On most days, communications professionals are business as usual with a story and message development, writing news releases, and other day-to-day activities. Then it happens. The unexpected occurs and you’re swirled in a crisis situation.
I’ve been on vacation, in meetings, focusing on projects when emergencies have happened at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, a local organization that helps people struggling with hunger, homeless and poverty. "There’s been a shooting!" "Our low-income housing apartment complex is on fire!” Or my favorite, “A homeless vampire bomber is in our shelter!"
No matter the nature of the crisis, it’s important to remember that the end goal is having the organization’s reputation still intact.
Each one of the three events: the shooting, the fire, and the vampire bomber had their own facts and messaging that required careful development. Two of the events, the fire, and the shooting went rather smoothly. But the vampire bomber event ended up being the catalyst for media training for Mission executives.
It was the morning of March 12, 2010, a man struggling with both homelessness and mental health issues walked into the Mission’s shelter, looking for food. He claimed he was a vampire and wanted to eat people. The staff felt he was unsafe and asked him to leave. Agitated, he pulled off his coat and displayed a device taped to his arm that looked like a bomb and threatened to blow up the shelter. Staff escorted him out the building and called 9-1-1. SWAT went into action, sanctioned off the streets, captured the suspect and dismantled the fake bomb using a robot. (To read the story, visit, KOMO News of Seattle).
The Mission’s Shelter Director, Mike, was concerned for the gentleman and walked up the street to look for him. He found him surrounded by police and media. Once Mike arrived on the scene, reporters recognized him as the Shelter Director and as you’d expect, all cameras turned to him. He wasn’t expecting to be interviewed and he had no time to prepare or develop his message.
So Mike answered with a fact, “A man walked into our shelter claiming to be a vampire and wanted to eat people,” with a slight smirk. He proceeded to give other details but THIS detail was the sound bite reporters grabbed. He didn’t expect that sound bite to make national news. This eight-second quote tainted the Mission’s image as one of insensitivity to the very people they are trying to help. Mike hadn’t received media training and answered questions based on the absurdity of the event. One of the lessons learned was to help our staff determine which facts to disclose and which to omit. The facts that the gentleman said he was a vampire wanting to eat people should’ve been omitted.
A year and a half later, when a fire burned through the Mission’s low-income apartments, I was on vacation when my phone started ringing. By this point, I had designated emergency contacts who agreed to drop everything to respond to an emergency media event. In this situation of a fire, the facts are constantly unfolding at a fast pace and it was important that our spokesperson was kept up-to-date with the facts and messaging. It helps if the designated spokesperson can be onsite to field reporters and answer their questions. Many of the interviews in this situation were life. Once the crisis and live media coverage are over, reporters will contact you looking to humanize the fire. In the Mission’s case, there were several and these stories helped with an influx of donations that went to help the families who lost everything. One reporter even covered the story of a staff person living on site who went door to door barefoot, making sure everyone was out of the building. There’s always a human side to every story and helping media uncover those can become an opportunity to build on your organization’s positive reputation.
In both the fire and the shooting, reporters were on site before spokespersons and PR staff. The job of PR staff is to organize the facts even in route. Knowing your organization well is important as you develop the messaging as facts emerge. You become the epicenter of communication that is trusted, accurate, and up to date. People were hurt in both the fire and the shooting so I kept in touch with the staff that was with them, getting updates on their injuries and care and provided that information to the spokesperson.
Communications professionals are under a lot of pressure to get in front of the media to answer their tough questions and silent any possible rumors. It’s always intimidating when you see five TV cameras, photographers, and a helicopter hovering overhead. You want to act fast but you want to act smart and be prepared.
No matter the pressure to respond, take the time to huddle with staff and spokesperson. This huddle can be used to role play possible questions and testing answers which ultimately will help your spokesperson gain confidence in the situation. Note: an organization’s front-line staff is very good at their jobs but not necessarily good in front of a camera. That’s why identifying and training your organization’s spokespersons ahead of time is so critical. They carry and articulate the message of the organization. The best candidates to pick for this role are those who are confident speakers and knowledgeable about how your organization conducts their business.
It’s also important to make sure you have the surrounding area under control. Reporters roam and scout for people who have something to say. This can take the story off of the messaging and increase damage to the company’s reputation. I also recommend designating a spokesperson for the event who isn’t emotionally involved in the incident. In the case of the shooting, reporters wanted to speak to a shelter resident who tackled the shooter. It was clear, however, that he was too distraught to speak to reporters.
Not every company is going to deal with a shooting, a fire or a vampire bomber but a crisis can and will probably happen. A helpful process is to identify possible scenarios that could occur in your organization. Then role plays how you would respond to each scenario. Every organization is vulnerable to a crisis and communication professionals earn their keep when they’ve trained their staff to anticipate and prepare for the worst. The biggest benefit you can do for your company is to expect the unexpected and to have a plan already in place.
Media training is an important part of the preparation and can be handled by large PR firms or in the case of the Mission, a freelance reporter with a long history of covering stories in our city. The spokesperson in the vampire bomber story turned out to be the best spokesperson the Mission had after professional media training.
Finally, after a crisis happens and the dust has settled, bring your staff together to debrief the event. Put together a timeline of events as they happened. Review media coverage both on air, in print, and through social media. Where could you have provided better messaging? Was the staff prepared? Overall how did the organization’s reputation fare? What opportunities are available now that so much attention has been drawn to your organization?
Your takeaway from this article? Be prepared and be ready. Remember, there is a vampire bomber out there! Time is wasting so contact us now!
Written by Sharon Couts and originally published in PR News Crisis Communications Handbook
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