Four rules for handling a public safety crisis situation

This story originally ran in December 2013, after the deadly derailment of a Metro-North Railroad commuter train in the Bronx.

The Metro-North Railroad commuter train that derailed in the Bronx this month is the latest in a string of deadly tragedies that have put crisis-response PR in the spotlight.

In-house and agency PR pros say recent cases have led them to refine – or in some cases entirely change – elements of their crisis communications plans. These incidents range from the Boston Marathon bombing to extreme weather events and the commuter train derailment, all of which involved various kinds of emergency personnel and dangers to the public.

Not all crisis situations are equal in terms of danger to the public and the resources communicators must devote to them. Some of the rules that apply in other scenarios – a product recall, for example, or rumors that paint a corporation in a negative light – don't work as well when there is danger to the public.

Top crisis-focused communicators outlined four rules for keeping a crisis under control in the age of social media.

Be ready to prep multiple spokespeople
Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications' work with the Boston Medical Center after the Boston Marathon bombing challenges one rule of thumb: That an organization picks one spokesperson, sticks with that person, and puts him or her out regularly.

The trauma center held briefings about patients three times a day with a single spokesperson. Yet the crisis was so acute – and media interest so intense and prolonged – that Rasky suggested its client use a mix of individuals at the briefings.

The center treated patients with tourniquets, a compression device that had become unpopular in many hospitals but had been successfully used by US military doctors in Iraq and Afghanistan in treating soldiers injured by improvised explosive devices.

This led to briefings that included medical practitioners at the center who had worked for the Armed Forces. They spoke about how the center was treating patients using lessons learned from the military. Later on, briefings also included psychiatrists and social workers specializing in trauma patients.

While Justine Griffin, SVP of crisis communications and reputation management at Rasky, acknowledges the approach led to briefings that often lasted for up to an hour, she says they enabled Boston Medical Center to provide information to a lot of media at once that it might otherwise try to find elsewhere.

"A lot of media today have 24 hours of news to fill. If you only put on a dry spokesperson who says, ‘This morning's patient count is 32, 14 of which are amputees,' media will fill the rest of time with cookie cutter commentators from other places," explains Griffin. "If you're in a crisis and it's a more minor story, then the media likely won't cover you as exhaustively. You're only going to get a limited number of points out, so you would probably want one spokesperson."

Brenda Jones Barwick, president of Jones Public Relations, says the ability to quickly bring in other spokespeople or partners is crucial given that crises involving human danger can quickly snowball.

"Crisis begets crisis, and so you have to be fluid," says Barwick, who provided agency support for the city of Moore, OK, after it was hit by a massive tornado in May.

"In most natural disasters, for instance, there is always some kind of odor – be it chemical, sewer, natural gas – that can create more panic," she adds.  "So you may want to, for instance, include a utilities company at your press media briefings."  

Rethink definition of transparency
In June 2012, power company Pepco saw more than half its customers in Maryland and Washington, DC, lose electrical power as a result of a derecho, a weather term often referred to as a "land hurricane."

"It was a crisis we are still living with. We still feel remnants of that reputational damage today," says Myra Oppel, regional communications VP for Pepco Holdings, which operates the electricity supplier.

She says although Pepco did and said all the right things, the media still took the company to task for taking a long time to restore power to customers.

"On day 10 or 11, I remember we were just shaking our heads. We said, ‘We did all of the right things during our restoration, and we still got lynched.' So we looked at how we could do things differently," she recalls. "We had told the media exactly what was going on, and so we thought the next time, we will show them."

When Hurricane Sandy hit months later, Pepco Holdings embedded journalists, including from The Washington Post, with officials and crews.

"We started this approach with trepidation, but it has been so successful, it has become our new normal," she says. "Instead of us saying, ‘Here is what we did to prepare, here is what we're doing on a day-to-day basis,' we had feature writers from the Post telling the stories – not writing that we as a company did this, but this is what [employee] Tom or George is doing."

She adds that the strategy produced "focused storytelling."

"That is what you get with transparency. When you peel it back, you're basically getting media to be a third-party advocate for what you're doing," she notes. "They bring a credibility you don't have."

Get out first – always
The crisis communications experts who spoke to PRWeek underscored how crucial it is to say something, even if you have little to say. This way, consumers and members of the media will look in the direction of that organization for the facts.

In terms of severe weather, Oppel says even a simple, early statement can define a crisis.

"Some weather is considered a natural disaster and some just a storm – and people have more patience when it is a disaster," she says. "So the sheer terminology used at the start you can help control."

Griffin refers to the start of a crisis as the "golden hour." Usually the term is used in medical circles; if trauma patients are given the right treatment within the first hour, their likelihood of survival dramatically increases.

She says organizations need to adopt a similar stance as it relates to being a successful communicator during a crisis.

 "You have to get out in the first hour – communicate what you know immediately – to put yourself on good fitting so you can continue on that path," says Griffin of the rule, which came from the agency's work on a Homeland Security-funded regional catastrophe-response planning effort from a few years ago.

Jeff Eller, EVP and co-chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies' global crisis practice, says getting information out quickly is more critical than ever before because of social media.

"What social media – and I am going to narrow it down to Twitter – has done is redefined the disaster landscape in a way that requires rapid response," he explains. "What first responders probably more than anybody need to do now is incorporate rapid response into their tactical response. The standard playbook for first responders and disaster teams has to put communication protocols on the same footing as their tactical responsibilities."

H+K recently performed a crisis simulation for a pipeline company, engineered in part to show the company's operational staff how quickly things move on social media.

"They are not communications people, and so the simulation had a really big impact on them. They said, ‘Now we understand why you push so hard, so fast to tell us what you know,'" says Eller. "It helped put the need for information in better context for all of the company's stakeholders."

Don't underplay
There is an inherent desire to reassure the public during a crisis. Yet PR pros agree that this approach can actually have the adverse effect.

"Whenever there's a threat to public safety or health, it is wise to communicate in a way that shows that your organization is more worried about the situation than the public," says James Donnelly, SVP of crisis management for Ketchum. "In some cases, entities are smart to proactively communicate risks to keep the public safe. When organizations do the opposite, the public often has an inverse reaction."

He says that is the case at both at the start of a crisis and long after the height of it. In the case of Metro-North, for instance, the railroad faces a federal review. It needs to communicate that it is addressing every possible reason for its recent derailment, Donnelly adds.

"My sense is that the train-transport industry should look closely at this recent situation – and the one in Spain this summer – and begin to address any lingering public safety concerns," he says. "This would include short-term actions, like redundant conductors on tracks that have severe turns, and long-term actions, such as a study on other safety measures that can be employed. Those actions are also about doing things that restore public trust."

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