Columbia tragedy tests crisis response

By Brian Orr
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/10/2003

I had begun to prepare this column on Saturday, Feb. 1 when the shocking news of the Columbia disaster quickly captured my attention for the rest of the day. While watching the TV coverage, I became fascinated by the clues to NASA’s unheralded HR management success story that day. The crisis response on that tragic day showed NASA was well prepared to face the organization’s worst nightmare, the tragic loss of seven astronauts during a space shuttle mission.

It is evident that one of the many lessons NASA learned from the Challenger tragedy in 1986 was the importance of being prepared to respond quickly if a similar event occurred.

To put the situation in context, a simple risk assessment shows that the possibility of a fatality on any given space shuttle mission was between one and two per cent. NASA needed to be prepared to respond without warning, should a tragedy occur on any mission.

A column on crisis management I wrote last March discussed the need for organizations to prepare contingency plans to respond to a wide range of crises. The Columbia disaster is a highly visible example of a prepared organization responding to a very public crisis. Such events occur without warning. In a 15-minute period family, friends, and NASA staff went from the emotional heights of celebrating a successful mission to the depths of shock and mourning. NASA’s crisis management contingency practices were put into action immediately.

From a people management perspective, it was evident that crisis support structures were implemented quickly to help families, friends and NASA staff across the country cope with the tragedy. Crisis counsellors were even present at NASA control centres to address the needs of staff during their shifts.

During a broadcast of a media conference that afternoon, the spokespeople gave first priority to acknowledging the dreadful impact of the tragedy on family and friends of the shuttle crew, NASA staff across the country, contractors’ staff and members of the public. When questioned, the spokespeople handled questions about the feelings of people with dignity and respect. The message was clear that NASA’s first priority was supporting the people directly affected by the tragedy.

From a role perspective, staff had pre-assigned duties to perform should a crisis occur. Timely crisis response requires the ability to quickly trigger crisis response plans. Key staff members need to shift quickly into defined crisis management roles across the organization. It was evident that key people were focused on their crisis response roles. There were no signs of a chaotic or scattered reaction in spite of the obvious shock and strain affecting senior NASA officials.

Senior managers, who were managing the shuttle landing that morning, had been well prepared to respond in a crisis. These managers were able to switch to the role of spokespeople under the most difficult of circumstances. During a 90-minute news media briefing, at the end of a very long day, they handled every question in a textbook manner.

Broadcasts of media conferences also showed NASA had developed a strategy of open, honest disclosure of all relevant information during a crisis. Spokespeople were direct in presenting what was known, as well as what was not known. When it became evident that some of the information was being misinterpreted, there was an immediate response to acknowledge and correct the situation. When they did not have an answer to a question, there was a commitment to get an answer for the media. There was evidence of personal accountability. At one point when asked about possible causes, a senior mission manager acknowledged he was reviewing and questioning the possibility he had personally made an error in judgement sometime during the mission.

As a result of good crisis management preparation, NASA quickly gained control of the situation, maintained public credibility, demonstrated competence to manage the situation, and effectively addressed the urgent crisis response matters that needed immediate attention.

NASA continues to demonstrate effective crisis management through a strategy of openness that is evident through the daily updates on events and media briefings. Open disclosure is seen in the Internet posting of information about the accident and the investigation on the Columbia Web site www.nasa.gov/

columbia/index.html.

As HR executives we can learn from NASA’s preparation and management of a major crisis that shook an organization and captured international public attention. To effectively respond to a major crisis an organization needs to have developed a crisis response strategy and contingency plans, defined crisis management roles for its leadership positions, provided crisis management training for key staff and periodically practiced basic crisis management scenarios.

Brian Orr is vice-president of human resources and community relations with the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. He can be reached at brian.orr@lhsc.on.ca.

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