Lessons from a Crisis How Communication Kept a Company Together

November 4, 2001
I n Chicago, Melody Jones was attending an out-of-the-office meeting when she heard the news: a jetliner had just struck one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. "I called my voice mail, and there were seven messages, all telling me to turn on the TV," she recalls. "We'd thought it was an accident, but then someone said, 'No, we're under attack.'"

It was a moment in which millions of people across America and around the world were transfixed with horror. But Jones had no time for that. She is a vice president and chief human resources officer of Aon Corporation, a Chicago-based international insurance, risk-management, and consulting company, and more than a thousand of her company's employees worked in the shattered structure she had just watched burst into smoke and flames.

She soon got a cell-phone call from an HR staffer, who told her that Aon's downtown Chicago headquarters was being evacuated out of fear that the terrorists would strike there as well. So Jones struggled through the traffic jam out of town to the company's satellite complex in suburban Glenview, where a conference room was hastily being equipped with fax machines and extra phones, to serve as a command center. As one might expect from a company in its field, Aon had sophisticated plans and corporate policies in place for dealing with disasters and emergencies. Even so, "nobody anticipates something of this magnitude," Jones readily admits. "You just don't expect to lose an entire building in a disaster, and have hundreds of employees missing."

The challenge that Jones and the rest of the Aon crisis-response team faced was daunting. Worried families and coworkers in New York needed to know what had happened to their loved ones and friends; Aon's injured and dead had to be identified; and the surviving employees had to be located so the company could offer them help. At the same time, for the sake of worried customers and investors, Aon had to pick itself up from the devastating blow and get its business operations up and running again as soon as possible. Aon would have to accomplish those difficult tasks in a city hundreds of miles away, where its surviving employees were wandering the chaotic streets with tens of thousands of other displaced workers, cut off from company e-mail, fax machines, and phones.

"So we had to invent a new plan," Jones says. "With everything else down, we decided to use the company Web site. That seemed like the only option we had."

As it would turn out, that strategy, though improvised, proved amazingly effective. And as the dust clears from the most devastating disaster in U.S. history, Aon's Web-based crisis response provides a model for other HR professionals to follow in preparing their companies for the worst.

The power of Web sites
We all hope never to see another catastrophe of the awful magnitude of September 11 -- a terrorist attack that claimed more than 5,000 lives, destroyed billions of dollars in property, and wreaked havoc with transportation and communication systems. But all the same, the tragedy was a warning to companies that they must be ready for situations far worse than they had ever imagined. According to a survey of 5,700 U.S. companies conducted after the attack by the Society for Human Resource Management, only half even have a disaster-management plan in place. With war and the specter of more possible terrorist attacks on the horizon, that is likely to change in a hurry. "It wasn't in the forefront of our minds," says Christina Sunley, an analyst for KnowledgePoint, an HR consulting firm, "but we know we have to be prepared now."

HR professionals, who play a key role in emergency planning, have to be aware that evacuation drills and first-aid kits aren't enough. One of the most crucial -- but too often neglected -- parts of a disaster plan is how to communicate with the company's workforce in a crisis. One part of the challenge is to locate and re-establish contact with employees who may be scattered in the streets or suddenly stranded in airports around the globe.

But that's just the start. Companies have to develop strategies for providing employees with up-to-date information about the disaster, access to services such as health coverage and grief counseling, and assistance in getting back to work. And they must convey messages from top executives, reassuring employees that they and the company will make it through the ordeal and guiding them through the stages of recovery. Lastly, companies have to be able to provide that help to people who in some cases are cut off from the company's usual channels of communication.

Fortunately, HR professionals who face this new challenge also have an increasingly powerful new tool at their disposal: the Internet. Though the devastation of September 11 reduced offices to wreckage, companies discovered that their online capabilities were remarkably resilient; auxiliary servers in other locations could take over for damaged hardware, and information-technology staff could create or alter Web pages from distant locations.

"One of the great things about the Internet is that you can get to it from anywhere," says Linda Merritt, an HR strategic planning director at AT&T who worked to locate hundreds of their employees who fled the WTC and a nearby building after the attack (all of them survived). "We had a number of successes locating people via e-mail, because they were able to access our system from their home computers or other places where they could get access to a PC."

