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Actually, it is Rocket Science: How NASA’s Professional Crisis Management Can Help You Devise Your Own Crisis Management Plan.

June 22, 2016

No one goes looking for trouble, especially when you’re dealing with the normal day-to-day challenges of running a growing business. But it’s probably inevitable that sometime, sooner or later, trouble will find you. A crisis-level business challenge can land in your lap at almost any time.

Maybe one of your major suppliers goes on strike and interrupts your production schedule. Or there’s an accident at one of your facilities and someone is badly injured. Or an extended slump in business forces you to layoff good employees.

These things happen. And they happen to reputable companies all the time. But in the big picture, the important thing is not the business crisis itself, but how you and your company manage it.

developing a crisis plan

Why your business NEEDS a crisis management plan

Professional crisis management can make all the difference in the world. The way a crisis is handled can limit its damage and also have long-term effects on the organization’s image.

No one knows this better than the powers-that-be at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Despite high-level crises that have caused public embarrassment (Hubble Telescope) and, at the other extreme, loss of human life (Apollo 1, Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia), most polls indicate that NASA has widespread support from the American people. (Some polls show concern about some of the program’s costs, but that’s generally viewed as a different issue.)

Your company may never be subjected to the high level of scrutiny and type of crises that NASA officials have had to work through, but here are some points to remember when your company’s luck goes a little south.

Be prepared for all outcomes

It’s chilling to think about now, but if the worst possible scenario had played out during the Apollo 11 mission, leaving astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stranded on the moon’s surface, there were specific plans in place pertaining to how the news would be broken to the public.

It was learned much later that speechwriter William Safire had prepared remarks for President Nixon to deliver to the nation, had the unthinkable happened. Unsettling? Sure. But better to be morbidly prepared than left scrambling if the disaster had actually occurred.

(There was also a persistent rumor – or urban legend – of a second “rescue mission” Saturn V rocket prepared to launch from Cape Kennedy, had the lunar module not been able to liftoff. Absolutely impossible, for dozens of obvious reasons, but fun to think about.)

Professional Crisis Management Tip: Prepare a written crisis management plan for your business. A copy of the plan should be stored off-site and designate who speaks on behalf of the company; it should also list contact information for company officers, describe where copies of important documents can be located, and indicate where key personnel should meet if your facility can’t be accessed. 

Be open and honest, no matter what

More somber stuff: In January 1967, three astronauts lost their lives when fire broke out during a launch pad test for the Apollo 1 mission. Unfortunately, NASA personnel were less than forthcoming with information immediately after the accident. The media – and public – were told nothing for close to two hours after the fire. To make matters worse, the agency’s first public statement indicated that “a fatality” had occurred, when in fact there were three.

Fast forward to April, 1970, and the “Houston, we have a problem” Apollo 13 launch. An oxygen tank rupture forced the mission to be aborted, and there was a very real possibility that the astronauts would not return safely.

In a dramatic change from the reaction to the Apollo 1 situation, NASA called a news conference almost immediately, even going so far as to allow two reporters into mission control to hear communications with the astronauts.

NASA was widely praised for the speed and candor with which it addressed the crisis.

Professional Crisis Management Tip: Get the straight story out and deal with the fallout as soon as you can. But be smart, too – always enlist the advice of qualified legal and public relations counsel.

Be bold in your public message

Apollo 13 has been called a “successful failure,” because although the mission’s original objectives weren’t met, it proved that NASA could react to a near-disaster with an effective response. The “successful failure” label is ironic, because Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz had famously and boldly told his charges at mission control, “Failure is not an option.”

Notice that Kranz didn’t apologize (there would be time for that later, if necessary), didn’t show fear, and above all, didn’t give his team a way out. What he actually believed might happen is irrelevant. He was bold, and he faced the crisis head-on.

Professional Crisis Management Tip: You should usually tailor your message to who’s hearing it, but sometimes it really doesn’t matter. Kranz’s brazen statement, intended for the internal NASA audience, inspired confidence from anyone who heard it. 

Be deliberate in your response

Tragedy struck NASA again in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds into its tenth mission, leaving seven crew members dead. Problems with an o-ring seal were eventually determined to have caused the disaster.

NASA moved in a deliberate fashion. In the aftermath of Challenger, the space shuttle program was grounded for nearly three years, and thousands of hours of testing were conducted to minimize the risk of another o-ring failure.

While NASA temporarily may have lost the public’s confidence, the care it took in re-establishing the program in the wake of the accident created a foundation for future missions and endeavors that were successful. Had the agency tried to rush immediately back into more shuttle missions, public support – and perhaps congressional funding – could not have been guaranteed.

Professional Crisis Management Tip: After a crisis, make sure your stakeholders are aware of the efforts you’ve made to prevent a similar business challenge in the future, and of what you’ve learned.

making plans

A crisis management plan keeps your business moving forward

The challenging thing about crises is that they can often be near-impossible to see coming. A major crisis can certainly be a big setback for your business or organization, but with a proper crisis management plan, you can keep things moving forward as smoothly as possible. While not all crises can be prevented, they can all be managed with a bit of dedication and preparedness….just ask NASA!

Do you have a crisis management plan for your business? What questions do you still have about developing your plan? Leave us a comment below!

David Dalton
David has more than 10 years of experience writing about marketing, communications and business development issues, largely in the fields of medicine, healthcare and financial services. He earned his MBA at Case Western Reserve University in marketing/finance.
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