Friday, August 29, 2008
A check of Sunrise Propane's web site (http://www.sunrisepropane.com/) tells us about the company's emphasis on safety and its superior local service, and asks us innocently and rhetorically, "What do you expect from your propane company?" Nowhere is there information on the explosion, regrets about the fatality, or steps taken to prevent revocation of its license. Here's a rhetorical question of my own: What's the use of a web site if it isn't to keep key constituents informed in a timely way?
The Propane Gas Association of Canada, on the other hand, had a well-crafted statement ready almost immediately (http://www.canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/4401), even though Sunrise isn't even a member. "The thoughts of the PGAC and its members are with the people who have been affected by today’s propane-related incident in the Toronto area," the media statement began. It also discussed the industry's commitment to safety, the relative safety and importance of the product, and existing regulations that, when followed, ensure the safe handling of propane.
Well before the Sunrise explosion, the PGAC was urging members to develop media statements in advance of incidents and have a plan in case of a crisis. That's excellent advice. I hope the PGAC also would remind its members that two-thirds of all crises are of the smoldering variety. Only a few crises come with fireballs, which means we all need to plan for the smoldering crises, too.
The Bluegrass Communities at Oakwood is a perfect example. It's the largest center for adults with mental and physical disabilities in Kentucky, with more than 200 residents. In September 2005, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decertified Oakwood because of abuse and neglect of residents. Kentucky appealed, so the federal funding continued. But in May of this year, the appeal was denied, and the state had to assume $3.5 million a month in expenses no longer covered by the feds.
Oakwood was cited for 24 serious citations for incidents of abuse and neglect in 2005 and 2006. Among the charges, according to Attorney General Greg Stumbo, were:
- A caretaker was accused of (and indicted for) assaulting a resident with his fists.
- Caretakers failed to monitor a patient who was known to be on a ground-food diet and allowed him to stuff a hot dog into his mouth, which caused an airway obstruction and death.
- A caretaker is alleged to have assaulted a total of six patients, causing physical injury to all. The caretaker was arrested by the Kentucky State Police.
- A caretaker was accused of dragging a patient across the floor by his shirt collar, striking his head against the wall and then kicking him the back with her foot.
The list goes on. You get the ugly idea. The Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board took over operation of Oakwood in November 2006. Of Oakwood’s nearly 1,300 staff members, “every single one is a loving, caring individual,” said CEO Joe Toy. That wasn’t the case when he started there and fired more than 100 employees. "I don’t feel bad about one of them.” Cameras have been installed to monitor employee behavior for possible abuse. Oakwood appears to have turned the corner. (http://www.somerset-kentucky.com/local/local_story_218065159.html)
"It can't happen at my facility," say CEOs, directors, and board members of group homes. Ah, but it might. Even in a sparklingly run facility, residents' accusations of wrongdoing can have the same effect as actual abuse. Bad employees can be good actors during job interviews and good liars during investigations. Bookkeepers have access to funds that are taxpayer dollars. And the existing executive director may be the salt of the earth, but you never know about the person who will follow.
I know of a home for abused and neglected children whose board fired its executive director. He took trumped-up evidence of inspection fraud to the news media in an unsuccessful attempt at revenge. It turned out to be a small, one-day TV news story -- and a crisis narrowly averted.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the kids and developmentally disabled that populate group treatment homes. Please: Develop a crisis communications plan and practice it so that your service to our most vulnerable populations can be the best it can be. It could save you your reputation as well as your funding.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Does Your Organization Have a Clear Leadership Succession Plan? Much at Stake for Donors, Shareholders
The events unfolding within the Justice Resource Center this month are a reminder to us that, whether we are a small non-profit or a large, international organization, we need to have some sort of succession plan in place. What will happen if the director, owner, or CEO dies suddenly? Will the leadership transition be a smooth, harmonious one, or will it be like what the Justice Resource Center is experiencing? Without such a plan, you are sitting on a smoldering crisis.
