Published on: February 26, 2013by Michael Sansolo
No matter how good, careful or creative you are, your reputation gets written every day and frequently by events you can’t control. It’s why companies and individuals have to constantly strive for top performance and figure out how to repair damage as quickly as possible.
What caused that thought this week was the Daytona 500, a sporting event I rarely watch. But because of something that happened in Daytona a year ago, I thought the sport provided an incredible example of crisis management. Then, to demonstrate how quickly things change ... a horrible accident marred the very end of the Saturday preliminary race. No doubt you saw the pictures: a car taking flight, puncturing the protective fence and injuring some 30 spectators.
Within hours of the crash questions were being raised about safety at the track. Yet just two days earlier, the exact same officials were being praised for their incredible quick thinking in averting all manner of disaster from a crash in 2012, which was to be the subject of this week's column. As you read it, I think you'll agree with me that it illustrates the challenges of crisis management and constant vigilance.
Remember, you’re only as good as the latest problem...
Occasionally there are sports stories that deserve retelling because they speak to reactions, decision-making and creativity in ways that any business can understand. So in this, the week of the Daytona 500, we need to reflect on an incredible lesson in reacting to crisis that came from that same race just one year ago.
It’s a lesson all about preparation, good insight, good knowledge and the ability to make calm decisions under tremendous pressure. I’m betting that these are challenges all of us might face every now and again, though without the same level of scrutiny. So read on and think about how well trained you and your staff might be for those incredibly unthinkable events. And consider what you might have to do to match this level of decision making.
The story comes from the 2012 Daytona 500. Unless you are a rabid NASCAR fan you probably don’t remember the winner, yet you might remember the event: a freak accident that ignited a fireball. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports penned a great reflection of the incident in advance of the 2013 event.
The 2012 fire took place 80% through the race when a car malfunctioned and slammed into a truck-mounted jet dryer used to clear debris off the track. Crashes are fairly normal at NASCAR, but those don’t involve vehicles loaded with 200 gallons of jet fuel. Officials quickly realized they had an unusually explosive situation on their hands.
The damaged race car skidded to the infield where the driver emerged relatively unhurt. Likewise, crews were able to quickly free the truck driver and help him escape severe injury. Then the enormity of the problem became clear: the jet fuel could burn hot enough to melt a roadway and end the race. In order to fight the fire, save the track, repair it in an environmentally safe method and maintain a television audience, NASCAR, as Wetzel wrote, had to get creative. Strange and daring decisions had to be made. And they were.
Before the fire even started one official understood what was about to happen and ordered fire crews to the scene, even though there were no flames. That pro-active decision resulted in the crews being in just the right place when the flames erupted.
Then, instead of trying to put out the fire on the truck—a long shot at best—officials targeted their efforts at the surface around the truck in hopes of keeping it cool enough to withstand the heat. Once again, the unconventional decision worked and the track managed to survive. Not surprisingly, television ratings for the event went up as the news story changed from the race to the fireball.
Once the fire was extinguished, the next problem was the debris. It couldn’t be simply swept away. The track needed repairs and the toxic debris required careful handling. The crews did such a good job, in fact, that a subsequent inspection from the Environmental Protection Agency praised NASCAR.
Incredibly, the cause of that easy clean up came from a basic supermarket item: Tide. Officials say laundry detergent is the single best way to cleanse tracks after the various spills that accompany any race, so a pallet load is always kept on hand.
One last creative call: usually NASCAR prohibits drivers from carrying cell phones during a race because texting at 200 mph is definitely out. But during the delay, one driver whipped out a phone and kept up a steady stream of Tweets. Rather than punish him, NASCAR understood this special moment required some special handling. Besides, the driver picked up 135,000 followers and his Tweets helped fill the 100-minute delay in racing.
And just like that, the track was saved, the race finished, the television audience grew and even the EPA was satisfied. That seems like a winning effort to me.
That was until the crash one year later. When it comes to reputations, every day matters and without question, NASCAR’s will rest on how well they react this time.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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