Mike McCown never gave a thought to developing a crisis communications plan or defending his storage facility against bad publicity until terrible news arrived on his doorstep.
McCown, who manufactures hydraulic torque wrenches for a living, built the 130-unit My Space Mini Storage facility across the creek from his home in Charleston, WV, in 2006 as retirement income. He had no idea he’d unwittingly rented to the tenant from hell until his daughter rushed in one warm evening last June with news that gunshots were ringing out at his facility.
‘There Was Blood Everywhere’
Outside Unit 127, “there was blood everywhere,” McCown recalled. The cops came at his request; the TV news crews followed. The tenant, whom McCown had never met, turned out to be a convicted felon. The weapon? A stolen AR-15 assault rifle.
Inside the unit, police found a makeshift meth lab, despite the intentional absence of water or electrical outlets throughout McCown’s facility. “There’s apparently something called ‘shake and bake’ now,” said McGown, referring to a meth-making technique that requires neither.
“Long story short, the local authorities required me to test all 54 units in this set of buildings at $75 apiece, and they found that 14 of them were ‘hot,’” McCown said. “That meant that most of those people’s stuff had to be thrown away.”
Facility for Sale
Six months and $39,000 in haz-mat cleanup costs later, McCown’s occupancy is off 20 percent—a minor miracle that he attributes to having called the police immediately.
“They didn’t put up the big plywood ‘You’re a bad person’ condemned signs on my building, just stickers on those units,” he said. “They knew I wasn’t a fly-by-night operator.”
This spring, he plans to erect a sign of his own. It will say “For Sale.”
“This was enough,” McCown acknowledged. “The stress from having to tell people their stuff was bad just about killed me. What could I have done differently?”
Jonathan Bernstein makes his living answering that very question. As president of Bernstein Crisis Management and author of “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management” and “Keeping the Wolves at Bay,” Bernstein said preparation is the key to damage control.
“Unfortunately, most businesses are unprepared, even the big ones,” he said. “It’s a question of coming across as compassionate, confident and competent.”
To do that requires a crisis plan. Here are eight steps to get any owner or operator started,
1. Assess Your Risks.
What could possibly draw the authorities and the media to your facility? Fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and illegal activities may top the list, depending on your location. You can do a risk assessment “with friendly competitors in our area because your situations are so similar,” Bernstein suggested.
2. Band Together.
Competitors do this in the hotel and restaurant industries all the time, especially along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. “They use each other’s facilities as backup if their facilities go down for a gas leak, fire or other crisis,” Bernstein explained. “Storage facilities can do the same thing, say to make space available in an emergency.”
3. Learn the Basics.
Crisis communication shouldn’t be any more complicated than your closing-up-for-the-night routine. Bernstein’s books and others provide simple roadmaps any business can use to identify its spokesmen, define its message, notify its customers and keep its stakeholders in the loop.
4. Choose and Train Your Team.
Is an employee or family member a caring listener? Bernstein said you should slot that person for post-crisis phone duty “because they’re going to be dealing with a lot of anger, fear and anxiety.” Everyone else needs to understand that a crisis automatically enlists him or her as a potential spokesman. The mission? “Compassion, honesty and humility,” he said.
5. Monitor the Buzz.
Word travels fast on social media, “but don’t start getting involved there during a crisis. If you do, you’re at a real disadvantage,” Bernstein warned. “Every small business should at least be on Twitter and Facebook before anything hits the fan.”
6. Prepare “Holding” Statements.
“Holding” statements are verbal placeholders your team can use during a crisis until more facts are known or can be released. A sample: “Our hearts go out to those in harm’s way. Our crisis team will issue updates as they become available.”
7. Don’t Respond Emotionally.
“If negativity is getting any traction, it can do a lot of damage,” Bernstein said. “If they’re going to be talking about you, you’re better off participating in the discussion, but don’t respond in kind. If there are clearly factual errors, you need to correct those compassionately.”
8. Review Your Response.
“It’s always worth looking back to see if there’s something you could have done better, either to prevent the crisis or respond to it,” Bernstein said.
David Blum, president of Florida-based storage management and consulting firm Better Management Systems, has overseen emergency response at several storage facilities after fires, hurricanes and even hazardous waste incidents. He’s sold on the need for preparation.
“We’ve always used an emergency manual that we prepare that has a whole agenda for dealing with different types of crises,” he said.
Manual aside, Blum said the secret to surviving a crisis is a clear chain of command.
“You want to determine in advance who is going to handle what, especially if it’s a newsworthy situation,” he said. “Managers need to be coached on who the responsible individual is to deal with that situation. Don’t necessarily leave it in the manager’s hands.”
He added: “The best thing you can do is coach a manager to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not authorized to have any conversation about this. You need to speak to so-and-so.’ But they have to be coached on a regular basis because you never know when a crisis is going to hit. You don’t want them to get flustered.”
Photo of Mike McCown courtesy of the Charleston Gazette