The JRC board appointed a long-time hard worker named Mattie Jones as interim executive director in July. But board members at a meeting last week expressed concerns that the organization wasn't moving in the right direction and lacked visibility in the community. Apparently, feelings were hurt and the discussion took a nasty turn. Jones angrily left the meeting. Remaining board members took that as her resignation and appointed another board member, the Rev. James Tennyson, as the new interim director. Jones later claimed she didn't resign, and that those voting weren't really legally elected, active board members. In fact, the last JRC annual report listed just three board members. Jones is considering legal action or she may start her own organization. The group is splintered and weakened, at least temporarily.
Rev. Coleman, even after his semi-retirement a couple years ago, was synonymous with the Justice Resource Center. He made the decisions, he knew the organizational history, he knew the priorities and the programs. Even though others had been given a light hand on the reigns, Rev. Coleman remained the driver. But now, his energy is suddenly and unexpectedly gone. If the board had appointed an assistant director with a clear road to the top while Rev. Coleman was still with us, the in-fighting probably could have been prevented. Rev. Coleman wasn't the most organized leader I've ever seen, so it came as no surprise that no one is sure who is on the board of directors. The board probably never had to make any big decisions anyway, because if Rev. Coleman said that A, B, and C were priorities, no one was going to push for D and E.
We need succession plans for leadership in our organizations. That can be critical in corporations, where a ragged changing of the guard inevitably leads to a big hit on stock prices. We never know when the top person may die, resign, or be arrested. (The Institute for Crisis Management's media tracking has determined that 52% of all smoldering crises averaged over the last 10 years are due to management actions, or lack of.) Someone needs to be tagged #2 and know intimately what is going on so that an unexpected transition at the top will be as seamless as possible.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
- Reporter James Pinkerton paints a picture of de la Torre as a nice man who once ran a successful business. But Richard Harris, a longtime driver who worked for Angel Tours from 2003 to 2006, said Angel de la Torre, after his divorce in 2004, began to reduce maintenance, driver pay and drug testing as he bought another home and took on child support. "He was cutting back, real far back, that's why he couldn't get a real good quality of driver — he wasn't paying," Harris said. He added that de la Torre also kept few of the required federal records on his drivers and put off serious mechanical repairs. "I went though Angel's files with a fine-toothed comb," said Harris, who was once a safety director for another bus company. Lesson learned: High expenses and low income are a smoldering crisis. Sound like the financial picture for a lot of companies today? Cutting corners on safety, salaries, or capital are red flags. Existing and former disgruntled employees (Harris said he left Angel Tours over concerns about working conditions) are credible and ready news sources. Be ready to counter their allegations.
- De la Torre did not return phone calls from the reporter. The attorney who is defending de la Torre in a civil suit brought by victims of the fatal accident said, "I can't let him talk to anyone, right now — there is a federal investigation going on." Lesson learned: Your crisis communications plan should have a statement that could be delivered to the media in times of organizational and individual stress: "Mr. de la Torre can't comment because of the civil suit and federal investigation. But he asked me to tell you that he can't begin to express his condolences to the families of those who died and were injured in the Sherman accident. His heart goes out to the victims. He also said he is cooperating fully with the investigation, providing records and access to employees as requested. Mr. de la Torre wants to do all he can to contribute to minimizing tragedies like this in the future, for any and all bus lines." I know the lawyers would need to tweak some of my language. But isn't that better than the attorney stating, "I can't let him talk to anyone"? And is the attorney the best spokesperson? Sometimes yes. Usually no.
- I like the quote of a rival bus company owner. Joellen Howell of Time to Travel & Tours hired de la Torre to help with charters when her company couldn't handle all its passengers. She said she was surprised about Angel Tours' safety record, but added, "People put buses out on the road all the time that are unsafe, held together by baling wire, and hope for the best." Whoa, does she mean her company does it too? Lesson learned: When you are interviewed about another company's problems, it's an opportunity to distance yourself from the controversy. Don't suggest that lots do it and pray no one dies from it. Talk about your own strict safety standards. That might not make it into the story, but it's better than her unsafe-buses-are-put-on-the-road-all-the-time tactic.
