Crisis Communications: The Most Important Tweet
When disaster strikes, people need to know what is happening and how they should proceed. In late February, I attended a workshop at the MPINCC Annual Conference & Exhibition entitled “Crisis Communications: The Most Important Tweet.”
Alex Plaxen, MTA, president and founder of Little Bird Told Media, initially asked three questions of the event professionals in the room:
- “Do you have a crisis communications plan in place?”
- “Who executes your plan?”
- “What are your vulnerabilities?”
You are responsible for the safety and well-being of your attendees. In the event of an emergency, people will look to you to provide guidance. It is not just about information sharing either: at a visceral level it is about quelling the fear that may arise from uncertainty.
It is difficult to plan for the unexpected. How can we prepare for what we don’t know about? There is a wide range of potential emergency scenarios: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, accidents – even a power outage can be an emergency. According to Plaxen, the answer is to have a comprehensive communications plan.
"More and more people rely on social media for up to the minute information, which means it's more important than ever to be ready to communicate with our attendees through these channels when a crisis occurs," he said.
A crisis communication plan is less about being prepared for every eventuality than it is about being proactive and responsive. These days, people look to social media – particularly Twitter – to be their first line of information.
The common factor for failed crisis communications is a failure to provide proactive information, and a lack of engagement. The first place that people go to for information during an emergency is to the authority figure’s – in this case, the event organizer’s – social media channel(s). If there is nothing there, they will look elsewhere, and misinformation, attendee distress, and damage to your brand will all be direct results.
Pushing out communications is good, but social communication (responding to comments and questions) is better. Plaxen noted that legal is important but that the “court of public opinion” is immediate.
He added, "Even if you have no information to share, sharing a post that states 'We have no new information at this time. We will continue to provide updates as more information comes in.' can relieve your attendees’ stress and anxiety."
The basic steps of effective emergency management and crisis communications are not difficult. Creating a crisis communications plan, Plaxen stated, comes down to three crucial steps:
- Audit your vulnerabilities
- Train your spokespeople
- Establish a means of communicating
These steps, while not difficult, do take time – much like event planning. Therefore, advance planning is key. Part of expecting the unexpected is expecting an imminent crisis and being prepared for that scenario. The other part is about accountability and training.
Only a fraction of the planners in the room believed it was their responsibility to oversee crisis communications. Of the ones who said it was not, the most common answers to “whose responsibility is it” were the communications or marketing communication department, legal department, or a third-party agency or event operations management vendor partner.
When Plaxen asked, “Does [whoever is responsible for crisis communications] know it is their responsibility?” silence ensued.
Spokespeople need to have a clear and explicit understanding of exactly who is responsible for communications, what form those communications should take, and what channels will be used. Even if you are not responsible for driving it, your team should also know the plan, and make sure your attendees know where to look for information in the event of an emergency.
"It's important to have holding statements that are approved by your legal counsel ahead of time,” Plaxen advised. “The court of public opinion will not wait for your legal counsel."
A holding statement is the first statement of information to make immediately following an incident. It should state the basic facts and let people know that you are actively dealing with the situation. It should be short, effective, and informational. These statements can be based on information obtained during a vulnerability audit and should be regularly reviewed and revised.
Plaxen is introducing a new workshop, “Crisis Communications for Events,” which will be touring later this year. Dates will be announced soon on the Little Bird Told Media website.