Calm communications during a crisis

Therese Dunphy

April 16, 2013

emergency preparedness

Two bombs set off during the iconic Boston Marathon injured more than 100 people and killed three, including an 8-year-old boy who wanted to watch his father, a racer, cross the finish line. It was an afternoon that made every American a Bostonian at heart.

Many of you have already seen video and photographs of the area near the finish line. During the chaos, safety personnel and volunteers turned incoming runners away from the finish area and quickly went to work helping those injured during the two explosions. Media began around-the-clock coverage to share information as quickly as it was available.

Sitting in safety of my own home, my thoughts immediately turned to my niece, Abigail, who was running the marathon. Cell networks were quickly overwhelmed in the hours following the explosion, and media reports said that texts were sporadically making it through the jammed phone lines, so direct communication was difficult, at best.

Knowing my resourceful niece, I went to Facebook to see if she’d updated her status. I saw two updates: the first said she’d finished the 26.2-mile race in 3 hours and 47 minutes. The second said that she and her fiance were down the street from the finish line when the explosions went off, but they were fine. This morning, I saw my favorite post of the week – one that said they were both safely home in Ohio.

Whether it’s a national crisis or an incident at your site, communication is a vital step toward recovery.

In the light of yesterday’s event, I suggest reviewing your crisis communication plan and making sure it addresses the following points.

  1. 1.  Establish ongoing communications with neighbors, government officials, and the media as part of your ongoing operations. This builds familiarity and credibility that benefits operators in everyday business, as well as a crisis. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it can never happen to you.
  2. 2.  Evaluate your risks. Identify the types of incidents you may one day have to discuss and consider what background information you may need to communicate. Keep it readily available.
  3. 3.  Identify a spokesperson. This may be an executive or it may be a plant supervisor, but it should be someone who can keep a cool head and speak objectively. Consider crisis communication training for your front line people.
  4. 4.  Speak with facts. A common mistake is to share assumptions rather than facts. There is nothing wrong with telling someone that you don’t know the answer to a question, but you’ll investigate the question and get back to them. Just make sure you do get them the answer.
  5. 5.  Use various channels for communication. My niece’s experience with the Boston Marathon is a good example of how communication is changing. During an emergency, all methods of communication matter. An accident may not take out your phone lines, but it’s a safe bet that community members are discussing it on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure your message is where people who are looking for it can find it.

We all hope that crisis communication plans won’t be put to use, but it’s an insurance policy that no operator should be without.

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