At 9am on the morning on Monday February 5, public relations professionals from Navistar International plants around the country were taking part in a regularly scheduled conference call to discuss upcoming events. The company was scheduled to announce a plan to build midsize trucks in conjunction with Ford; roll out its new truck design, offering greater comfort and lower maintenance costs; and announce first quarter results that included a $35 million loss.

“We were expecting a busy couple of weeks,” says vice president of communications Greg Elliott. But it was the unexpected that would occupy most of his time over the coming week.

The conference call ended at 9.45 and by the time Elliott was back in his own office one of the conference call participants, Bob Carso from the company’s Melrose Park plant—about 15 miles from Navistar’s downtown Chicago headquarters—was on the phone with an emergency.

“I assumed it was about the Ford announcement,” says Elliott. “I picked up the phone and Bob told me that the Melrose Park plant had just been evacuated and that police were saying there was a gunman inside. He didn’t have a lot of details. We didn’t know at that point whether anyone had been killed or injured. But it was clear we had a situation on our hands.”

As it turned out, five people—including the gunman—were already dead and four more had been injured. The killer was William Baker, a forklift operator who had worked at Navistar for 40 years before being fired in 1995 for his role in a conspiracy to steal engine parts from the company. In January, Baker had been convicted in federal court of conspiracy to commit interstate theft, and he was scheduled to begin a five-month sentence on Tuesday February 6.

Instead, he packed a .30 caliber revolver, an AK-47 assault rifle, a shotgun and a hunting rifle into a golf bag, forced his way into the Navistar plant where he had worked, and walked through the machine shop, shooting seven people—three of them fatally—before entering an office in the corner of the engineering department, shooting and killing another employee, and then turning his weapon on himself.

Greg Elliott was unaware of any of those details when he interrupted an executive committee meeting to let Navistar chief executive John Horne and other members of the senior management team know that the company had a crisis on its hands.

By 10am, local media were on to the story. Elliott called Tom Toohey at Navistar’s PR agency, Hill & Knowlton, who in turn contacted some of the local news stations. They had been monitoring police scanners and already had helicopters on their way to the scene.

Over the next hour, additional information continued to come in from Melrose Park, but details were still sketchy.

“In the first couple of hours, we really didn’t have a lot of information to share with the media,” says Elliott. “We were able to confirm that some shooting had taken place, but we didn’t have a lot of details. Most of the questions we were able to answer concerned the size of the plant, what it produced, the number of employees, that sort of thing.”

At around 11, a team of professionals from Hill & Knowlton’s Chicago office, including Toohey, Jim Sloan and Maura Farrell—a former assignment editor for local news station WBBM—were on site with Carso. Says Elliott, “Bob did an outstanding job in extremely difficult circumstances. He knew and worked with these people, and he had to deal with his own emotions while doing whatever he could to keep everyone calm.”

But Farrell’s experience was invaluable, Elliott says. “She was able to tell us how the media were going to attack the story, what they were going to ask next.”

At 11.30, Carso was on camera, confirming some of the details of the shooting and responding to other questions by explaining that the company did not want to risk giving out any inaccurate information. Elliott, meanwhile, was conferring with Horne. “I told him we had to get him to the site. I told him we could get it organized so that it wouldn’t be a circus, but that he had to be there to express the company’s concern for the victims and their families.”

It wasn’t a tough sell.

“John Horne has been with this company for 34 years,” says Elliott. “He had worked with the father of one of the victims. John Horne didn’t need us to tell him the right thing to do. He was willing to do whatever he needed to do to make this easier for people to deal with.”

While Horne prepared for a 2.30 press conference at the site, the employee communications team was sending out an e-mail to all employees giving them as much information as the company thought it could share at that time. “We asked them not to speculate on this, not to let conjecture run wild,” Elliott says. “We promised that we would let them have information as we had it, but we didn’t want rumors to run rampant.”

