Month: April 2014

Six Questions to Assess Your Risk Readiness

(This blog, written for Interliance Consulting, previously appeared on the PennEnergy.com web site.)

Pacific Gas & Electric recently was indicted by a grand jury in San Francisco on 12 alleged violations of the federal Pipeline Safety Act. At issue: poor record keeping and faulty management practices linked to the 2010 San Bruno natural gas disaster that killed eight persons and destroyed 38 homes.

According to some estimates, the utility could face a fine from the California Public Utilities Commission of as high as $2.25 billion.

The action stems from allegations the giant utility knowingly and willfully violated federal standards, failed to keep complete safety records and did not foresee threats to its network of large distribution companies.

Safety, of course, is one of several “can’t fail” functions that can determine an energy company’s survival and success. As such, these critical functions – which include financial, operations, legal/regulatory and reputation – are the issues that keep industry Chief Executive Officers awake at night.

Understandably. That’s because too many companies give these functions short shrift. Instead of making them top priorities, they use a “check-the-box” approach that does not include any clear risk metrics (such as a risk indicator) and only provides for minimal follow-up to check effectiveness or communication.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that regulators say the lack of an effective integrated management system often is the downfall of many companies.

For most companies, an initial assessment of how they are doing can be completed by answering the six following questions:

  • Has top management clearly identified “can’t fail” functions and utilized objective metrics and targets to determine company performance?
  • Is risk identification and management widely recognized as a key aspect of company planning and execution?
  • Are business processes and process ownership clearly defined in the organization?
  • Do the company have well-documented processes and procedures embedded within a management system that mitigates operating and business risks throughout our organization?
  • Has continuous improvement and knowledge management been designed into the system?
  • Are system reviews, audits, and health checks a regular part of the business practices?

Companies that answer “yes” to all six questions – and have modern integrated management systems in place – make up a minority of about 15 percent. Those that answer “yes” to most questions comprise about a third, and probably need an system assessment and upgrade.

Unfortunately, the majority of companies fall into the final category, where the answers to the questions were “no” or “maybe.”

It’s these companies where top management’s commitment needs to be re-assessed and where modern integrated management systems likely need to be implemented.

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Fight Against Parkinson’s Takes Hold In Chicago

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April was an important month in the battle against Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disease.

This certainly was the case in the city of Chicago.

  • First of all, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in proclaiming April Parkinson’s disease awareness month in the city.
  • Additionally, Tanya Simuni, M.D., medical director of Northwestern University’s Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center, was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a $16 million Phase III study of the safety and efficacy of the drug isradipine as a potential neuroprotective agent in Parkinson’s disease.

The grant is meaningful, as the study is the only phase III Parkinson’s neuroprotective study currently funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at NIH. The research is being conducted by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in partnership with the University of Rochester Medical Center. It will be carried out at 56 Parkinson Study Group centers in North America over five years.

Although there are pharmaceutical and alternative therapies available to manage the disease, there currently are no cures or treatments that definitively slow its progression. Researchers are looking for treatments to delay disease progression. Isradipine is a possible solution.

Isradipine already has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a calcium-channel blocker to treat hypertension (high blood pressure). Researchers have demonstrated in animal models that calcium imbalances contribute to brain changes, such as the death of neurons that produce dopamine, a critical chemical messenger that directs a person’s ability to move. When the production of dopamine is impaired, as is the case in Parkinson’s, movement problems develop. It is hypothesized that isradipine will preserve dopamine levels over an extended period of time, thereby slowing the progression of Parkinson’s.  

“If this drug proves to be safe and effective, it will change the way we treat Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Simuni, the principal investigator of the study. “The major advantage is isradipine is already widely available and inexpensive and will allow for rapid translation of our research into clinical practice.”

Northwestern researchers, led by D. James Surmeier, the Nathan Smith Davis Professor of Physiology and director of the Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research, discovered that calcium entry through a membrane protein blocked by isradipine could be killing dopamine-producing neurons and causing Parkinson’s.