In the wake of the September 11 attack, Cantor Fitzgerald, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, United Airlines, and numerous other companies utilized corporate Web sites as a key part of their crisis communication. The uses were as varied as they were ingenious. Merrill Lynch, whose headquarters was destroyed in the attack, auto-dialed dislocated employees at home with a recorded message that directed them to a corporate Web site, which in turn helped them settle into temporary office space elsewhere in New York and New Jersey. Marsh & McLennan provided a Webcast of a memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral for employees killed in the attack, so that those who couldn't attend had an opportunity to feel they were part of the service.

Even companies that weren't directly affected by the attacks used their Web sites to deal with the pervasive shock waves. Reader's Digest, whose offices in New York and Washington were unharmed, used a site on its corporate intranet to provide employees with regular updates on news related to the attack. "We wanted to help people to get information they needed easily, so that they wouldn't have to spend all day on the Internet or watching TV," explains Susan Russ, RD's director of internal communications. In addition, RD used its site to organize and schedule a blood drive, and to make it easier for employees to donate to the American Red Cross and other agencies involved in the relief efforts -- with the company double-matching their contributions.

But Aon Corporation, in particular, provides a prototype for how a Web site can function as the nerve center of a company's crisis communications, and how the Web's flexibility allows those communications to evolve over the course of an emergency.

Re-establishing contact
Aon's response team immediately set the company's first priority -- finding out the fate of the employees who'd been in the WTC at the moment of the attack. The company quickly manned a phone bank and started the laborious task of calling employees' home numbers in the hope of locating them. At the same time, Aon established a toll-free number that employees and their families could use both to get information and to share it; the number also routed people to crisis support centers that Aon quickly set up at hotels in New York and nearby suburbs.

But the crisis team also saw that the company needed a quicker way to reach out to many people at once, and to provide a fuller range of services and information. Normally, Aon uses its sophisticated "Knowledge Exchange" intranet for internal communication. But in their haste to flee, survivors most likely hadn't taken their company laptops with them, and so they didn't have the special security software they needed to access the network. So Aon's team hatched another solution -- using, the publicly accessible Web site that the company had set up for marketing and external communication. By 1 p.m., Kevin Mayes, Aon's director of Internet communications, had created a new home page with information for employees and their families. Mayes and his technical team kept working through the night, and by the next morning, the site had been totally redesigned as a portal for crisis communication.

Within three days of the attack, Aon had checked into the whereabouts of 1,350 employees -- 1,100 who worked inside the World Trade Center, and another 250 who were en route to New York or in Aon's other offices in lower Manhattan. Of those employees, about 200 were missing and possibly dead. Once the company had a handle on those grim numbers, its Web-based communication effort began to shift toward another objective -- helping Aon employees and their families cope.

What HR can do: It's crucial to develop an advance plan for tracking your company's employees in a disaster, and establishing contact with victims' families and survivors. Because normal channels of communication may be disrupted, use as many methods as possible -- phone banks, a toll-free number, faxes, e-mail, and the company's Web site. Compile an emergency database of employees' home phone numbers and personal e-mail addresses as a backup, in case their business phones are inoperable.

Giving assistance
"The key thing we did was figure out who needed information, what audiences we needed to target," Mayes says. "That led us to create three 'buckets' -- that is, collections of links to information. We had one for New York employees and their families, one for all other employees, and one for clients and vendors." Mayes and his team became the gatekeepers, receiving information from various sources to update the site as often as possible. "We could get new information up on the site 15 minutes after we received it," he says with pride.

"We put virtually everything from an HR perspective up on the Web site," Aon HR leader Jones says. "And we got out the word to people to use it. We left messages for people, and told the ones who called the hotline to refer to it. We'd say, Go to the Web site, even if you have to go to the coffee shop or the library to find a computer to do it. And we had the counselors at the crisis support centers refer people to the Web site also."

In addition to filling the Web site with information about Aon's medical benefits and employee assistance program, the team started thinking about what other sorts of information would benefit its users. "We tried to think of every kind of support that would benefit the families," Mayes recalls. That included phone numbers for local hospitals, a notice about a town meeting on the rescue and recovery efforts hosted by U.S. Representative Carolyn Mahoney, D-NY, and even contact information for a federal effort to gather cell-phone and pager numbers of missing people, in an effort to locate them beneath the wreckage.

What HR can do: If you don't already have a close cooperative relationship with your company's information-technology department, develop one now. Work with IT to create an emergency Web site that will be ready for quick launch. Obtain enough training for your HR staff so that they can update and manage a Web site themselves, in a pinch; advances in Web software make it simpler than ever.