At the same time, the company’s vice president of health and safety was assembling a team of counselors, assigning an employee to act as liaison between the company and each of the victims’ families. That was particularly helpful when one of the families called to say that reporters were camped out on the front lawn.

“We told them to find a neighbor or someone close to the family, but not a member of the immediate family, and have that person go out and tell the media that there was no statement at that time, and that the family just wanted to be left alone,” says Elliott. “It was helpful for them to be able to talk to someone who understood how to deal with the media.”

Horne made his statement at 2.30, and faced the inevitable questions about security at the plant. By this time the company knew that the killed had entered the plant carrying a golf bag and asked to be allowed inside to deliver some personal belongings to a friend. The security guard refused Baker entry but said his friend could meet him outside the building. That was when Baker pulled out his revolver and forced the unarmed security guard to let him in.

“We were very heartened to hear the police of chief say that we had the appropriate level of security,” says Elliott. “This was a heavily armed man who would have been able to force his way in to almost anywhere. There were some questions about why our security people were unarmed, but most security experts advise against armed guards. If you look at security industry leaders like Pinkerton, only 2 percent of their guards are armed. Often by arming guards you create more danger.”

The company made sure it held further news conferences to provide information for the 5 o’clock and 10 o’clock news cycles. It also monitored the Internet chat rooms. 

“One of the things that has changed since I started in this business is the speed with which news gets into the online chat rooms,” says Elliott. “There’s a Yahoo chat room that’s a hot bed of rumors about restructuring and the possible sale of the company, and we had to monitor what was being said there and respond to any inaccuracies.”

It’s a sad reality of today’s business world workplace violence has become almost commonplace. According to the Occupational Safety &Health Administration, more than 1.5 million people are assaulted in the workplace yearly and almost 1,000 are killed. That means that for the media, incidents such as the Melrose Park shootings are essentially a one-day story.

But companies cannot afford to have the same mindset.

“It’s very important to continue to get communication out about the event, to inform workers of what has taken place and reassure them about security,” according to Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych Corporation, a Chicago-based provider of workplace programs. “Companies sometimes try to gloss things over and are worried about bad publicity. They say they don't want to make more of things than they need to, and they don’t do anything.”

In addition to ongoing employee communication, including a special edition of the employee newsletter that addressed security issues, Navistar set up a memorial fund for the victims’ families, and took care of funeral expenses for the four dead employees.

“We sent out financial counselors accompanied by grief counselors,” says Elliott. “That turned out to be one of the smartest things we did, because we were able to help the victims’ families deal with this on a financial level and an emotional level. In some cases, they needed emotional support much more than just financial support. That hadn’t been in our crisis manual, but it turned out to be very important, so it’s in the manual now.”

Navistar also set up an 800 number for employees, and scheduled an all-employee conference call for Tuesday afternoon, at which Horne once again expressed the company’s sympathy for the victims. “I was in the room with 30 or 40 people,” says Elliott. “John Horne spoke from the heart. His voice was quavering with emotion and the room was just completely silent. The outpouring of support after that call was just incredible.”

The company also took the unusual step of allowing a local news reporter to listen in on the call.

With two funerals on Friday, Navistar also needed to reschedule the joint press conference it had planned with Ford to announce the companies’ new partnership. Ford was extremely helpful, says Elliott, moving the press conference back a few days and holding it in Florida rather than in Chicago, which was still reeling from the shooting.

In the media, Navistar earned high marks for its response to the shootings—in stark contrast to the criticism of some other companies, such as Edgewater Technologies in Massachusetts, where seven people were killed shortly after Christmas.

“I think the major reason things went so smoothly here is that for years before I joined, the communications team had worked so hard to earn the respect and confidence of senior management,” says Elliott. “That means that when a situation such as this occurs and you need to make quick decisions, you are not being second guessed.

“We worked very closely with our lawyers, and they understood things from our perspective. There were no turf battles, no egos involved. They understood what we were trying to do and they were very strong advocates of doing the right thing.”