Before he got into his current line of work, David Draper was a Utah-based firefighter. “In the fire department, we’d spend 90% of our time preparing for the 10% of the time we’d be out fighting the big wildfires we have out here in the West,” he says.
It’s the same in the world of modern crisis management, says Draper, who today is VP of client success for Nuvi, a Lehi, Utah-based “social listening service.” Nuvi monitors social media on behalf of clients as a means of identifying virtual and real-world threats to safety or reputation that, like wildfires, also tend to spread quickly, make for sensational but terrifying visuals, and can do real damage.
“Many companies do not realize all they need to do to prepare for a crisis,” says Draper, whose firm creates custom reports on social media mentions to help its clients prepare to deal with issues as benign as a customer complaint and as serious a bomb threat. “They want to be ready, but they don’t know how to do it.”
The notion of crisis management as a fire to be fought—and the importance of practiced “fire drills” as a means for companies to prepare for them—is a common theme in today’s social media-influenced culture, where narratives on a story that might once have been addressable with a standard crisis response and a well-written press release can scorch the Earth on the lightning-fast and unpredictable energy of social media.
"A State of Preparedness"
“A state of preparedness happens before a crisis hits,” says Tracy Pawelski, former VP of external communications with Ahold USA who now works with PPO&S, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based advertising agency. “If you haven’t conducted your crisis planning ahead of time, you can’t be fast enough to respond no matter how agile you think you are. The public expects transparency and demands immediate action. It’s not easy to be fast and careful at the same time. It’s one of the biggest challenges [for businesses these days].”
U.S. supermarket retailers tend to be resilient and experienced crisis managers in general. Many have had their response teams tested time and again by foodborne illness scares and product recalls. And their positions as outlets for everyday necessities in the communities they serve means preparing for and recovering from weather-related events swiftly. Retailers such as Publix Super Markets, H-E-B and Southeastern Grocers rightly take pride in having honed their storm prep to a point at which disaster has become an opportunity to win not only sales but trust and loyalty.
Food retailers, however, need to be prepared to apply the same discipline, as the threats to their brands and customers multiply amid viral scandals, increasing incidents of catastrophic gun violence, terror and other dangerous realities of the 21st century.
Changing Times, Changing Threats
“The retail grocery industry takes crisis planning and preparedness very seriously, and has a lot of experience responding quickly to public safety issues like product recalls,” says Pawelski. “But the threats continue to morph, requiring the industry to update their scenario planning, conduct regular training with front-line associates and invest in new defensive systems. Traditional crises such as food safety issues, product tampering, labor disputes and supply chain disruptions still exist, but the industry now needs to anticipate the potential for cyberattacks, bioterrorism and active shooter scenarios.”
Supermarkets and supercenters have been the site of at least 10 active shooter incidents over the past 10 years, according to the FBI, which defines such events as incidents where “one or more individuals actively engage in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” While such incidents still account for only a small amount of homicides, they have become increasingly common since 2000, including an incident last June at a Weis Market store in Tunkhannock, Pa., and an apparent random shooting in a Thornton, Colo., Walmart Supercenter in November.
Each of the incidents saw three innocent people killed. Neither company was available to discuss those incidents for this article.
Collaborating to Prepare
Retailers have been turning to one another, through share groups and through organizations such as the National Retail Federation and Food Marketing Institute, to discuss their experiences and best practices in preparing for potential incidents and recovering from them. Preparedness for crisis, they note, is not a competitive issue.
The threat of gun violence in public places such as malls and retail stores is common enough for the NRF—which partners with FMI for its annual Protect conference—to have published guidelines for retailers to deal with active shooter incidents. Guidelines recommend that retailers create an emergency plan of critical policies and procedures across multiple disciplines in their organizations, including human resources, facilities, loss prevention, operations and training.
The cohort groups need to align communication strategies between employees in stores and messaging to customers, workers, corporate headquarters, property managers and law enforcement. They must also establish and practice procedures, inlcuding evacuation routes, clear emergency contact instructions relevant to the specific locations, training and retraining employees about recommended active shooter responses, and what to expect from law enforcement in the event a tragedy occurs.
“A shooting incident is not what retailers, customers and employees expect when reporting to work or enjoying a leisurely afternoon of shopping,” reads the NRF emergency response protocol’s published guidelines. “However, history has shown us that it is critical to think about these situations and prepare. Individuals will respond instinctively to these panic situations. By training and teaching employees some of the basics, they will have that to fall back on during these crisis situations, when seconds matter.
“Active shooting situations may not be preventable,” it says. “However, the amount of damage and injury can be minimized.”
Managing the Aftermath
Managing the aftermath of such events requires a delicate touch and sensitivity. The community of Tunkhannock was deeply affected by the June 2017 incident at Weis Markets, when a deranged employee in a carefully planned attack shot and killed three of his night shift co-workers and himself in the store Weis operated for 25 years.
The Sunbury, Pa.-based regional retailer made few public statements on the case, expressing initially that the company was “deeply saddened” by the events and noted the safety of its workers and shoppers was its priority. Internally, the company faced decisions on whether and when to reopen the store; ultimately it decided on an extensive interior renovation. The store reopened without fanfare July 13.
In remarks to a local news outlet at the reopening, company spokesman Dennis Curtin said the tragedy put the company in “uncharted territory” when it came to decisions about reopening, but ultimately acted in support of its 88 employees who, according to the report, were paid during the five weeks the store was closed, and received grief counseling as well.
“What happened that day was an act of senseless violence,” Curtin told the Times-Tribune newspaper. “And we immediately focused on our associates and their needs.”