B2B Companies Need to Be Prepared for Crises Too

I attended a Minnesota Business Marketing Association breakfast yesterday that served as a reminder that crises can happen to B2B companies too, not just cruise ships. Unpleasant things happen – planes with executives crash, workers strike, products fail, plants close, tornadoes strike.

The speakers were Jon Austin, former spokesperson for Northwest Airlines and now with his own firm, and Paul Omodt, VP at Padilla Speer Beardsley and a former PR person for the Northwest chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. When I was in college in the Twin Cities, I saw Austin in the local media more than I saw the White House press secretary. You can imagine the issues they had to deal with.

Jon Austin at Minnesota BMA on Crisis Preparedness for B2B

Here’s the quick takeaways:

First, yes you probably need some kind of crisis plan, even as a B2B company. Think of Arthur Anderson.  Respected, in business for like a hundred years, and then thanks to the Enron collapse, out of business in the blink of an eye. Austin noted that what killed Arthur Anderson was not the lawsuits filed, because those took 10 years to get through the courts. Instead, in the first month or two after the Enron collapse, they had clients calling them up say, “We love you guys and know you didn’t have anything to do with what came down in Houston, but we just can’t have you signing off on our financial statements.” Reputation damage killed them.

As Austin put it: “Dinosaurs were pretty dominant at one time, and now they’re pretty damn dead.” Don’t be a dinosaur.

Second, drill on crisis plans. It’s time-consuming to put these things together and it can be a relief just to finish but without practicing their implementation, they are still likely to fail you. For one thing, people panic. Is this a crisis?  Do I really pull the trigger on this plan now?  Practice makes them comfortable. Second, it’s a great way to learn if it really works, if the roles are all covered. You don’t want to find out you haven’t adequately prepared for the likely contingency that your CEO will be oversees, your phone system will be swamped, and your email wil be down. It’s a chance to be comfortable with the plan and identify any weak spots in it.

Remember 9/11? Austin was with Fleishman-Hillard by then, working on the United Airlines account. The crisis plan called for flying all the key crisis team members to Chicago as a central coordination point. The team hadn’t considered the possibility that U.S. airspace could be completely closed down. Fortunately, Austin was able to drive to Chicago from Minneapolis, but you can bet all those airlines learned from that experience.

The more realistic the rehearsal the better. We have a great product offering that I’ve written about before called Firebell  for drilling on a crisis. The strength of Firebell is it’s been designed to simulate a crisis on a social world, letting you see not only what happens on the local TV news but also what happens on your Twitter account, Facebook and other social channels. (blog post on it or email me)

Finally, keep the plan refreshed. A reorg can eliminate a team of people important to executing the plan. New products are developed and old ones are sunsetted. New markets are entered. Crises are not viewed the same all over the world.

Interesting comment from Omodt – some insurance companies will lower your company’s premiums if they know you have an effective and up-to-date crisis plan in place – something to look into.

In closing, says Austin: “Be a mammal. Don’t be a dinosaur.”

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Aaron Pearson

Aaron Pearson is a senior vice president in the technology practice of Weber Shandwick, a global communications firm. He is also an adjunct instructor at the University of St. Thomas Opus School of Business, where he teaches a master’s course in communications technology. His B2B experience includes industries such as healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture, as well as functional audiences from IT to HR.

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