“What the millions living with Parkinson’s disease need is a drug that will halt or slow the progression of their disease,” said Todd Sherer, PhD, CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which began funding isradipine research in 2007. “We’ve invested in isradipine, and we’re glad to see it moving forward with NIH support, because it has shown such potential to do just that.”

Academic colleagues at Feinberg, including Dr. Surmeier, will collaborate with Dr. Simuni on this study. The physiology department headed by Dr. Surmeier is one of the nation’s premier groups studying the physiology of movement disorders.  

The study also is supported by Carematix and Verizon.

Five “Boxes” Entry-Level PR Candidates Must Check in Job Interviews

The-internship-posterCollege seniors are navigating the critical – and nerve-wracking – job-interview season. Underclassmen, too, are fighting for meaningful summer (and fall) internships in public relations and other areas of communications.

All have read about – and even discussed in multiple classes – the concept of developing and marketing their own “personal brand.” And they have absorbed an overwhelming number of interview-preparation tips and now know how to dress, walk into the room, sit, talk, present themselves … and more.

They are ready to move forward. And some of them will, recruiters and senior public relations and communications professionals say, because they also can successfully “check the boxes” on the following five key issues:

1. Media: still part of the discussion

Yes, the media world has changed dramatically – but not entirely. As a result, recruiters and interviewers are disappointed when candidates show up with little or no media experience. But they understand, to a degree.

What they don’t understand is when the candidate doesn’t even have an average working awareness of the media space.

Interviewers say only about one in six candidates have ever spoken with a reporter. Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of them are not able to offer samples of past media-related work.

Net-net, candidates who have worked in communications departments have a clear advantage over those who did not.

2. The Fit (Part A)

And, so, many candidates try to mask media deficiencies by emphasizing their study-abroad experience, class projects, work-study programs and even sales jobs. But they forget a critical piece: they do no effectively link those experiences with what the companies do on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, too many candidates don’t understand the company they are visiting.

It isn’t enough to have visited the website so you can recite what you learned on the home page. Interviewers expect candidates to have a fairly good idea of what the company does on a day-to-day basis.

But they don’t, recruiters say. When asked why they want to work at Company A, the answer that really doesn’t work – but comes back frequently – is this: “communications is interesting.” Parroting back something about “international reach” or use of “social media” isn’t scoring points either.

What an interviewer want to hear is the candidate’s well-thought-out opinion on why he or she would fit into the organization and/or what skills the individual could contribute.

3. The Fit (Part B)

Similarly, candidates tend to focus on how a company is a good fit for them, but not on how they could help the company. These comments, invariably, cause the interviewers and others to question whether the candidate would really roll up his or her sleeves to do what needs to be done.

4. Defend/animate your resume

Remember: your resume preceded your visit. And some of the people you are meeting with actually read it.

And now they will ask you about it.

Unfortunately, interviewers say, too many candidates seem genuinely baffled when asked to explain how they contributed to projects listed on their resumes. In one example, for instance, the student who had worked in a broadcast studio for an entire summer had no observations about media relations, how to pitch a reporter, what makes a good story, etc.

And then there’s the one who stated proudly that she “supported her agency’s media campaign” – but, when asked to elaborate, had nothing to share about the campaign’s goals or strategies. Yes, we all know that she was stuck monitoring the media. But, while doing so, she missed the important opportunity to ask some questions so she could actually learn about the assignment.

5. Find your voice before you get to the interview

The fact is, not all candidates have found the conversational “middle ground” needed to succeed in an interview. Many, in fact, need more interview practice in order to effectively portray a sense of confidence without being too full of themselves or (potentially even worse) coming across as being bored.

On one end of the spectrum is the hyper candidate who seems to be shouting and ready to leap across the desk. At the other end: the candidate who not only is unprepared, but uncomfortable as well.

Either way, it makes for a long day for all involved.