What's going on in your industry these days? What "bus crashes" could have an impact on your business?
Saturday, August 23, 2008
I wrote about a fatal bus accident below. Since then, another bus accident near the Dallas Zoo is raising questions about that driver's fitness to drive (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5959236.html). He was convicted of drunk driving in the late '90s and of driving without insurance in the early '90s. Clearly, Texas reporters have their antennae fully extended when it comes to bus safety.
A postscript to the bus accident post below: Autobuses Rio Verde of Irving, Texas, was ordered to halt operations Friday after the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration determined it was too closely connected with the firm involved in the fatal accident in Sherman, according to The Dallas Morning News (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/business/5961979.html). The FMCSA said the two companies shared "identification of company officials and functions, physical addresses, vehicle ownership, employee identification and operational similarities." Angel Tours and Iguala BusMex also operated under the leadership of owner Angel de la Torre. By my count, that's three pseudonyms for Angel Tours, which was ordered off the roads for safety issues in April.
If you operate a bus company, you need to contact your elected officials, emphasize safety messages on your web site and in company literature, seek opportunities to reach the media and general public, reassure employees you are on top of the safety issue and make sure they know you mean business when it comes to compliance, and arm yourself with your company's safety statistics. According to InjuryBoard.com (http://charlottesville.injuryboard.com/tractor-trailer-accidents/increased-scrutiny-for-bus-industry-due-to-recent-crashes.aspx?googleid=246020), "Texas legislators and safety experts have asked for tougher enforcement of motor carrier regulations after an illegal bus crashed in North Texas, killing seventeen Vietnamese Catholics from Houston. The bus, which was owned and operated by Angel de la Torre, was illegal because the operator was barred twice from traveling outside of Texas under two different company names. The owner lost his permit, reapplied, and was allowed to continue to operate. Federal investigators are currently sifting through the wreckage, trying to find what went wrong so a tragedy like this will never happen again. Lawmakers in Austin and Washington echoed this sentiment after two more crashes this weekend in Mississippi and Nevada put the issue of bus safety on every politician’s agenda."
Sunday, August 17, 2008
That's some logical thinking that I could shoot full of holes -- if I were a heat-packing teacher in Harrold. It reminds me of an episode of All in the Family, when Archie Bunker went on TV and editorialized that airlines should pass out guns to the passengers when they board the plane, then collect them when they leave. No hijacker would dare try anything with all those firearms around.
Thank goodness my teachers didn't carry guns! I remember several who would have been looking for me.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
These words are from the web site of Angel Tours in Houston (http://www.angeltours.net/home.nxg). This is a company in crisis, yet there's no response on its own web site. I can find no statements in the media from anyone in the company. Its voice mail is full and not accepting messages. Can Angel Tours be any more irresponsible? The unfortunate answer is yes.
An Angel charter bus carrying members of a Vietnamese Catholic group from Houston crashed Friday, August 8, in Sherman, Texas, killing 12 people at the scene and five others who died later at hospitals. If this had been an airline crash, we would have seen quick response from the company. Typically, the CEO flies to the scene, makes a statement of condolence, vows to work with investigators, and provides immediate assistance for survivors (if any) and their families.
There are reasons why Angel Tours isn't following the airlines' model of crisis communications. The silence probably has something to do with:
- The bus driver was issued citations for DWI in 2001 and for speeding in 2004 and 2007.
- The driver failed roadside inspections twice last year and inspectors pulled his bus out of service both times.
- Angel Tours was forced by federal regulators to take all its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review. Three days later, the president and owner, Angel de la Torre, applied for certification to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) under the name Iguala BusMax. Neither company reportedly was authorized to operate as a carrier last Friday.
