Like all of you, I was tuned to the Super Bowl in the third quarter despite the lopsided score when the Superdome’s lights went out. For several minutes no one knew what was happening. While Twitter exploded with possible explanations ranging from something as simple as a power surge to something as scary as an act of terrorism, the CBS broadcast announcers were at a loss to explain what happened for the millions of viewers. And no official explanation was provided by Superdome management (local company SMG), the local electric company or Super Bowl officials.
If you believe, like most of America, that the outage was a freak accident, then think again.
In 2003, when the Super Bowl was played in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, the media relations contact for San Diego Gas and Electric, which had been reeling from an energy crisis and rolling brownouts, had planned in advance of the game for the contingency of a stadium power outage. He and his communications team had a plan in place to provide written materials to explain the reason for the outage and had alerted the media at the Super Bowl before the game that a press briefing would occur five minutes after the outage in a predetermined location.
Conversely, in New Orleans — despite having experienced and managed the Hurricane Katrina crisis — there was no press briefing or plan in place, just ad hoc pronouncements to CBS officials that never explained the reason or how long it would take to restore power. Why had officials a decade earlier prepared for this potential crisis while those in charge this year apparently did not? And what lessons can lawyers and those responsible for communications take from the Super Bowl power outage to ensure that similar "surprise" situations do not emerge?
There are very few Manti Te’o situations out there that are all but impossible to prepare for. Not many of us can say we’ve been "catfished," or tricked by fake girlfriends and fallen in love while under the microscope and intense spotlight of the national media. Rather, the situations and scenarios that can cause us to lose sleep are able to be prevented, or at least handled in a manageable way that won’t inflict significant financial, physical or emotional harm. What steps can you or your firm take now to prevent a crisis from occurring or at least from unleashing greater damage?
First, it is vital to conduct a vulnerability or risk assessment of your firm or organization to uncover all areas of operational and communications weakness and to identify potential solutions. This exercise will look at every department and ask what could cause significant disruptions or reputational damage. Because most firms do not have unbiased internal candidates to conduct such assessments, it is best to work with an outside consultant who can look at your organization with a pair of untainted eyes and provide fresh recommendations.
But if you are not in a financial or structural position to work with an external professional, then make sure that whomever is charged with conducting the assessment looks for factors that can lead to trouble: a large number of changes in personnel, especially leadership; changes in industry laws or regulations; changes in media contacts covering your industry; and changes in your organization’s business strategy.
Next, brainstorm with individuals at your firm on all the potential crisis scenarios that could occur at your organization. Begin to think about potential responses, about best- and worst-case scenarios and how in some instances you can prevent crises from occurring by simply modifying how your organization operates.
Use the scenarios as the basis for developing a crisis response plan. Some common scenarios resulting from the aforementioned factors include facilities emergencies (e.g., a fire or theft); Internet or data emergencies (e.g., online reputation attack on Facebook or Twitter, a hacked website or data breach); leadership emergencies (e.g., CEO turnover caused by malfeasance, illness/death or retirement); industry-specific emergencies (e.g., environmental damage or power outage) and employee emergencies (e.g., layoffs or a work stoppage).
If you know your vulnerabilities in advance, you will avoid many crises or certainly minimize their impact. While the range of questions and activities comprising a vulnerability audit are too vast to include here, some typical questions would be: If your business were unavailable starting tonight and you had no advance warning, where would everyone go to work and how would you conduct business remotely, and how would you retrieve contact information for all important audiences, including employees, customers, clients and others?
When you look at the cost of being prepared for a crisis, both in terms of time and money, it is understandable why so many organizations choose to forego the investment. However, by hoping nothing bad happens and keeping your head in the sand, you are risking costs far greater than the time and resources well spent to avoid such damage.
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management, and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.