Scare Tactics: Reacting to a Crisis Without Panic

How will employees at your company react if a real crisis hits? Here's what to do to keep panic at bay.

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From his office on the 29th floor of Verizon's Manhattan headquarters, Trainor has a clear view of the patch of blue sky where the World Trade Center towers stood. "That incident raised the consciousness of people about evacuations," he says. "In most cases, evacuating is the right thing to do; in some cases, it may not be. But the most important thing to do is to assess the facts, determine the best course of action and let employees know about it as quickly as you can."

When the terror threat level is raised, Sypult sends out a notice to Edison's key managers and supervisors and to the company's emergency response coordinators telling them exactly what the company knows. The government doesn't usually provide much information, but Sypult works with the Department of Homeland Security on electric-sector security issues. If there are no known threats directed at the electric industry, he makes sure employees know that. At the same time, "if unreliable information surfaced that suggested we had been targeted," says Sypult, "the worst thing I could do would be to hit the panic button and send that information out across the company." It's a balancing act.

When security messages are watered down or employees feel the company is not giving them all the information it has, mistrust and panic can result. "If we lie to our employees, if we insult them and dumb down the message, we lose some credibility," says Steven Kuhr, senior vice president and practice leader of Kroll's Emergency Management Group.

Hydro One received a bomb threat a few years ago that turned out to be a hoax. However, an actual object that was made to look like a bomb was placed in the building. While the search was going on, employees started to question what was happening. The security team announced that it was looking for a "suspicious article," but because of significant evidence that it was likely a hoax, the team was careful not to panic people by saying it was a bomb. "Be honest," says Price. "Don't communicate something that's not true. Tell them what you can, but not something that hasn't been confirmed."

During a crisis, misinformation can also run rampant. Like a game of telephone, the details of a security incident can become distorted as the information is passed from person to person. To counteract that, some companies have set up rumor hotlines that provide employees with accurate information and dispel rumors. The hotline operates only in an emergency, but Noznesky's employees know that they have one central place where they can get timely and factual information.

espite all the carefully crafted communication and drills, it's inevitable that during an emergency some people will panic. But if the people around them remain confident, anxiety can be kept to a minimum. The security coordinators on the front lines need to be trained to manage employees who have become overanxious.

The first step is to remove nonessential people from the scene so that panic doesn't spread. When UNC's Wilson was leading a seminar for fearful fliers, he saw how quickly panic could spread among the already anxious. His solution was to isolate those passengers at the first sign of panic. "If one person is escalating emotionally, separate him off physically," he says. "Pull him 6 feet away from the other people and then calm him down and give him some instruction on what he needs to do."

In a case where you have panicked people who need to follow instructions, Wilson suggests getting a little tough with them. "If they're not focusing, walk up to them, put your face in theirs, hold onto their shoulders and say, 'Look at me! Listen to what I'm saying.' You have a responsibility in that moment," says Wilson.

Often the most panicked people are bystanders who become extremely fearful but have no outlet for that energy. If a person overcome with emotion is not essential to the task at hand, sometimes the best solution is to give him some busywork to focus on. Give him something to deliver to another department. Instruct him not to run but to get it there as quickly as possible. During a crisis, activity can be calming.

The keys to preventing panic are good training and preparation. With well-crafted plans and well-trained people, panic and chaos can be minimized. "There's always the potential for limited panic," says Noznesky. "Employees see a lot of craziness in the world. They just want a sense of comfort that they're safe at work."

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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