The Fine Art of DAMAGE CONTROL In a crisis such as the Maryland fish kills, the manager must deal with all the victims, including natural systems

September 21, 1997|By C. FRASER SMITH

A killer floats through Maryland waters with unmeasured potential for death to fish and damage to fishermen, farmers, consumers - and to an entire state suddenly worried about its image as a land of pleasant living.

Eerily humanoid - looking like disembodied heads with ear- and tongue-like appendages - these microbes have plunged Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his administration into a classic public relations nightmare.

How to respond to something - not at all of your doing - that leaves hideous brands on fish, kills them and threatens humans with neurological injury? How to show a citizenry the problem has been addressed aggressively without frightening them or harming the state's economy?

With some exceptions, Glendening has been praised for his management style so far. Health and environmental experts call it a model of responsible action.

But spokesmen for the farming and fishing industry wonder if he has overreacted, and a political opponent says he didn't act quickly enough or with sufficient resources.

Others conclude that he has done about all he can do, done it decisively and tried to avoid panic, while continuing to comb any pond or creek where signs of Pfiesteria piscicida have been reported. Three waterways leading to the lower Chesapeake Bay have been closed so far.

Glendening's orders put him in step with the first rule of crisis management:

Protect people first, property second, say guidelines issued by the New York City-based Public Relations Society of America. Theirs is a discipline of growing importance for corporate executives and public officials - who are in positions to always wonder when the next Exxon Valdez or E. coli or tainted pain reliever or crashing airplane crisis will land in their laps.

"The goal," says James E. Lukaszewski, a consultant who once served as deputy press secretary to the governor of Minnesota, "is to reduce the potential for a big public health problem."

The crisis manager must "act conclusively" - and it is seldom the case, he says, that one can overreact in such circumstances. That lesson, he said, has been learned by businessmen who, in an earlier time, might have tried to deny or hide the real dimensions of a problem.

Many examples are cited:

When E. coli bacteria were found recently in ground beef shipped by Hudson Foods of Arkansas, Burger King immediately canceled its contract with that firm. It wanted its customers to have no doubt about its concern for their well-being. None.

Some action of this sort is essential, Lukaszewski says, in situations involving "leaking, foaming, burning, infecting or tainting." Every possible resource must be directed to finding a solution, he says - and it must occur even in the absence of certain scientific knowledge. The rules appear to be the same for public or private executives caught in the iron web of uncertainty.

In Maryland's crisis, some have said the cause is not sufficiently known. But Lukaszewski says the good crisis manager knows he will almost never have a conclusive scientific explanation - but he must still act "conclusively" and in a way that is, to the extent possible, beyond challenge from a public health point of view.

When an Ashland Oil tank exploded releasing a million gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh several years ago, its chief executive moved through the 17 affected cities and towns, taking immediate responsibility, paying for emergency water supplies and promising other assistance. Company lawyers had urged another course, fearing that these meliorative efforts would be, in effect, an admission of guilt. The CEO ignored them.

Taking responsibility is "a powerful litigation reduction strategy," says Lukaszewski. "Juries will be more sympathetic." And, if the executive is a governor or a mayor, so will voters.

The manager must deal with all the victims, including natural systems. In Maryland, the waterways and the deeply cherished Chesapeake Bay are potential victims as are watermen, and even chicken farmers - if they must find ways of eliminating the manure now thought to be flowing into the bay and creating conditions that allow the microorganism its most malevolent development.

If there is fault to be found, that would come much, much later.

Finally, the manager and his team must deal with the media. In truth, reporters and cameras are on hand and demanding answers from the start. But the crisis team and its leader must put its priority on solving the problem and caring for the victims before spending too much time on reporters. When that time comes, though, the smart manager will:

Always be honest and factual.

Always be the bearer of his own bad news: Someone else will tell the tale if he doesn't and not as well.

Handling matters of this sort can be a fairly simply process "if done right," says Professor James E. Grunig, who teaches public relations at the School of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

There are two keys, he says, beginning with accountability.

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