A chance to communicate
In the days after the attack, the crisis team also used the Web site as a way for corporate management to speak directly to employees. On September 13, two days after the attack, Aon chairman and chief executive Patrick G. Ryan participated in a telephone conference call that was also Webcast, so that employees and their families could listen by using Windows Media Player. "It really helps to hear an executive's voice," Mayes says. "When our CEO did the initial Webcast, it was the first time in our history that the Web server was completely overwhelmed by traffic. I don't have the exact number of visitors, but it was probably 20 to 30 times more than normal."

Ryan's messages were relatively short, but artfully crafted to convey two key messages -- one, that the company was concerned about its employees and doing everything possible to help them and, two, that Aon was in solid financial shape and moving to restore its business operations as quickly as possible.

The Web site provided employees an opportunity to communicate with the company. It included an easy-to-use e-mail form that employees and others could use to correspond with Aon. Mayes assigned two staffers to sort through the messages and route them to the right person in the company. Aon used the return-address space on the forms to collect employees' alternate e-mail addresses. "We used those to start a listserv that gave us another way to reach employees with information."

Aon also noticed another phenomenon -- employees were communicating among themselves on a bulletin board at a personal Web site put up by an Aon employee. "We didn't have any control over the site, but we thought that approach was a pretty good idea, so we began posting messages to the board as well, advertising the counseling services or seeking information about a particular missing employee. We even created a link to the board from our home page," Mayes says.

What HR can do: Stay abreast of all the latest multimedia communications gadgets for getting the company's message out -- and technical limitations that may hinder their effective use in a crisis. (Video Webcasts don't work well, for example, when users at home have to rely on slow 56K connections.) Be sure to use low-bandwidth, text-based tools-such as e-mail lists as well. And in addition to your company's Web resources, don't be afraid to use message boards on and other popular Web sites to maximize your audience.

Moving forward
The ultimate goal of crisis communications is to help the employees and their families put the tragedy behind them. To that end, a Web site can help with the grieving process. Aon's Web site included times and dates of memorial services for victims, as well as a transcript of a eulogy given by CEO Ryan at an interfaith service at St. Patrick's Cathedral two weeks after the attack.

Another part of returning to normal, of course, is returning to work. Aon's site has information about an interim work site that the company has set up in New York, including a breakdown of the dates on which various departments would be up and running.

For employees who've been traumatized by a catastrophic event, of course, going back to a new office is a delicate matter, and companies must approach it with care. "You have to be sensitive to what people are going through," says Pat Zar, a communications specialist with Aon's consulting arm. "On the other hand, for some people, going back to work is a respite, a relief from watching the disturbing news on TV. The tone of the message has to be crafted carefully. You need to get across that in order to maintain the business's integrity, you need employees' support. You need to allow some compassion to come through."

What HR can do: In addition to keeping in close contact with company managers, someone in HR should monitor incoming e-mail, the news media, and Web sites of government agencies for information that's relevant to employees' day-to-day needs after a disaster. Fill your Web portal with maps to new locations, traffic advisories, and a continuously updated list of which departments and offices are up and running. Make it a convenient one-stop information source for employees who are trying to get back to work.

Providing critical information
Though it paid a dreadful price for such wisdom, Aon came away from the crisis with some important lessons about the power of technology to help employees caught in a crisis. Mayes already is contemplating upgrades that might improve Aon's response in any future disaster. He envisions sending out mass alerts to wireless devices, and using instant-messaging software to provide critical information. "A lot of what you hear about that technology is hype, because the urgency really isn't necessary," he says. "But an emergency is one of the best uses for it that I can think of." Mayes also envisions scanning Web-based e-mail forms for keywords and using them to route the messages to the proper person. "That'd be a lot faster and more efficient than doing it manually, like we did," he says.

What HR can do: Keep informed about new types of wireless communications, and the extent to which your company's workforce is using them. Work with IT and other departments so that you can be prepared to establish contact with wireless users, and provide them with the same critical information that you're sending out by other means.

But most of all, Aon learned that it's necessary to contemplate a response to events that once might have seemed unthinkable. "We'll certainly be revising future HR policies to include 'future terrorist event' as a possible situation," Jones says. "It's sad to have to say that, but we will."

Workforce, November 2001, pp. 28-36 -- Subscribe Now!