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 Yahoo.com 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."