- The National Transportation Safety Board said the bus's right front tire, which blew out, had been retreaded. Retreaded tires cannot be used on the steering axle.
- Inspectors found a bus registered to Iguala BusMex operating in Carthage, Missouri, and pulled it out of service last weekend after it failed inspection.
- Texas Department of Public Safety troopers reported at least 22 pages detailing 65 violations by Angel buses and drivers between 2005 and June of this year. Violations include safety shortcomings such as faulty brakes, leaking fuel lines, broken shock absorbers, chafed brake hoses, leaking tires or tires with insufficient tread, cracked windshields, and discharged fire extinguishers. Company bus drivers were cited for operating buses without required corrective glasses, without holding current medical certificates, without updated commercial licenses, and for failing to include information on mandatory driver's logs. (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5933061.html)
- Two Texas prosecutors say they are considering criminal charges. The district attorney in Grayson County said that he also would likely be communicating with federal prosecutors to see whether a case could be made regarding safety violations. In addition, a Harris County prosecutor told The Dallas Morning News she could not rule out criminal charges against the motorcoach owner and president. (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/5939014.html)
- Following the Texas accident, FMCSA called Angel Tours an "imminent hazard" that must immediately cease all commercial operations. An "Operations Out-of-Service Order" was issued to Angel Tours, Inc., Iguala BusMex, Inc. , and each of its officers and directors "based upon their present state of unacceptable safety compliance and their failure to adequately establish safety management systems and ensure their vehicles are properly maintained." A second order was issued specifically to de la Torre, who owns and runs both Angel Tours and Iguala BusMex. The FMCSA document adds, "Angel Tours' continuity of operation through Iguala demonstrates a blatant disregard for previous FMCSA Out-of-Service Orders, which was issued based upon the company's substandard safety record. The operations of Angel Tours and Iguala have now reached the point where they constitute an imminent hazard to the public." (http://www.borderfirereport.net/latest/fmcsa-declares-angel-tours-inc.-and-iguala-busmex-inc.-an-imminent-hazard-to-public-safety.html)
Enough said. Apparently, that's also the basis of Angel Tours' crisis communications strategy.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
That last scenario is what happened in the late ‘90s to a chemical plant in Moss Point, Mississippi. Moss Point is a small community along the Gulf of Mexico, adjacent to Pascagoula, not far east of Biloxi. In that part of the country, much of the area’s livelihood and quality of life depend on clean water and a healthy ecosystem. Drinking water comes from the shallow water table. The community counted on a Morton International plant to keep water emissions to a minimum – and then get cleaner still.
The plant’s environmental manager, apparently over-zealous and over-protective of his employer, decided to falsify water discharge records. He got caught when he was out of the plant and an employee’s search through the environmental records discovered whited-out figures on reports faxed to government regulators. He was changing the numbers before faxing them, even though the original numbers were within permitted levels.
My employer at the time, Rohm and Haas, bought Morton International and this smoldering-turned-sudden crisis a short time later. Rohm and Haas negotiated with EPA and the Justice Department for several years before agreeing to fines and supplemental environmental projects that amounted to the highest fine ever levied against a single employer: $42 million, if my memory serves me correctly. The employee was convicted of a felony.
In 2000, I was asked to help the Moss Point plant develop a more positive presence in the community. Working to my advantage was a new name and new owner for the plant. We had a credibility that the old Morton organization would have been more challenged to restore. I started a community advisory panel as one way to create better transparency for the plant. I made inroads in schools, I found ways to get the name of Rohm and Haas known, and I created a contributions budget tied to strategic priorities.
What can we learn from this story? First, that your crisis communications plan must prepare your organization for all feasible management and employee-derived crises. On the operations side, be sure to have a system of checks and balances that reduce the risks from one person having total access to information. And third, begin building good will in the community before a crisis strikes, not after. You don’t want people to hear your name for the first time when one of your key managers is being dragged to jail.