When bad things happen to small business owners, the outcome is often disastrous or extremely damaging. But determination, being resourceful, and using strategic thinking can turn crisis chaos into recovery.
There are two local enterprises as excellent examples: Pisgah Inn and Yesterday’s Tree.
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ecause October is the height of the leaf season in the Mountains, visitors are everywhere, especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is also a prime revenue month for the adjoining Pisgah Inn. Last October, operator Bruce O’Connell defied Parkway managers by keeping the Inn open during the federal government shutdown.
He put at risk his contract that had been in effect for his family since 1978. Loyal customers were very grateful, but O’Connell assumed that his chances of obtaining a new contract from the National Park Service were slim to none.
So Bruce invested a staggering $100,000 with a consultant to prepare a very comprehensive proposal. The proposal described in detail O’Connell’s plans to upgrade the restaurant, the adjacent country store, the gift shop and employee housing.
In all there were as many as 200 proposed changes. Among them was a plan to establish a location beyond the busy parkway corridor where supplies headed for the Inn could be consolidated to reduce the number of trucks traveling back and forth on the winding Parkway.
He also proposed major changes to reduce solid waste the property incurs and for installing energy efficient LED lighting.The plan seeks to make the 51-room Inn “as environmentally friendly and green as can be done,” according to the operator. The enhancements would also include adding more fire sprinklers.
He also made it clear that the Pisgah Inn restaurant seating will continue to provide exceptional views of the Parkway mountains.
Was the proposal given serious consideration?
A few weeks ago, O’Connell was awarded a new contract to operate the popular Inn for the next ten years, through 2025.
Back in 2003, a fire in the middle of the night destroyed the entire building of Yesterday’s Tree, a very successful home furnishings store on Hendersonville Road in Asheville. Under the direction of owner, Peggy Yarborough, the store which was founded in 1983, had earned a loyal following by offering exceptional service, outstanding home furnishings, and wise counsel to customers.
According to the Asheville Fire Department, the devastating blaze was traced to some rags used in refinishing furniture that were not stored properly during a very warm night. Nothing was salvaged, except the company records in a safe.
Over the course of two traumatic weeks, the owner was convinced to start over by her loyal customers and friends. Hundreds of them. Even the Asheville media.
Her creative advertising agency and public relations firm stepped in to help. Almost immediately. Timing was of the essence.
A display ad for the Asheville Citizen-Times was created with the headline and ensuing copy:
“That’s what they’re calling it. But I think they’re wrong. Since the fire I have been overwhelmed by the understanding, the encouragement, and the generosity this community has offered the Yesterday’s Tree family. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to all of the people who have been so unselfish with their sympathy and so giving of their support. My hope is that when our doors reopen, we’ll prove deserving of all the kindness you have shown us. Our inventory may be gone, but we held onto so much and gained so much more. How can that be considered a total loss? How can that be considered a loss at all?”
A new store was opened one mile south of the original in a very short time, with a larger showroom.
Right after the fire, our agency prepared a letter on behalf of the entire staff that was published in the same Asheville Citizen-Times which praised all the firefighters who risked their lives trying to save the store. The newspaper delivered a gift basket, as did WLOS-TV, while loyal customers provided food and helped with sorting out orders to be filled.
Peggy Yarborough also established an endowment on behalf of the firefighters at AB-Tech entitled the Bio-Protection Program. It operated for 11 years. In celebration of Yesterday’s Tree’s 30th anniversary in 2015, a comparable plan is under consideration.
At the old location, Peggy authorized a sign that read:
“Thanks for Caring. Don’t Worry. We’ll be back.”
—The Staff at Yesterday’s Tree and Truffles
(with the store dog’s paw print and his signature sunglasses.)
With a positive attitude and some creative thinking, most of the worst of crisis situations can be overcome.
But not always.
Terminated emergency room doctors at Haywood Regional Medical Center instantly recognized the need for a crisis communications plan. They had been fired by the Medical Center CEO in a policy dispute.
The terminations were carried out with the support of the hospital board. But the same CEO was fired about a year later as the Medical Center suffered significantly from criticism by indignant Haywood County patients.
The doctors have launched a powerful media relations campaign which included a public hearing, with all Haywood residents invited, and a presentation on behalf of the emergency room doctors, plus many endorsements from hospital nurses, and outraged citizens worried about the shortage of qualified doctors in the case of emergencies.
The Medical Center CEO had replaced ten emergency room specialists with six doctors from Phoenix Physicians LLC—even though the current staff had a valid contract that would not expire for another two years.
Ultimately, the Medical Center was decertified for three months and the lost revenue took its toll. Nine of the terminated doctors sued and the settlement was reported as $1.5 million.
A typical comment at the time was made by Robin Matthews, the medical chief of staff: “The medical staff is very distraught over the potential loss of these very fine doctors.”
Mark Jaben, associate medical director for the emergency room staff, issued a compelling statement:
“The emergency department is a tightly choreographed affair. They are going to drop these new doctors into a department where they don’t know how it runs. They don’t know the nurses. They don’t know the computer system, and they are going to do it on one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year.”
All of the displaced doctors, except one who stayed, eventually found new positions, and Jaben was recruited to become the head of the emergency room in New Zealand’s largest hospital. The doctors did receive considerable national media attention throughout the entire ordeal, thanks to Vicki Hyatt serving as a wire service correspondent.
So what do you do when a crisis situation erupts and the problem need to be solved immediately? Before you communicate to your most important audiences, some basic questions must be answered: What happened? Where and when did it occur? What went wrong? How soon can the situation be corrected? Who is responsible? Who has suffered, or will, because of the situation?
Fortified with that vital information, you will be better prepared to select the most important audiences for immediate notification. One of them is bound to be the media. What you say and do at this critical point after the crisis can make all the difference in the outcome.
[quote float=”right”]The best time to prepare for a crisis is before you have one. Even for a small business enterprise, the CEO should be the person to talk to the media. [/quote]The best time to prepare for a crisis is before you have one. Even for a small business enterprise, the CEO should be the person to talk to the media, with perhaps one or two other savvy and composed executives. Draft a simple one-page plan on the steps to follow and do not deviate. That page should contain the name and phone number of a public relations or crisis counselor to contact.
Those other executives can help the CEO/owner decide who else should be notified—key customers, suppliers, board members, employees, etc. A priority listing can be crucial.
As for the media, that will be a challenge. The turnover in reporters these days is staggering. The Advocates for Small Business held a “Meet the Media” Workshop at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce a few years ago.
There were seven media participants, usually senior staffers who are experienced in working with small business owners.
Only two of the seven are still employed.
Sherrill Barber is with WLOS-TV, and David Hurand is News Director at WCQS Radio. Enough said.
Next month, I will address crucial tips in dealing with the press in a crisis situation. Then you will learn from first-hand experience in a situation dealing with one of the largest utility corporations in the Midwest (Chicago-based) and a wildcat strike by brewery workers while I was public relations manager for Miller in Milwaukee.
Chuck has experience in PR with major companies including J. Walter Thompson, Leo Burnett Company, & Miller Brewing Co. He authored an executives’ guidebook on press relations that was distributed by Harvard University’s Business School.