Sunday, May 02, 2004

Battling Ghosts 

All crisis manuals tell you that to fight a crisis, you start with facts. If you don't have facts, don't speculate. Well, what if you can't get facts? The dirty secret of crises is that facts you need aren't readily available and while news is breaking all about, you are desperately short of real information to pass along. Hence, news outruns the organization, and the organization is placed in a perpetual catch-up mode -- a lousy place to be.

I have long thought that is what happened to Union Carbide at Bhopal. The cloud of poisonous gas escaped and enveloped the shantytown outside its gates and was gone before the company in Connecticut could react. Meanwhile news media rushed to the site and broadcast horrendous images of the dead sprawled on the streets -- men, women and children, old and young. The ghastliness of the incident and the surge of rumors left Union Carbide on the defensive from the instant it heard about the accident or sabotage, depending on your interpretation of what happened.

In other words, the company never had a chance to defend itself. Lest you think this was a special situation that rarely repeats, let me disabuse you of that notion. Any company with foreign operations in remote parts of the world faces the same situation. All the crisis preparation one can do will not make up for an inability to get facts from a remote site in time to handle a 24 hour news cycle.

Like it or not, international crisis work is battling ghosts.


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