When a suicidal ex-employee forced entry and opened fire on workers at International Truck and Engine Corporation’s Melrose Park, Ill., manufacturing plant, Corporate Communications had to act fast. TV crews were already on their way to the scene when Communications had to mobilize the crisis team to assess and address employees, stakeholders, police and the media. When the immediate crisis was over, Communications still had to facilitate the healing process for the families of the four victims killed, four wounded, and the hundreds traumatized by the events. And still manage to coordinate four critical events planned that month: a joint-venture announcement with Ford Motor Company, a product launch of the company’s first all-new truck in 25 years, quarterly earnings, and an anticipated hostile annual meeting with investors – all within three weeks.
- Victims, their families, employees, police, shareholders, United AutoWorkers, truck dealers and suppliers, media and the Melrose Park, Ill., community needed to be addressed.
Employees and the community were shocked and angry about why the incident occurred and who was to blame.
The police were conducting an investigation and trying to get to the bottom of the situation.
Media were trying to get answers and were ready to point fingers.
UAW wanted to be sure its employees were protected.
Ford Motor Company, stakeholders, truck dealers and suppliers, even International’s own executive council, had to be assured that business operations would be back up and running soon and minimally affected by the crisis.
The Communications team had a matter of minutes to gather available facts before TV crews arrived at the scene, full of questions about the victims and company security.
Foremost, Communications had to take control of the situation and the communications for all audiences.
Ensure that facts and messaging were delivered accurately and regularly across audiences.
Protect International from erroneous speculation about gaps in security and correct any misinformed reports .
Keep the trust of employees, stakeholders and other audiences that the crisis was being handled appropriately.
Stay on track to coordinate the four major company events scheduled to take place that same month.
The team obtained tactical advice from interviews with HR departments of other companies with workplace violence experience, including the U.S. Postal Service, Edgewater Technology, Inc., Crowntuft Manufacturing Co., Jewel Grocery Stores, Wendy’s Restaurant, Target TBD Brokerage Company and Xerox Corporation.
The crisis team researched published case studies in HR and management trades to crosscheck tactics with International’s crisis plan.
Meanwhile, Hill and Knowlton leveraged its knowledge of police investigations to effectively work with the Melrose Park Police Department regarding their statements to the news media.
Hill and Knowlton also attended police news conferences to evaluate the types of questions reporters were asking and to identify areas that need additional clarification by the company. H&K confirmed that the media most questioned International’s security procedures and whether the security guard followed proper policy.
Hill and Knowlton asked Kroll Associates, an international security firm, to provide typical security procedures for comparison and analyze International’s situation independently to see if the right course of action had been followed.
A member of the Communications crisis team was identified to the police as the liaison for media issues.
H&K worked closely with Melrose Park Police Chief Vito Scavo to make sure International’s messaging was consistent with the facts of the investigation. Ultimately, Police Chief Scavo announced publicly that International had sufficient security measures in place and that the guard had acted appropriately.
Spokespeople, including CEO John Horne, were briefed and media-trained.
Review existing security policy procedures and crisis plan.
Make International’s senior leadership visible to all audiences.
Synchronize departments including HR, legal and executive counsel, to streamline processes and present a united front.
Establish guiding principles of behavior that are consistent with International’s seven core values, like “Respect for People.”
Build an external coalition of support by working closely with the UAW and police to help answer questions for the media and start the healing process.
Maintain a steady stream of communications across audiences, even if there are no new developments, to instill confidence that the situation is being handled.
Establish a media presence early and stay visible and accessible for inquiries.
International sent out company-wide emails throughout the crisis updating employees with information.
CEO John Horne held an all-employee conference call with one trusted reporter allowed to listen, which resulted in a sympathetic column in the Chicago Tribune the next day.
The Employee Assistance Program was on-site a few hours after the shooting to calm and counsel employees.
Within a half-hour of the shooting, spokespeople were talking via phone with reporters and TV news programs.
Sequential news briefings were given that day for each afternoon news cycle. Spokespersons gave live regular updates for the next two days on victims’ conditions, company developments and next steps.
CEO John Horne led an afternoon news conference to disclose names and conditions of the victims (except the two victims whose families had not yet been notified).
Communications drafted a letter to the Navistar International board of directors on the situation.
Hill and Knowlton worked with the police to maintain consistent statements that corresponded with facts released by the police.
International held a joint news conference with the UAW to show support for victims and International.
International set up a 1-800 crisis hotline for employees and families, which was updated daily with new information for employees – ranging from funeral service announcements to counseling sessions, etc.
Grief counselors and clergy were assembled to organize individual and group healing sessions (and still are available).
International issued a news release announcing the establishment of a 1-800 number for employees.
As Melrose Park employees entered the facility the next morning, each was handed an agenda for a plant-wide morning meeting to answer questions and address concerns.
A special edition of the Chairman’s Open Journal drafted by CEO John Horne was distributed to all employees.
Company-wide moments of silence were held in respect for the victims.
The American flag was lowered to half-staff.
Funeral service announcements were shared with employees.
International’s senior leadership, including CEO John Horne, attended visitation and funeral services for the victims.
A special edition of International’s corporate newsletter featured Q&A on corporate security questions.
International established a memorial fund for the victims.
A news release announcing the memorial fund was distributed to the media.
Victims and their families were recognized at company events.
In cooperation with the UAW, Corporate Communications developed a workplace violence training program to educate employees.
Communications organized a marble memorial to be placed at the Melrose Park plant with a private ceremony for the victims’ families.
A plant-wide ceremony dedication of the memorial is scheduled for employees.
International continues to offer clergy and grief counselors for employees with post-traumatic stress.
Police Chief Scavo publicly confirmed that appropriate security had been place at the time of the shooting and proper procedures were followed.
Employees praised International’s handling of the crisis.
Timely and candid media relations proved positive in helping the media understand security at the plant, as well as head off any negative or inaccurate stories. Thus, the media began to move on to other elements of the story, such as a lapse in state gun control laws that allowed the perpetrator to obtain weapons, even though he was a convicted criminal.
While employees were given the option to take time off after the crisis, many chose to work; operations never shut down and returned to full capacity within one week.
Corporate communications successfully carried off all four scheduled events: the joint-venture with Ford was well-received, the product launch in Las Vegas resulted in thousands of orders for new trucks on the spot, earnings reports were not affected by the crisis, and the investors’ meeting went smoother than expected.
John Martinicky, International’s security director, was named “2001 Security Director of the Year” by Access Control & Security Systems magazine “for his dedication and attention to duty, demonstrated in time of crisis and in the day-to-day world.” He appears on the cover of the September 2001 issue.
International’s handling of the Melrose Park crisis communications was a feature story in the Holmes Report.
Greg Elliott, International’s vice president, communications, has been asked to speak at multiple venues about the role communications plays in workplace violence situations, including appearances at the Public Relations Society of America in Chicago and Detroit, as well as the Conference Board in New York.