Monday, September 12, 2011

9-11: Crisis Communication at Makovsky

The first plane struck.  One of my colleagues was alerted to it via cell phone by his secretary.  We turned the TV on and then off — assuming it was an unbelievable accident.  Our meeting resumed.  Twenty minutes later the phone rang again. We switched on the TV again, but this time the large conference room — filled with several industry leaders on the Council of PR Firms' Management Committee, which I led — decided to disband.
What was going on? Our initial feeling that this was a bizarre accident suddenly changed after the second tower was hit.  Were we at war?   That thought seemed too far-fetched.  As the committee filed out, the office manager walked in.  “People in the firm are concerned,” she said, “about what to do and where to go.”  I had no immediate answer.  As head of the firm, I knew I had to communicate to our nearly 70-person team.  But the thoughts and words were not coming.  And I was on edge, if only because I didn't know what to do.
Thinking fast, I suggested that one of our team go down to the police station around the corner. Perhaps the police could provide some recommended actions.   Until I got that information, I asked my assistant to gather our leadership for a meeting in my office.  While that message was getting out, I walked from office to office reassuring employees that we were trying to come up with solutions — and would have a firm-wide meeting in the large conference room shortly.
The police advised that everyone stay in their offices … and stay off the streets. There was trepidation among the troops — was the office really the best place to be?  Employees wanted to go home, but we were not sure if subways were running, plus there could be a danger in going out, as the police had told us. Our leadership suggested we bring food in for lunch and a supply of dry foods should we have to stay longer.  We also decided to book hotel rooms for everyone in the firm.
We had a firm-wide meeting and all of this was communicated.  As the day wore on, we discovered that the subways were running.  Even though we succeeded in booking rooms for all — and it was a considerable challenge — the firm started emptying out around 2:30pm.  By 3:00 you could've heard a pin drop.  We were closed the next day.

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