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Mar 12, 2024

Crisis management mastery: Lessons from 9/11 that stand the test of time

IR veteran Elisabetta Cugnasca talks through one of the biggest crisis management of her career

It has been nearly 23 years since Elisabetta Cugnasca, now a seasoned IR professional, found herself tackling one of the most challenging company crises of her career, triggered by one of the most staggering events in modern history—the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Today, as the head of IR at Euronext Milan-listed Interpump, Cugnasca still draws on her extensive experience of managing crises, honed during her 17-year tenure at Autogrill.

Formerly listed on Euronext Milan, Autogrill is a catering company providing food and beverages for travelers, so it is perhaps no surprise that it faced a significant challenge post-9/11.

Elisabetta Cugnasca
Elisabetta Cugnasca 

‘At that time the company generated more than half of its turnover in the US and, more specifically, in airports across the country as a leading firm in food and beverages activities,’ Cugnasca recalls.

In addition to the aftermath of the New York terror attacks, she explains the firm was still in a transition phase after completing the acquisition of the New York-listed Host Marriott Services Corporation just two years prior, in 1999.

‘From an investor perspective, there was some skepticism about the company’s ability to manage both the changes brought by the corporate transaction and the crisis brought by the 9/11 attacks. In a few days, the stock price went down dramatically,’ she says.

Permanent changes

As Cugnasca reflects on how Autogrill navigated those years following the attacks, she notes that the business permanently changed its approach to investor communication going forward.

‘At that time, Autogrill was already one of the best companies in Italy in terms of financial communication. During the crisis we decided to be as much transparent as possible,’ Cugnasca explains.

‘It was just two days after [the attacks], on September 13, that we issued a press release assessing the impact of the events on our business.’

But the crisis also marked a departure from the company's traditional communication approach and a shift towards enhanced transparency.

‘Beyond assessing revenue and profitability impacts in our September release, we introduced presentations and conference calls for earnings starting in Q3 2001,’ she says. ‘That was a new communication approach for the company – until then we would meet with investors on half-year and full-year results.’

‘Also, during that first earnings call, we outlined our contingency plan and actionable steps that we would carry out to minimize the impact of the 9/11 events. This highlighted the company intention of enhancing its transparency efforts within the capital markets.’

Preparing, tackling, communicating

Cugnasca’s advice for companies grappling with crises is first rooted in proactive preparation.

‘First of all, prepare for a crisis,’ she advises. ‘The first thing I would suggest is to carry out a risk control analysis to assess what may potentially cause a crisis for your business.’

If the crisis is ongoing, here are Cugnasca’s top tips:

  • Keep the market up to date every step of the way – ‘Even in cases where you cannot immediately assess the impact of a particular event on your business, is important to simply define what has happened,’ she notes. ‘For example, if you have a factory and there is a fire, the first thing you need to do is to inform the street that a fire has occurred, even if you cannot quantify the exact impact of it just yet.
  • Keep control of the information and the communication flow – ‘Today, anyone can make a post on anything, but, as a company, it's good practice to issue a press release [promptly], state what has happened and reassure your stakeholders and shareholders that you will quantify any potential damage and be more precise as soon as you are able to,’ she explains. ‘It needs to be your company to explain what has happened, you must be the first source of information – it’s the first rule.’
  • Define the relevant stakeholders – Cugnasca notes every crisis can impact different stakeholders and says the company needs to assess who it needs to communicate to first. ‘In the example of a fire in a factory, the first stakeholders would be your employees and, if you are a listed company, your investors too,’ she says. ‘So, for example, you will need to communicate around whether there have been injuries, whether there will be production failovers and so forth.’
  • Pick the right spokesperson – ‘Whether that person is your CEO or your regional CEO, a communication leader or someone from a technical team depends on the nature of the crisis,’ Cugnasca notes.

Cugnasca also emphasizes the critical alignment between internal and external communications during challenging times. Maintaining message consistency is paramount and engaging all staff in shaping these messages ensures a united front, she notes.

Above all, Cugnasca underscores the core principle of transparency. ‘This is the most important thing – it’s the base to build a company’s credibility and reputation, which ultimately are the most important assets for any business,’ she says.