disaster unfold at the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in Siberia. As I write this there are 8 confirmed deaths and 54 are missing. It is Russia's largest hydroelectric plant and feeds power to large aluminum plants in Siberia.

Why is this disaster important for emergency managers and PIOs today?

1) A few years ago such a disaster in a remote part of the world like Siberia, with news coming out of Russia, would be relatively unknown. We live in a global village and we can view video of such an event bringing it even closer to home. Lesson: Local events instantly become global events--and that means your disaster will too.

2) Hydroelectric power plants execs and PIOs need to prepare right now for the inevitable question from their local and even national media: Could this happen here? What impacts would be created if it did? Would you also not know where 54 workers were? What environmental damage would occur? What are you doing to protect lives and the environment? Every event of this magnitude brings attention to the risks of all others in the same or similar categories. When Virginia Tech shooting occurred, nearly every president of every college and university was asked if they would be able to alert students and faculty of the danger on their campus. This resulted in text notification business skyrocketing. Lesson: Prepare to answer questions for a Russian event as if it happened to you.

3) Where are the 54 workers? What is astounding to me is that at this hour they do not know how many are dead or missing because they do not know the location of 54 workers. If this happened in the US and I was a reporter, this is where I would focus in. What do you mean you don't know where they are? It instinctively looks like inadequate safety. Whether justified or not, managers of large facilities with many employees are having to account for them all the time in all conditions. I know one facility that has planned on putting RFID devices on plant staff to know their precise location all the time. In the near future, these will be tied to proximity-based notification alert systems so that those in danger will be given immediate instructions. Lesson: Employee security is a huge deal. Lesson: Know how you would answer this question and be prepared to be grilled by the media, families, investors and employees on what you are doing to protect employees and account for them at all times.

4) Environmental and economic damage. While the focus here is on the loss of life, this is one of those dreadful events that involves three significant outcomes together: loss of life, significant environmental damage and significant economic loss. In other words, worst case scenario. This virtually ensures that whoever is responsible will be dealing with the aftermath of this for a long, long time to come. After today, there may be no more international media on it--even as the death toll likely will mount. That's because today's media is completely focused on the immediate. They will be off onto some other global disaster or celebrity death. But the communication job, the repairing of trust, the legal issues, the long term impacts for those involved will go on for years and years. Lesson: the media comes and goes, but the job of recovery goes on and on.


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