NEW YORK: It's 7 am and a fire has started at store McGinnty's at the Millfield Mall. It's go time for the retailer's comms team, local law enforcement, the mayor's office, and a local reporter assigned to cover the story.
Attendees of the Crisis Flight School: Prepare for Turbulence seminar, held at the PRWeek Conference in New York on Tuesday, also took part in this crisis simulation. Bill Coletti, global practice co-chair at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, led the audience and a panel of experts including Tricia Enright, communications director for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ); Andrew Friedman, former assignment editor at WCBS-TV; Scott Kafer, associate at the Crumpton Group; and Amy Reilly, head of crisis at Target.
The crisis simulation was projected at the front of the room, complete with Twitter and news feeds that evolved from public observances of “I see smoke at the Millfield Mall. Anyone know what's going on?” They moved on to reports from local media about the details of the fire, which ultimately turned out to be a case of arson committed by a former disgruntled employee.
Everyone agreed that the first order of business was to get the crisis team together – not an easy feat at 7 am, said Reilly. That group should include HR, legal, communications, IR, and marketing.
Enright, representing the mayor's office, said her top priority would be to enable a well-informed, calm, and controlled mayor to give direction to the public through a news conference within a half hour of initial reports of the incident. He should “get in front of social media, which is really difficult to do.” She suggested following up every two or three hours with press conferences.
Friedman, representing the local news station, was asked by an audience member, “Who do you want to talk to?” He responded, “Whoever will give me an answer. The people doing a good job are the people answering the questions, even if it is just a ‘We don't have the answer just yet.'” He and his team would also reach out to contacts at the retailer and law enforcement, people on the scene, employees, or others who knew the arsonist, as well as following leads on Twitter.
Reilly said the first steps include acknowledging the incident happened, telling affected employees what to do, and cooperating fully with law enforcement. Comments about the arsonist's history at the retailer would be kept to a minimum. She added that employee conversations on Twitter must be allowed to happen to avoid looking like the retailer is muzzling the conversation.